David Priestley – A Man in the Background

As a Saracens fan for the last 5 years it’s been plain to see that changes have taken place at the club; watching them on a regular basis it’s possible to see a real camaraderie on the pitch.  I’ve gained some insight into the reasons why as I’ve been lucky enough to see behind the scenes.  During my visit to AllianzPark to interview Nigel Wray he took me pitch side to watch the boys training, I met David Priestley, Head of Psychology & Personal Development, seemed rude not to ask him for an interview!  He kindly agreed and we made plans to chat before Steve Borthwicks’ Testimonial Dinner.

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We met in the car park and walked into the offices at Allianz Park; it was plain that this is a man not used to talking about himself, preferring to be in the background.  Reluctantly on his part, we spoke about where David came from, how he got to where he is, where he sees himself going and he gave me a greater insight into how things work behind the scenes at Saracens.  One thing David made plain all through our chat is best explained in his own words – ‘I have never made, nor will make a tackle in my life…. There is such a huge difference between me being a small part of it, and me being a direct reason for success’.  And so to the man, David is from Bradford, he went to a ‘bog standard’ secondary school with a leaning towards being challenging.  In David’s words school taught him how to develop himself, he was virtually self-taught in his final year attending school only often enough to ensure he didn’t come to the attention of the authorities.  He passed his A levels thanks to his own efforts in Biology, Sport and Design.  He received an offer from Newcastle to study Architecture but was deterred by the thought of 7 years studying.  He headed across the country to John Moores University in Liverpool instead, enrolling on a Health Studies Course.  His aim was to take a Sports Science Degree; that course was full; however David visited the head of the course every day for 2 weeks and in the face of his determination he relented and David swapped courses.

David’s Dad ran sports teams and worked with footballers producing several pro players; his son had the skill and the passion for football and attended the Liverpool Football Academy while he was at Uni.  It came as no surprise to me to learn that David achieved a First; he had explained that if he didn’t reach a First in his assignments he questioned his lecturers until he knew why.  I wondered if David had enjoyed his Uni days and yes, he did, going to all of the standard excesses common in student life.  Ironically David was to extend his studies taking a Masters, again no shock to discover he attained a Distinction!  With his studies completed David entered the world of work with the England and Wales Cricket Board.  He travelled with 6 counties over a 5 year period basically living the life of a cricketer without the playing part.  Having got to know a few sportsmen over the years it seems to me that the life although looking rosy to fans isn’t without its issues and with a good deal of time can at times be very boring.

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David wasn’t done with his studying and was clearly looking for a way to increase his knowledge but also for a way to enhance the lives of sportsmen and in turn add to the success of their clubs.  He carried out a PHD – The Life of a Sportsman and How to Support Him’ that was a task of ¾ million words while carrying out a full time job.  The word determination must have been invented for this man!  Cricket didn’t buy into David’s’ findings and he parted ways with the EWCB.  His proudest moment was when he walked up to collect his Doctorate dressed in his robe; a week later he was working as a porter in Chelsea Harbour carrying Michael Caine’s bags having moved south to chase his dream.  Undeterred he wrote to 14 sports clubs laying out his thoughts, he had 13 no’s from clubs where the CEO’s and coaches all lacked the vision that Brendan Venter, Edward Griffiths, Mark McCall and Nigel Wray had, the yes came from Saracens!  Without the backing of these men, and again I use words from David ‘We would have achieved nothing’. He started on a day a fortnight with Saracens, working in the City in admin to supplement his earnings; he soon proved his worth at the club and went full time in 2009.

So, what does David Priestley – Head of Psychology and Personal Development – do at Saracens?  How does his role fit into that of a successful rugby club?  I’m going to go to a brochure produced by Saracens to explain some of what has been and is still happening behind the scenes.  Running alongside the rugby is the ‘Saracens Personal Development Programme’ subtitled ‘Caring for & Developing People’.  I’ve been a season ticket holder for 5 seasons now, coinciding in fact with the arrival of the new back room team and I have seen huge changes in what takes place on the pitch.  The PDP is I’m certain a huge factor in the success, but also in the team spirit that is plain for all to see; these Saracens clearly like each other and want to win for each other.  The PDP has 8 separate elements – Departmental Workshops, Individual Staff Professional Development Plans, Individual Personal Development Plans, Charitable Partnerships, Vocational Personal Development Sessions, Saracens Speaker Series, Saracens Lecture Series and the Saracens Leadership & Lifeskill Programme.  The programme covers all staff, for example once a month an inspirational speaker visits and talks to the whole staff, names amongst them are Jackie Stewart, Michael Johnson, Andrew Strauss and recently Henry Fraser a hugely inspiring young man.

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The players have visited amongst others Headley Court, Great Ormond Street and sung with the Choir with No Name, a group made up of homeless people.  In David’s words Saracens are looking to encourage a culture where it’s plain that the vehicle of sport can be used to influence and that with power comes responsibility, a responsibility to contribute.  I’d say that’s true across the board but maybe none more so than sportsmen who are in a position to be role models and to be revered.  90% of the playing staff are either studying or taking part in work experience; it’s clear that the message is that the individuals cannot be defined by their performance on the pitch; whether they catch a ball or not.  To take some facts from a survey carried out by David –

  • 81% of the professional squad agree or strongly agree, that having an individual personal development plan has contributed to the improvement of their on-field performance
  • 93% believe they are a better; more well-rounded person from engaging in Saracens PDP
  • 83% believe that engaging in PDP activities has given them a different/healthier mental perspective on their approach to the performance challenges of rugby
  • 90% believe that engaging in non-rugby personal development activities adds to Saracens overall competitive advantage
  • 74% believe the PDP has contributed to them feeling valued by the organisation as a person and not just as a ‘rugby player’
  • 81% believe that engaging in PDP activities has increased their self-awareness (the degree to which they know their strengths and weaknesses)

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It is plain that the PDP and the work carried out behind the scenes is a core part of the values of Saracens – Honesty, Discipline, Work Rate and Humilty – words blazoned across the East Stand and on every programme.  They are not words given lip service they are at the heart of the Saracens family.  A few final words about David, he explained that he never steps on the pitch, that’s where the players do their jobs.  He believes that every individual should make the commitment to be the best person they can be.  David as I mentioned at the start was very uneasy about talking about himself; I hope I’ve written this piece in a way that he’s comfortable with so I can share what I learnt with fellow rugby fans.

Saracens PDP – Dr David Priestley

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