Caulfield tells of mental health challenges facing modern riders

Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield was formerly chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association
13:40pm, Sat 12 Jun 2021
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Physical danger, online criticism, hunger and career uncertainty prescribe a uniquely challenging life as a professional jockey.

Just this week, events have exemplified the spectre of serious injury in a jockey’s everyday work, as Alistair Rawlinson broke his ankle and four ribs after his horse and another fell at Windsor.

Rawlinson is expected to need surgery and be out of action for a protracted time, while his colleague George Buckell was cleared of serious injury after X-rays in hospital following the same incident.

Alistair Rawlinson suffered broken bones in a fall at Windso (PA Wire)

Few will have needed the reminder that jockeys must accept the routine reality of danger – yet that is just one of several facts of their working life which place an inevitable mental, as well as physical, burden on them.

Michael Caulfield is expertly qualified to assess the potential strains and pitfalls for racing’s human athletes, having spent 15 years up to 2003 as the Professional Jockeys Association chief executive before switching careers to train as a sports psychologist.

Renowned in that profession, helping high-profile participants in many sports, among the pressure points for jockeys he cites the certainty of injury, fasting to achieve a racing weight – especially on the Flat – exhausting hours on the road and the universal, modern phenomenon of “awful online abuse”.

Jockeys are unguarded prey to the latter, for example from punters venting after losing bets, but there are other aspects of their precarious profession which do not apply in the majority of sports.

Caulfield said: “If you play in a team sport, there’s a good chance you have a contract and there’s a good chance that it’s one year, two years, three, maybe four or five even.

“So you know where your career is taking you.

“I think as a jockey you simply don’t know what’s going to happen that afternoon. The vast majority, take the odd one out, they’re all self-employed and their only income comes from the next ride they have or the next winner they have.

Injury is going to happen - not might happen, it is going to happen. There's simply no way it's not going to happen

“So there is that massive uncertainty, because they have no employment protection.

“Even as a tennis player, if you qualify for the French Open, you get paid; if you qualify for Wimbledon, you get paid.

“I’ve known golfers who’ve not won a single event but are paid a wonderful income. With a jockey, that simply isn’t the case.”

It is tempting to depict a ruthless variant of a ‘zero-hours contract’ – with the constant threat of physical danger attached, for good measure, among other perils.

“As we know – which is why I’m a trustee of the Injured Jockeys’ Fund – riding a racehorse is not the safest occupation in the world,” added Caulfield.

“So injury is going to happen – not might happen, it is going to happen. There’s simply no way it’s not going to happen.

“Then there’s the travelling, which is huge – you’re not on a team coach, there’s no coach driver. You’re doing it yourself all the time.

“With very few exceptions, particularly on the Flat, they can’t eat normally – and that will send you crazy if you’re not careful.

Jockeys travel many thousands of miles every year and must adhere to strict diets and sometimes fasting regimes to keep rides (PA Wire)

“It has in the past – starting with Fred Archer – and it will in the future.

“When you can’t eat, it makes you grumpy – a lot.”

The demoralising impact so often felt by unmoderated social-media criticism is, of course, a newer evil.

“I think if you work in sport, or the public arena of life, you are just going to have to learn to deal with this wretched online criticism,” said Caulfield.

“It is just a fact of life.

“We’re all advised and told ‘make a name for yourself’, but with that comes the downside, which is this awful online abuse, which does exist.”

Caulfield’s watchword with clients is to work with the individual rather than dispense pre-determined advice for all – but he advocates sparing exposure to social media if in any distress.

He said: “If you listen to people who simply want to scream and shout at you, and are abusive to you, it’s finding a way to say ‘I will not look at that’, which takes real willpower.

“If someone in your inner circle, someone close to you, is criticising you – or offering help to you – that’s different.

We live online - so how much time you choose to spend online is vital to your wellbeing

“If it’s just an angry person they are to be ignored, but that is easier said than done.

“It’s like a skill, like learning a language, playing a musical instrument – you have to practise daily how much time you spend online and what you look at online.

“We live online – so how much time you choose to spend online is vital to your wellbeing.”

Those who decide to turn off the sound and fury are often rewarded with a better quality of life.

Caulfield added: “I can tell you without any hesitation the number of athletes, from all sports – particularly in team sports, particularly at the highest level, international or club – they have actually decided to live their lives offline in terms of looking at how they are viewed (there).

“They’ve just abandoned it, abandoned their accounts, and they’ve simply stopped going online in terms of people talking about them.

“Guess what? To a man and woman, they’re all happier.

“It doesn’t mean to say they don’t know what’s going on in the world, they don’t follow their sport, their career. They just don’t choose to look at people calling them an absolute ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ if they make a mistake.”

He has high praise for effective intervention from sports’ governing bodies – but without reaching for the off-switch, warns there is no hiding place from the juggernaut of social media, malevolent or otherwise.

Former champion jump jockey Richard Dunwoody was one of the first people to make Michael Caulfield aware of the importance of sports psychologists (PA Archive)

“No, none, absolutely none – and that’s why we must develop new habits so we don’t just continually live our lives scrolling through criticism and people ranting,” he said.

“I think the umbrella organisations are doing miraculous jobs in educating young people and young athletes. It’s not as if there isn’t information there – it’s your choice as to what you choose to look at.”

He will continue to help jockeys and others mitigate the problems – because that goes to the heart of why he changed his own professional direction in the first place, having heard former champion jump jockey Richard Dunwoody voice thanks to his sports psychologist on winning the title back in the 1990s.

“I’d seen the Flat and jump jockeys go through what I would call a lot of physical and mental hardship – just to keep working and keep riding,” said Caulfield, who recently formed a partnership with JSC Communications – representatives of the biggest names in racing including Ryan Moore, Paul Nicholls and Hollie Doyle.

“Even though I was their chief executive, in charge of pensions and insurance and legal representation and all the formal things, I think, deep down, I was terribly interested in their emotional well-being as well.

“I think that’s why they got to like me, and vice-versa.”

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