There is part of the brain – the anterior midcingulate cortex – that gets bigger every time you do something unpleasant. People who live a really long time have very big ones, which suggests that doing stuff you don’t want to do actually extends your life. Jake Humphrey, standing at 6ft 4in, has got onto this before we have sat down, at the fireside of a nice hotel in Norwich. His Gordon Ramsay brow adds an air of mild panic to his life advice. A former presenter for the BBC and BT Sport, Humphrey hosts the High Performance podcast, which has four million listeners and has attracted guests such as Keir Starmer, who listens regularly, and many superhuman sports stars.
It is the time of year for self-help, a deathless industry which survives on our innate struggle to change: High Performance is part of a new phenomenon whereby enormously successful people talk about their weaknesses.
“There is definitely an argument that the people who are at the very top of any chosen world are having to dig into the deepest, darkest reaches of their abilities,” Humphrey says. One guest in 2021 was the then England rugby coach Eddie Jones, who said he was so productive in the early morning that his working day was effectively over by 8am. (“He had a stroke – it’s not for everyone,” said Humphrey.) The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has accepted that if his deputy, Angela Rayner, is known for talking about the impact of her difficult upbringing, he must talk about his own. As a grown man might cry over losing a football match, Starmer admitted he felt “pain” at the loss of Hartlepool.
Despite its success, there’s a lot of confusion about what Humphrey is doing with his podcast, as he’s quick to point out. An episode with Alain de Botton discusses tolerating one’s own averageness, while another, with a top CrossFit trainer, claims that 18 minutes of jump rope a day makes you better than 99 per cent of the world’s population at jump rope. Is it about accepting weakness, or overcoming it?
“If you have a gold medal around your neck and you’re not happy, are you more high-performing than someone who will never achieve a gold medal but wakes up in the morning with a sense of serenity and happiness?” Humphrey asks. “We’ve worked it into three sentences: ‘High Performance is doing the best you can. Where you are. With what you’ve got.’ And we can all do that.” You must be relentless, he says – even if it’s being relentless about the things you love, like gardening.
Being in his presence, it is easy to imagine there were a hundred things that tweaked Humphrey’s anterior midcingulate cortex when he sat on his sofa at 5am today, to write his to-do list. He worries about interviews: “I’m not actually very good at thinking of answers.” He has a habit of launching in, and seeing what comes out, and while some of it is predictable (motivation, resilience, giving back), some is not. Humphrey is from farming stock in Wisbech, on the Fens. One day, as a young man, his grandfather was due to attend a wedding: he went down to the potato fields to show his brother his new wedding suit. The guard had been left off the potato picker, and it caught his coat tail, dragging him into the machine, breaking his back and permanently disabling him. His grandmother became a lifelong carer, and when his grandfather died in the mid 1990s she ended her own life, unable to find happiness in her freedom.
Humphrey was 17, and he got a U, an E and an N in his A-levels, though at the time he did not associate it with the tragedy, being thoroughly average at school. “I was the grey man: I just existed and moved around.” Back then, Norwich was not the European hub of entrepreneurial activity that it is now. There were two sparkling places connecting the city to the wider world – the newspaper offices and Anglia Television: Humphrey had work experience at both. He did not go to university, but CBBC followed, with Holly Willoughby, and in his late twenties he got a gig presenting Formula 1. The morning he was due to compère his first race on TV, his wife called him in tears: “Everyone on the internet says you’re going to be shit,” she wept. “I thought of my failed A-levels,” he says, “and how I would not be standing here without that failure. What look like full stops are always commas.”
We buy the books of those who tell us how to live (Humphrey’s new one is called How to Change Your Life) but we mock them publicly. Humphrey’s co-host, Professor Damian Hughes, gets more flak than Jake himself. Raised in the boxing rings of Manchester, Hughes is an odd presence: an expert in sports psychology with a soft voice and a position at Manchester Metropolitian University. He was so wounded by trolls that he tracked a few down and wrote to their personal email addresses to confront them, as one might do in 2010; one turned out to be a teacher.
Humphrey grew up in a socialist household – his father has a degree in social work and worked for Age Concern. You believe him when he says that being a sports presenter left him feeling empty, that he wants to help people. He went through a phase of wanting to be a politician but when I ask who he admired, he says, “I am trying really hard at the moment not to have an opinion about things.”
The problem is that Jake is from the football world. “The dangerous masculine bullying culture has been pretty much eradicated… but where we’re stuck in the bygone way of thinking is on social media.” He recently defended Karen Carney, the former England player bullied off social media for comments about Leeds United, and the response from football trolls was: “Look at this woke bell-end trying to tell us how to live.” He wrote to Piers Morgan, Gary Neville and Gary Lineker to ask them how they deal with online abuse: they told him they just got on with it. Humphrey wants nothing to do with that world any more, he says: “I spent ten years on football TV and I never once cared about the result.”
You’d think that everyone hated Humphrey given the focus he puts on his detractors, but he has armies of young male fans. The Guardian sportswriter Barney Ronay visited a school a few years ago, where one intense teenager told him, “I want to be like Jake Humphrey.” Ronay describes Humphrey as “a neat, handsome man who has unblinking conviction about his right to be in that room.” But he was interesting long before the High Performance podcast, he says: “His success is inexplicable in many ways because what is he offering? But never underestimate the power of the aspirational figure. Football is a world that everyone wants to be in, particularly young men.
“There is a fawning quality in the way he talks to sportsmen, as though he’s observing a rare snow leopard. ‘I am thrilled to be sitting next to you, random man who happens to be good at running around.’ He’s Tim Lovejoy for the deeply serious, social media, celebrity-worshipping generation. It’s tempting to mock him because he’s low-brow and slightly Partridge, but I’ve often thought: why isn’t there a good, nice, helpful Andrew Tate who wants to tell young men how to make sense of the world, but isn’t hurting anyone? In a way I like Jake, because what he’s doing is harmless.”
Humphrey was relentlessly bullied for two years at school (he was Jacob then), eating his lunch in an empty coach on the grounds. Does he know why he was bullied? “It hurts even to return to that now,” he says. “Even now, it feels like the same emotion: I can’t work it out.” There is a clip of him on BT Sport, ribbing the glamorous French footballer David Ginola about his ripped jeans. Ginola gives him a death stare, then does a “wanker” gesture behind his head. “I think I’d almost say it out loud: ‘What have I done?’” Humphrey says of his teenage years. “I can’t work out the criticism, and I have never been able to work it out. I guess it’s my fate.” He throws something – a bit of rolled-up paper or some lint from his cardigan – into the fire with a long, hard shot.
To talk about one’s mental health is part of a sustained defence against social media by modern sports professionals – to show mental vulnerability is as important as exhibiting physical prowess. There is no other industry in which one has traditionally done one’s job while being actively screamed at, and these days there is a fightback, ever since Raheem Sterling defended himself on Twitter against the Sun. Humphrey thinks that as sports is a crucible of male emotion, it ought to be accessed through emotional language. One episode of High Performance was a turning point, when the rugby player Jonny Wilkinson admitted that his autobiography – all constant pain and mental endurance – could contribute to mental health problems for a generation.
Humphrey felt a split within himself, doing his podcast while talking on Match of the Day about who should be sacked. “How can we pile on to a 21-year-old footballer, be hugely critical of a performance they’re putting in, without understanding: a) that does that person no favours at all; b) we don’t understand what they’re going through? We forget that these people are usually very young and the public talk about them like they’re not real people. When they talk to the media, they say nothing, because they would rather say nothing than say something and get criticised for it.”
A recent guest, Tyrone Mings, admitted to talking to a psychologist before every game. “I think footballers can help themselves by being more real and just telling it how it is, and that’s why I love it when they come on High Performance,” Humphrey says. “It would be amazing to see what footballers look like with freedom. What actually happens if we can train, play and operate – and this is all of us, not just sportspeople – with freedom?”
High Performance is apparently popular in schools, so his production team are making materials for teachers. “I think that AI and the advent of technology renders most of the national curriculum useless. Young people are leaving school without the most important muscle they need, which is that muscle of resilience, and that’s where we can help.”
It is strange to think that Jake Humphrey could be teaching material for our troubled youth. Lesson one: be relentless. Lesson two: try really hard to have no opinions.
[See also: Matthew Ball’s cerebral ballet]
This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars