“Katie is a hugger,” chuckles Charlie Ewels as we meet in the carpark at Farleigh House, the opulent country house which also serves as the headquarters of Bath Rugby.
The Katie in question is Katie Warriner, the eminent performance psychologist, who is also giggling by the time she tries to reach up and embrace Ewels, the Bath and England lock who towers a good foot-and-a-half above her.
The warmth in their greeting is striking enough for a sport which still sets such store with overt displays of machismo. Then again, in the ensuing two hours, many misconceptions are tossed aside.
The very fact that Ewels and Warriner are happy to reveal to Telegraph Sport what they discuss in their sessions is unusual enough. Such meetings are routinely carried out in private, with every utterance subject to the strictest confidence. This, then, is proof in itself of the trust that exists between them and the desire to shed more light on what has become one of the most crucial, but least understood, aspects of sports performance.
And Warriner is at the forefront of it. Her work with Team GB athletes at the London, Rio and Tokyo Games in hockey, canoeing, gymnastics and rugby sevens has helped deliver 33 medals. She also co-wrote a book with Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, designed to inspire children through reading.
Having first arrived in Bath as the club’s lead psychologist in 2018, working with players both individually and as a group, and even leading sessions with their wives and girlfriends, she departed that role last summer but continues to work with a number of players individually.
The first surprise is that this session is not taking place on a couch, with plumped-up pillows and low-level lighting; rather, Ewels and Warriner settle on a stone bench overlooking the training pitches. This is where Warriner prefers to operate, rather than in a surgical setting: sessions can take place on a walk around the grounds, in a local cafe or simply over the phone if time dictates.
Perhaps the secret to Warriner’s popularity amongst athletes is that she started on the same journey. Her dream was to stand on an Olympic podium, having joined the British gymnastics squad at the tender age of 10, spending 30 hours in training every week. An injury at the age of 15 crushed those dreams, but also served as the inspiration for what has become her life mission.
“I came back to the sport with a lot of fear after my knee injury and I felt I never got over that,” she says. “And when I finished in gymnastics, I wanted to be there for other athletes to try and fulfil their potential. It wasn't the glory story I'd hoped for. I hadn’t gone to the Olympics, and won a gold medal – the truth was I struggled and I wanted to help other people thrive.”
Warriner has an intriguing take on her work as a psychologist, describing herself as Ewels' “thinking partner”, someone who can offer independent and impartial counsel in trying times – of which there have been plenty at Bath in recent months.
“In his role as [Bath] captain last season, everybody wanted a piece of him,” Warriner says. “Everyone's got opinions and he's out to solve every issue. I think just having a space where he can be himself and I'll be straight with him is valuable.
“It's more at times of being the conscience or Devil’s Advocate because being an elite athlete is normally about doing the right thing, not the easy thing.”
Ewels, 27, agrees with the definition of “thinking partner”. Warriner, he says, “drags out my empathetic side. Naturally I'm not very empathetic”.
With a knowing laugh Warriner says: “This is a story he likes to tell.”
“I care about people, but I have a quite low tolerance for anything that I think is unacceptable levels of [effort],” Ewels insists.
“I totally think you're empathic,” Warriner states. “Often weaknesses are just strengths overplayed. So, Charlie's strength is his passion and commitment to the club. You have naturally elite-minded standards. And those strengths overplay and become a desire to try and fix everything.”
What quickly becomes clear is that the impact of Warriner’s work as a psychologist is, for Ewels at least, every bit as crucial as that of the line-out coach or data analyst – figures who have long been considered staples of the backroom team.
Ewels freely admits that it was Warriner who helped him cope with the devastation of missing out on selection for England’s 2019 World Cup squad – not so much by what she said after the decision had been made, but before.
“I was gutted, devastated. I really wanted to go but I got over it pretty quickly because I knew that I'd done everything I could and sometimes that's not enough. That was actually such a fulfilling time for me. I loved it because of the work that I had done with Katie almost in preparation for that [non-selection].”
Warriner’s impact is amplified by being a woman working in a male-dominated sport. Ewels admits he did not know if all his team-mates would be able to work with Warriner – “Rugby can be a bit backwards that way,” he observes – but for him it was a bonus.
“I love having women in an all-male environment. It just brings such a different outlook on stuff. I think our club is better than others in bringing women in.”
The pair’s trust is now absolute. Shortly after Ewels returned home from Australia in July, having damaged his anterior cruciate ligament in the build-up to England’s first Test against Australia, he shared his rehab plan with Warriner. When she studied it, Warriner was struck by the fact that one of the priorities had nothing to do with rugby – instead, it was to walk down the aisle for his wedding to fiancee, Amelia. Four weeks after suffering the injury, courtesy of a gruelling recovery programme, Ewels did just that.
“I loved that,” reveals Warriner, who was a guest at the wedding. “Charlie says he might not be emotional [about this] but when I saw him do his first dance, I was in tears. It was so special. I never doubted you.”
“The first dance was a stretch and very one-legged,” Ewels adds, with a laugh. “That was never on the goal map. Walking out of the ceremony, walking through the confetti, that was the goal.”
With Bath’s torrid form last season and now four losses from four this term, the notion of resilience crops up repeatedly in Warriner and Ewels’ conversations.
A key reference point for both came in an exchange Ewels had with a Bath fan on Twitter. As well as offering some gentle advice on tactics, the supporter asked Ewels about the possibility of the team doing a lap around the Rec before kick-off to connect with the crowd. “That's the first time I've seen you directly respond to a fan on social media,” Warriner says. “You got up in front of the lads and said, ‘We are going to do this to directly connect with the fans’.”
“I kind of struggle with social media. If we lose, I'm normally quite embarrassed and the last thing I want to do is post,” says Ewels. “But I really wanted to show that we were inquisitive and wanted to be better. We didn't think what we were doing was good enough. So the feeling was that if this connects us to the fans more, so much the better.”
Both Warriner and Ewels credit his resilience to his parents – father, Phil, was a police officer, while his mother, Amanda, became a counsellor in an abortion clinic after also serving in the force. This in itself, however, makes him something of an outlier.
“Often one of the things that drives athletes to be elite is a level of dysfunction and ‘small t trauma’ from childhood,” explains Warriner, who has dedicated 50 per cent of her working life to developing the Moonshot Series, courses for school pupils to improve their mental health and wellbeing.
“So many athletes I've worked with said, ‘I wish I'd learned this earlier’. So I just found myself in lockdown thinking, ‘Why don't we just make a course where teachers can deliver all the fundamentals of performance psychology and make it really fun and accessible for kids?’ The book with Marcus Rashford also really got me thinking about what we can do to support children, parents and teachers.”
This strikes a chord with Ewels, who has seen a shift in young players’ behaviour. “I think we are losing the ability to be social. Lots of the guys that come in now, their ability to just hold conversation and be confident and know themselves... it can be difficult for them”.
“We are all working life out at that age. I think there are so many pressures on kids these days because there are so many things for them to compare themselves to. It's horrible.
“Other people aren't so lucky and maybe if those parents aren't the role models or if maybe they don't get lucky in terms of having the right teacher at the right time, this is exactly the sort of thing that could help.”
Our time together is almost at an end, with Ewels joking that “we’ve all had a free session”. But there is still just time to address the future, and what else Ewels included on that rehab programme.
In the short term, it is simply about rebuilding his ACL, an injury that will keep him out for most of the season. He is still part of the Bath leadership group, although Ben Spencer has been promoted to club captain, and has not discounted the possibility of an against-all-odds comeback to the 2023 World Cup squad.
“That’s not a goal – it’s a dream,” he says, slightly ruefully.
“Dreams can come true,” Warriner says, not missing a beat.
You suspect that if anyone can turn that fantasy into reality, it is these two.