Tom Vernon has been a professional soccer coach since 1999. He spent five years as Manchester United’s chief scout in Africa during the 2000s before turning his attention full-time to Right to Dream, a football academy with a difference, which he founded in 1999. In Right to Dream’s short history it has produced 33 professional soccer players, including over 20 internationals and transformed lives in the process – either directly or through Right to Dream’s Giveback concept. In 2015, Vernon led a team of investors to buy top-tier Danish soccer club FC Nordsjælland and soon afterwards installed Keith Sharpe to be Group Head of Character Development, a newly created role Vernon believes is a world first. He told the Leaders Performance Institute why he’d done it.
By Tom Vernon
It actually started at the academy in Africa. We wanted to do things differently – by embracing the power of football to create positive role models for Africa (with our group now having a European club, our vision simply extends to create global role models). We quickly realised that the European style academies – where players are often released at the end of a season if they haven’t performed – wasn’t working. These kids are going back to nothing and the fear of that was hindering performance, so we decided to make long-term commitments to our students. We have an extensive scouting network throughout West Africa, where we assess 20,000 boys and girls annually, on our core foundations. We then award scholarships between 10 and 18 years of age.
We built the academy on our three core foundations of football, education and character development. We have established educational pathways in America and the UK, where over 44 of our students secure scholarships, first to leading high schools, and then to some of the best universities in America. We want to create life-changing opportunities. They all continue their education if they don’t become footballers, which is a groundbreaking achievement, as some of these kids come from less than $2-a-day families. Last year one of our boys was identified to be first pick in the MLS draft, but he had the strength of character to complete his degree, before joining MLS once he had graduated. We realised that character development was the most important thing we were doing. We empower the players with the skills and understanding of their opportunities, rather than having them focusing solely on money-making and taking the wrong development decisions for themselves.
“We empower the players with the skills and understanding of their opportunities, rather than having them focusing solely on money-making and taking the wrong development decisions for themselves.”
Innovation in football
I saw the former Everton coach Steve Round say on Sky Sports that he thinks the next big gain in football over the next ten years will be in the area of developing character. We can all see if you look at the performances of the England team, we know they are quality players, but there is something missing when you take them out of their comfort zone and I find that quite interesting.
Football is full of sports science and coaching, but there is absolutely nothing related to how we are building the personality, the well-rounded person, on and off the pitch. The more we looked into this, the more we felt that nobody really seemed to think that this is an issue, yet everybody seems to be complaining that the moral fibre of our footballers is going down.
I’ve seen coaches at academies in the UK, who are afraid to address blatant character issues on the pitch because of parental involvement or what the players might feed back to their agents.
We thought this question of character in the wider game was a really important one to address. So rather than the occasional motivational talk to the academy, we decided to be more disciplined and dedicated and build a curriculum which addresses this comprehensively.
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The seven traits of ‘character’
We identified seven character traits on which to build our curriculum, based on our extensive research on what factors influence lifelong and sporting success:
- Giving back
- Social intelligence
Our Head of Character Development at Right to Dream developed the curriculum, in consultation with Keith, which is fully integrated into our academy system. The formal curriculum has been in place for six years and it’s been going really well. It also filters into all our coaching and educational sessions.
From Africa to Europe
Right to Dream teams have become some of the most successful in the world at youth level, winning many of the best youth tournaments, but we wanted to give our players a continued platform to support their development, as they start their professional careers. At the same time we also wanted to invest in an academy that was already producing good results. At the FC Nordsjælland academy, we’ve got 22 Danish junior internationals and also an open-minded system where we can start to introduce some of these ideas. We believe our concept of integrating academic and character education into your responsibilities as a club, and using character development as a cornerstone of what you do, will work well in Denmark.
We’re doing it slightly differently in Europe though. In Africa, until recently, we relied heavily on one person for all the delivery. If he leaves, we lose all our knowledge, so we’ve started to disseminate that knowledge throughout all the staff here and in Ghana too. All the coaches are in book clubs, reading literature relating to building and developing character, for example Mindset by Carol Dweck and the Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. Character is integral to how we work. The coaches are embracing the time to reflect and applying the ideas into their work.
We decided to bring Keith in full time to oversee the next phase of our character development in Denmark and Ghana. Keith has worked in Olympic and Professional sport for a number of years, working to improve the performances of the players and coaches and to develop the overall performance culture in teams and organisations. He is working with the coaches and staff on how to coach character and increase our seven character traits throughout the club and organisation. We’ve got 250 players across Ghana and in Denmark and it can’t be the work of just one person to deliver what we want delivered.
Long-term vision, not short-term gimmicks
We wouldn’t expect tangible results from this until the medium term. The focus is on the academy and the players growing up with these principles and values. If you sign a new player for the first team, you can’t crash course. As we recruit new players, we will draw on both their character and footballing abilities and look to see how we can support and develop them to flourish with us. Our vision is long-term investment in what we do to ensure we have a stronger culture. We have started character development with the first team, from small group sessions, book club discussions, guest speakers and different types of challenges to encourage growth and giveback projects. The first team have taken to it well, but it’s going to be the guys coming through from the academy to the first team where we are going to really see the results.
We’ll measure those results by the reflection of those character traits in our first team. Winning will be easy to measure, but giving back is a very important one for us too. Beyond a love of the game we believe players need to be connected to a higher purpose rather than simply playing for themselves or their bank balance. I use the example of George Weah – he funded much of the education activity around refugee camps in Liberia during the civil war there, with his salary from AC Milan. What we argue is that if you find something deeper to play for, you find a higher level of performance. So we work with the players to help them identify their bigger purpose. Our academy players in Denmark have already started working on projects that mean something to them personally outside of their training and school time.
“What we argue is that if you find something deeper to play for, you find a higher level of performance.”
Seeing the difference
To take social intelligence as an example, if I was to bring you to Right to Dream and take you into a room, every kid would get up, shake your hand, tell you who they were, ask who you are and ask why you were visiting Right to Dream. These are simple aspects of social intelligence, but I bet that you could walk into most academy lounges around the world and be completely ignored. Character counts for us.
When we did our analysis about where we should buy a club, we were looking for an open-minded society. To borrow from Carol Dweck’s book, there’s a lot of ‘fixed mindset’ in football, and we were looking for a culture where you could encounter a growth mindset in terms of people who were willing to try new ideas in helping us work towards our vision. FCN have worked and focused on values before, so we are looking already to integrating these ideas into how we work with character at the club.
We are ambitious and through the combination of our culture, high quality coaching, character development and some of our other interventions, we believe the model we are building here will be successful in the long term.
We’re cautious how we talk about what we’re doing, because of things like the Moneyball effect and the nature of living in a world where everything needs to be an instant success. We believe there is huge potential in what we are trying to do to develop people and players – and of course people may be quick to judge, but anything worth doing takes a lot of hard work, character and, of course, time.
The Sport Performance Summit
2 March 2019