An Active Child
Millie Bright is a 27-year-old professional footballer, who has worked tirelessly to develop her skills from the age of seven. She went from playing for local side, Killamarsh Dynamos in her early years, to now dominating the Women’s Super League (WSL) as a defender for Chelsea. She recently represented her country on football’s biggest stage during the World Cup. In this third instalment of our exclusive article series, we get an insight into the motivation, work ethic and team unity that is necessary for success in the Women’s game.
As a naturally active child, Bright loved to run and be surrounded by others in a team environment. In those days, it was never about technical skill for Bright, rather having fun and embracing the competitive nature of sport. Bright’s love for sport also expanded beyond football, with horse-riding having run in the family, she was also heavily involved in the equestrian world from a young age.
It was football, however, that she ultimately committed to. Around the age of twelve Bright was scouted for the Sheffield United Academy, where she really got a taste for the game and started to understand where it could take her. On her time at Sheffield Bright recalls: “I think that was the real eye opener into the game and what the possibilities are. We started doing nutrition guides, you had to log everything you ate, log training and start doing gym sessions.” Despite some structural development now in place, Bright confessed that she remained focused on enjoyment at the time: “For me at that stage, it was still about having fun”, she says.
Bright let on that the older she got, the more competitive she became. She began to pick up on her strengths and where she needed to improve, what she liked and disliked and explored all positions on the pitch. For young sportspeople, development is exactly that: an exploration. Understanding more about yourself, where you can thrive and where you could benefit from focusing a little more attention.
Despite all of these changes and the lessons learned along the way though, Bright acknowledges that getting scouted for Doncaster made the most notable differences to her game: “I went straight into the first team, didn’t expect to and that was a massive jump from what I’d been doing. The detail then started. You train in detail, the information you’re given in sessions, the players that were around me were way older than me…” Aged just 16, Bright was the youngest in the squad. Being scouted multiple times and playing for professional clubs, that put detail into your development, may be most young footballers’ dream but Bright admitted she felt a bit conflicted: “it was a massive eye opener and a bit of a crossroads really as to whether I was up for this or whether it was just a bit of fun.” She said.
Bright decided that it was for her and stayed at Doncaster. However, she went out on loan to Leeds to get the game time she knew she needed to develop. Once there, she banked valuable playing time that helped her build confidence: “I think I played every game right from the off. I learnt a lot about myself as a player and a person and what I really needed to work on.” She says. This innate drive to improve saw Bright eventually scouted for England, which proved to be another big step in her development: “it gets a little bit more serious each step that you come to and each year my hunger for the game just grew. I got more excited about it, started pushing myself more and expecting more from myself.” She told me.
Sat in her home, with her hair tied in a classic Bright bun, Bright justifies why, all those years ago, she gravitated towards football, a team sport, over the individual plight of horse-riding, by saying: “I can motivate myself. I can be on my own and drive myself to a goal…, so I like to implement that in a team environment, I like to push my teammates, I like to make sure everything is at a high standard. If I’m at my best, then I can make other people at theirs.” Bright’s level of self-assurance and drive is on full display as she explains she hopes to be able to have that same impact in any team environment she enters.
In psychology, the term for being able to motivate oneself from within, is called intrinsic motivation. This type of drive has shown to be more sustainable than motivation that derives from external sources e.g., money, fame, approval. Those sources of motivation may not always be available, so it’s essential to dig deep and discover what it is that drives you.
After a couple of years working different jobs in a range of industries, from policing to pet grooming, to fitness instructing, Bright was presented with a life-changing opportunity. She was approached by Chelsea with an offer to sign a professional contract. This encouraged her to develop a greater awareness of psychology in sport. Having grown a thick skin due to childhood and family influence, Bright reflected on how that resilience played a role in her present mentality. She is able to absorb the negativity from social media without letting it affect her game, she has been fuelled even further by outsiders telling her she can’t do something, all representative of her impenetrable mindset.
Surprisingly, she reveals that, prior to signing, she had been approached by Chelsea once before and turned them away. A commendable act of bravery and self-awareness, she explains that the timing was just off: “I didn’t feel ready to move away from home, I didn’t feel ready for that jump, I still felt like I needed one more year of experience at Doncaster and I didn’t want to shy away from the challenge of getting relegated.” She said. A loyal player, Bright gave everything she had to Doncaster before being approached by Chelsea a second time. This time, she said yes and hasn’t looked back.
Having Your Mirrors Out
As is inevitable, when playing for a top club like Chelsea, who demand the best from their players, Bright faced certain challenges that helped her grow: “I think the main ones are the failures… it’s the games that you don’t win… the trophies that you don’t lift.” Insightfully, she tells me that for her, it’s what didn’t happen and the milestones that she hasn’t quite reached, that offer the greatest opportunities for growth and push her forward. This shows that she prides herself on her willingness to learn. People can go one way or the other when they fail and either stay defeated or rise from the ashes. Bright lays bare some of the thoughts that run through her mind after a disappointing performance and says: “You can get slated as a player, people say you’re not good enough, is it going to affect you getting selected for England? Is it going to affect you getting selected for the next game with Chelsea?” She deals with it all by contending that there’s nothing productive in being overly hard on herself, she simply learns and tries not to make the same mistake a second time. She also mentions the importance of reflection and testing the upper limits of ones ability.
In the same breath, Bright mulls over the World Cup semi-final, in which she found herself sent off, prematurely, for making a front footed tackle. For any player, such a high stakes game, at footballs biggest tournament is sure to bring out a mixture of feelings that can affect behaviour and decision making on the pitch. Boldly, Bright says she’s not ashamed about getting sent off in a World Cup game because she grew from it and now knows better than to make a mistake like that again: “it’s part of the game, it’s a part of growing and it’s these moments that will either make or break you .”
Managing emotions is perhaps one of the most significant lessons to learn in sport, where a failure to do so can hold you back from optimal performance. Bright argues that it comes with experience: “…It’s different, you can’t even explain the pressure and the intensity in that stadium, but it’s moments like that that you need to experience.” She acknowledges that managing and training emotions is a process and one that Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, discusses with the squad frequently: “Physically, we train hard every day, but mentally we have to train ourselves to read situations, manage situations better and, we call it having your mirrors out, so you’re always self-reflecting. Did I do this? Did I do that?… I’ve learnt to be more aware of me.” She says, before adding that her ability to manage emotions and reflect has only grown whilst she has been at Chelsea and has inspired noteworthy improvements in her current game compared to five years ago. Performing under pressure is no new concept to Bright and she also speaks on learning to stay calm in stressful situations and withholding from rash decision-making, as just a couple of examples of emotional management in the game.
No Time To Dwell
Most would agree that in any athletes’ career, their goal is to play at their best and continue to exceed expectations, be they self-imposed or from others. Bright is no exception to this and her optimal mindset is based on what she wants to achieve at any given time and what she wants to bring to her team: “I want people to come to me if they want support, I want to make sure the bar is raised every single day at Chelsea, and I think of the Champions League and lifting that trophy.” She says. Bright’s aspirations towards winning the most coveted prize in European football and ascending to that next level is shared with her team. As Co-Captain with Sweden international Magdalena ‘Mags’ Erikkson, Bright expresses that she likes to lead by example, claiming that “actions speak louder than words”. By behaving and displaying the mentality she expects and wants from her team, she hopes that her teammates will follow suit “my mindset is to always be strong but not too strong to show emotion, I think it’s about getting the balance right.”
That balance and innate leadership quality can be evaluated by how one handles disappointment or performances that do not meet expectations. Bright explains that before addressing sub optimal performances with her team, she allows emotions to settle: “It’s ok to be frustrated, it shows that we’re competitive and that we want to be better, I like to see that in players”, after a short pause she concludes: “As long as the next day we analyse what went wrong, did we stick to the game plan? Did we give everything? Then go away and work on it.” She may emphasise a somewhat sequential process to bouncing back; feeling your emotions, analysing and then adapting but for her, real recoveries start on the training ground with “lifting the spirits.” It’s this understanding and attention paid to the morale and mentality of the team that sets Bright apart from the rest.
As the conversation flows, Bright proves that her loyalty to her teammates is both tangible and admirable: “You don’t just train for yourself, you train for others.” She says, continuing “If I go in with the wrong mentality, then I’m screwing my teammates over.”- a true display of her steadfast dedication to the team.
The Next Level
One thing Bright believes she can always work on, is encouraging her teammates towards their best. She explains how new players join the team every year so that process of optimising teamwork restarts: “It’s gelling everyone together and getting everyone to work in sync.” She said. On a more individual level, she thinks her decision-making under pressure for example, in FA Cup games or matches at Wembley, could always be developed: “It’s something that you have to take responsibility for” she says, referring to proactively improving her decision-making processes. In her strong northern accent, she continues to discuss the high level of self-awareness and accountability necessary to compete and succeed at the elite level.
Bright says the culture at Chelsea is one in which everyone pushes each other to be better. She adds that this is promoted from both the staff and the players and places an emphasis on team cohesion: “Having a good culture is not easy, it’s all about us and how we carry ourselves and how we act day in day out. That’s what culture is, it’s people.” Team building has been an area that Chelsea have actively prioritised in the past by organising activities where communication and collaboration is encouraged. Unfortunately, in the era of Covid-19, those team-building practices have been placed on hold but Bright is confident that the teams’ bond is strong and evident on the pitch. She further explains the impact of communication on the strength of relationships between players. She says that knowing someone well allows you to adapt your approach in how you talk to them: “if I’m shouting and I learn that that doesn’t improve that player, I can then adjust to how they learn best to get the most out of them.” Another display of perceptive leadership.
Hard Work Beats Talent
Building on the foundations that the club has built, Bright says to now reach that next level it’s about understanding everyone’s individual experiences. Each player has lived their own journey and brings something different, being able to understand that and integrate everyone’s strengths into one unit is what creates a great team. She elaborates: “It’s remembering how we got to where we are now and then bringing in talent. Every player brings different skills, different talent, different experiences”. Bright mentions Danish international, Pernille Harder, who has had experience in the Champions League and brought that knowledge with her to Chelsea :“Having conversations with her and understanding what does it take to win the Champions League? What does it take to consistently compete to win? I think it’s bringing all of those experiences together” she says.
The Development Pathway
Mental health and well-being concerns have been at the centre of the pandemic since the first national lockdown, with more and more athletes seeking professional support. This poses the question, why isn’t mental well-being and/or sport psychology support emphasised on an organisational level? Bright mentions, early in our conversation, that she would hate for a young girl to be told she cannot do something and understands the impact this could have on one’s mental health. If well-being can be disrupted by something so trivial as not being able to play a sport then why aren’t we prioritising mental agility nearly as much as the physical? She admits that this is an area she needs to learn more about in order to fully understand those barriers preventing mental well-being from becoming a standardised part of athletic development. She also identifies the opportunities missed by players stemming from that lack of mental skill education: “Some people might think ‘I can’t cope with the stress of that [an elite environment] but if you can train yourself to think differently then it’s possible that you can step into that environment.” She goes on to say: “I think sometimes people miss out on opportunities because of their own voices, maybe having doubt and not having enough confidence.” With this, she hits the nail on the head and illustrates the significance of mental skills in either driving someone forward or holding them back.
More Than A Footballer
The pandemic has also prompted athletes to look outside of their sport to discover more of themselves. As we have seen, our ‘normality’ is volatile, so we must ensure that our interests, skills and identity are adaptable. Bright opens up about a lesson that she has learnt from football that transfers to everyday life: “Kaz Carney said to say ‘yes’ to more, whether that’s an opportunity to be educated or to try something different, say yes. Not to get stuck in the footballing world and [asking yourself] how can you be a better person ready for when you retire.” This concept stuck with her and has encouraged her to contemplate the sort of life she wants to live after football. The sporting industry could benefit from promoting a similar approach to prepare more athletes for the inevitable moment when they must call it a day. “I want to be able to say more about myself than just I played for Chelsea and England”, she says.
In the next five years, Bright hopes to have manifested her dreams of lifting the Champions League trophy and winning competitions for England, something the entire nation is hopeful of. Away from football, she discusses implementing business plans and moving steadily toward a stable and fulfilling future beyond football. Even in the closing moments of our conversation, she displays an accountability for her success and a determination to make things happen. Being proactive is her natural state of mind and she provides a shining example for others wishing to follow in her footsteps.
Interviewed and written by Natasha Bains
Edited by Memuna Konteh
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