Four Four Two magazine's Alec Fenn spoke to Right to Dream founder Tom Vernon for his thoughts on the apparent lack of resilience amongst many pampered Premier League stars. Read an extract from the article below:

 

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A perceived lack of mental toughness isn’t a problem exclusive to English shores. Former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon is the chairman of Danish club FC Nordsjaelland and the owner of Ghanaian football academy, Right To Dream.

“I set up the academy 16 years ago and found that there was a lot of technical quality, but often a lack of character,” he says to FFT. “A lot of players came from very poor backgrounds, but many still lacked mental resilience. We thought we could gain a huge advantage if we found a way to develop character.”

Vernon developed an eight-year curriculum and appointed a head of character development to oversee the project. From the age of 10, players are educated on all areas of character that help them to perform better.  

“We’ve built our curriculum around a core literature of 70 books,” he continues. “Mindset by Carol Dweck is really important for us and the Chimp Paradox is another. We go through all this and make it football specific. Our coaches also attend book clubs – they want to understand how to make players dig deeper.” 

Vernon was quick to replicate that model in Denmark when he took the helm at Nordsjaelland in December 2015, where experiential learning is also key to players’ education. “We take the players to Africa from the age of 13 and they see how to operate and survive in a third world country,” he explains. “Players used to clean senior players’ boots, but this is our way of taking them out of their comfort zone and exposing them to uncomfortable environments. If they learn to deal with this, they’ll be mentally tougher out on the pitch.”

Every player also designs a feedback project back in Copenhagen, with the aim of keeping them in touch with reality. “A lot of the boys are working with the homeless. They realise what a privileged position they’re in. We firmly believe in developing the whole person.”

The project is in its infancy in Denmark, but Vernon believes it is already paying off at his Ghanaian academy. He explains, “They have won the Milk Cup; they’re the world champions of the Nike Premier Cup – the elite under-15 tournament in world football. They also won the Gothia Cup, which is the largest international youth tournament in the world, that involves 1600 teams from 80 countries. 

“We think part of that performance is down to the collective character of the group we’ve developed. We think we ask our players to dig deeper on the back of the education we’ve given them. When they face adversity they don’t complain -they keep pushing.”

FFT is struggling to imagine a Premier League academy player wearing a pair of Beats headphones while reading the Chimp Paradox or dishing out bowls of hot soup to the homeless. But Vernon says it’s high time European clubs start to embrace new methods. 

“Clubs provide players with absolutely everything, partly because there’s so much competition for talent,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s a good thing because it doesn’t inspire a player to chase something. 

“Clubs have got such big budgets now, why not take them to Eastern Europe, Africa or South America and make it a little bit more uncomfortable for them? We invited several Premier League clubs to Africa to see what we’re doing, but they told us what we do wouldn’t get past their health and safety checks.”

Perhaps those clubs will pack their young players off to the Lake District to tackle an old-fashioned cross-country run. Or not.


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