Cyrus Christie is a 28-year-old professional footballer, who built his talents from the ground up through the UK’s academy development system. Since then he has ascended through the leagues, represented his country, Republic of Ireland and started his own charitable foundation. In this second instalment of our exclusive article series, we explore the mind of this successful homegrown athlete and family man.
With COVID-19 still in full force, bringing the sporting world to a halt from which it’s still slowly recovering, there’s been a media frenzy around athletes’ mental health. Many athletes from all sporting backgrounds have professed their despair and disorientation at the lack of athletic direction and focus brought on by the pandemic. Cyrus, however, reveals this downtime has been rather fulfilling: “for the first time in 10 years I’ve kind of had a long period off without having to solely focus on football, it’s been quite a good mental break away from the game, you can step back and take time with your family.” He proudly adds that he has taken this opportunity to further his education by starting a Masters degree in sports business management, with the Sport Institute of Barcelona. The time off has given him a chance to view the game from a different perspective. Expanding his outlook and knowledge of the operational and business side of the game, Cyrus mentions ambitions of becoming a future chief exec as opposed to the more traditional goal of one day being a coach. With grand aspirations like this, it’s no wonder that Cyrus was more drawn to the productive path during the lockdown, than sorrowing in the silence like some of his peers.
Having began young, playing football in the park with friends, like most of today’s football fanatics, Cyrus was taken to play with a local team by his Grandad. “I was the only kid there without a pair of boots so I was there in my trainers…they put me in goal at first and then I came out and I wouldn’t say I tore them apart but…I was a lot better than everyone else” he said. From there, Cyrus joined a Sunday league team and eventually signed a contract for Coventry City Academy, all before the age of 10, motivated by the prospect of creating a more financially stable future for himself and his loved ones.
Cyrus explains how his family were supportive but never forced him into football. His uncle was a professional boxer and trainer in the 80’s as was his father, who he says raised him with a fighting mentality: “I was taught to never back down and you gotta give 110% into everything and I’ve always wanted to win. That was the same mentality they [father and uncles] had. It wasn’t acceptable to lose in that sense, whether it was table tennis or whatever, you wanted to beat whoever was in front of you. I had that mindset to fight for every inch and everything you earn.” Sitting in his home, Cyrus continues along the lines of family. It becomes evident that his beliefs and characteristics are deep rooted in the teachings of his mother, father, grandfather and extended family that surrounded him. “I think I’ve taken a lot from different people in my life, with situations that they have dealt with. I’m a firm believer that you can always learn from people. ” With this, Cyrus unknowingly touches on the fundamentals of a growth mindset; an imperative concept in sport, business and performance.
The Academy Days
During his years at the academy, he was introduced to a sport psychologist by former Everton midfielder, Lee Carsley. Whilst it may be easy for psychology professionals to understand the usefulness and advantages of having this service on hand, Cyrus admits that, at a young age, he didn’t appreciate it perhaps as much as he should have: “You don’t really think about that side of the game, especially when you’re young you don’t realise the politics that are happening and all the different stuff you learn along the way.” He did reconnect with that same psychologist years later and has met others over time, although he confesses to still feeling sceptical and not fully understanding psychology well enough to integrate it into his regular routines. Cyrus also reveals how others became aware that he was working with a sport psychologist and questioned “why he needed it”. The very fact that such stigma existed around sports psychology all those years ago, speaks volumes to psychology’s’ place in sport today. It’s almost guaranteed that an athlete would not be questioned if they decided to spend more time in the gym training their body, so why do we question the practice of training our minds? Now that he’s older, wiser and more experienced, Cyrus does see the value in working on his mental resilience, but stresses the significance of working with a psychologist that is right for you, with whom you can properly connect and understand their approach.
When discussing his own mindset back then, he was consciously aware of how his mentality and work ethic differed from that of his teammates: “I always had the mindset that no matter what went wrong or what else was happening to other people, I was always going to outwork them, they were never going to beat me.” This competitive nature in performance and drive is often what transforms good athletes to great athletes. For Cyrus, this stems from the competitive environment he grew up in and it clearly seems to have benefited both his performance as a footballer and character as a man. He expands: “I was the first one in the gym and the last one to leave, I was always doing more, I knew that would separate me from the rest. I always had that competitive edge.”
But, competition was not the only thing that piloted a young Cyrus toward success, he explained how he used his emotions to fuel his determination on the pitch: “I played with quite a lot of anger. I always felt that things were happening more for other people than for me, but I never let it trouble me.” Even more admirable, is how Cyrus used these challenges from early in his career to broaden his knowledge of all things football. Witnessing teammates being offered contracts, where he wasn’t is what encouraged Cyrus to embrace the business side of the game as he got older. This is a prime example of what psychologists call a ‘growth mindset’.
The term was first coined by Dr. Carol Dweck 30 years ago, during research into why some students bounce back from failure while others become despondent at the smallest setbacks. She defined a growth mindset as the belief that one can advance their abilities through “Dedication and hard work…creating a resilience that is essential for accomplishment.” What we understand from Cyrus’s accounts of his youth football days is that he saw his adversities as an opportunity for learning, in contrast to someone with a fixed mindset who may have a narrower perspective and avoid challenges and dismiss feedback.
Valued As An Asset
As much as Cyrus faced most obstacles with poise, he is still human and makes mistakes. In those early days at Coventry there were some lessons that he had to learn the hard way. Being a young footballing prospect may appear glamourous from the outside, but Cyrus revealed he was actually rather lonely at times: “What people don’t understand is what you sacrifice and what you go through. You’re living a completely different life…friends are going out every weekend and you have to stay in because you’ve got a game. When you’re in the gym…or after the defeat when you don’t want to talk to anyone… as much as it’s a team game there’s lonely times in football and selfish aspects.” Cyrus refers to the ironic dichotomy of playing a team sport that’s driven by a dog-eat-dog, capitalist industry; where everyone is fighting for that same shirt. He adds: “I knew what it took, I was disciplined a lot of the time but there were times I got in trouble and I had to learn from that. I was suspended twice for going out the night before a game, being in a restaurant before the game…” These slips in discipline aren’t uncommon, especially for a young man navigating a new, glitzy lifestyle. His recognition of these errors and growth from them is what set Cyrus apart.
Luckily, he was able to adapt quickly and avoid the need for a career change. Others weren’t as successful. Cyrus alluded to the struggles that those who don’t get as far him must contend with: “When football is all you know and you kind of don’t make it, there should be some sort of that psychological [support] aspect for the young, but you’re valued as an asset not a person sometimes in football.” We know all too well what lack of mental-health support can do to young players who are rejected, with many of them falling off the rails in the most heart-breaking ways. The most recent example being 17-year-old Jeremy Wisten, who was released from the Manchester City football academy. Not long after, news broke that Wisten had committed suicide. Jeremy was not the first and unfortunately, probably won’t be last young athlete to struggle this way. Wistens’ story and Cyrus’ comments only reinforce the need for major changes in policy and regulation regarding the aftercare of our youth athletes.
It’s More About the Process Than the End Result
After three years of playing professionally for Coventry City’s first team, Cyrus felt it was time to move on to bigger and better things. Coventry weren’t exactly living up to their expectations or playing the best football. Not one for mediocrity, Cyrus viewed this as a sign to take on a new challenge: “at that time Coventry itself didn’t match the ambitions of the players… it could have been easy for me to stay around family and friends, somewhere I’m comfortable but I’m a person that wants to test myself and be at the highest level possible.” Yet more testament to his growth mindset.
He then spent three years playing for Derby County from where, after subsequent seasons of coming painfully close to promotion but not quite making it, he moved to Middleborough. He admits those years at Derby were hard to take but ultimately, only furthered his competitive spirit. At Middlesborough however, for the first month he said that he felt as though he was “flying and playing really good football”. This halted prematurely when the team’s off-pitch, managerial problems grew. They cycled through four different managers in 2017, finally settling on one whose coaching style conflicted with Cyrus’ preferred style of playing. His experience at Middleborough is proof of the volatility of football as a working environment, a volatility that demands mental toughness from those in the game.
Cyrus is very much aware of the emotional control he needs to practice in order to stay sane and composed. He understands his biggest mental challenges come from “Either being too relaxed or being too angry.” To manage this, he has many techniques including “switching off” immediately before gameplay and “Laying down in the changing room and putting pictures in your head of how it can be and how you see the game going.” he said. At the core of the psychological foundations of his preparation, it’s evident that Cyrus exercises stress management techniques along with visual imagery. Perhaps even more essential to note, that these natural practices come from a place of proactivity rather than reactivity. Whether he sees it this way or not, it’s clear to see that Cyrus stays ahead of the game through his mental preparation (proactive) instead of scrambling to fix an issue after it has happened (reactive).
Following his spell at Middlesbrough, Cyrus stayed true to his character and set his sights forward yet again and landed a deal with Fulham FC. Contributing to the promotion the club has earned made the previous, unexpected transitions somewhat worthwhile. Cyrus describes the culture at Fulham as one that encourages peer motivation, winning and having each other’s back. He admits it wasn’t always this way. The “team togetherness wasn’t great and that probably showed and was also probably a factor in why we got relegated.” Still focused on development as a player as well as the wins, Cyrus says that being benched more frequently than he’d like limited his opportunities to truly thrive. He felt it’s “been a test of mental strength and character.” He explains that in those moments, you just have to stay ready: “At times you’re like, what do I have to do to even stay in the team? When I wasn’t in the squad, I was thinking ok what do I do? do I sink or do I rise above it?”
Finding the motivation to keep going; mustering the confidence needed to make moves with conviction and summoning the courage to keep your emotions in check are all necessary skills without which, most of us would struggle to rise to any occasion. Cyrus insists that he knew what he was doing and what he had to do. All the extra work of staying in the gym, being mindful of nutrition and everything else off the pitch is what keeps him ready for the moment he’s called on the pitch. He summed this up quaintly with a phrase many athletes are familiar with: “It’s about the process not the end result…it’s the process that’s gonna build you.”
Tomorrow is Never Promised
Having taken me through the journey of his life and career it’s exciting to see what the life of a loving family man and devoted pro footballer looks like in five years when most start to think about hanging up their boots. Preferring to live in the present and not look too far ahead, Cyrus envisions himself still playing at 32 but states “tomorrow is never promised.” He owns up to the cliché of his statement but emphasises his point of embracing the moment. Something we could learn to do a little more.
A few days after our conversation Cyrus announced his move to Championship side Nottingham Forest FC. He has new goals and new plans to thrive at a new club. For young people wanting to become footballers, Cyrus advises trying to understand what it takes and learning from the people around you, good or bad. With conviction in his tone, he adds “get out of your comfort zone and test yourself. Always push yourself to the limit and see what you’re capable of.” His latest endeavor, The Cyrus Christie Foundation, aims to provide viable opportunities to succeed for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-income communities. An inspiring move and we cannot wait to see the impact of Cyrus’ work on the future of our next generation.
Interviewed and Written by: Natasha Bains
Edited by: Memuna Konteh
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