The Five STEPS to a Winning Mindset opening chapter
The Five STEPS to a winning mindset: What sport can teach you about great leadership
Ringside in San Remo, Milan, 1996.
WBC World super middleweight title fight.
Crouched down in the challenger’s red corner, I watched the action intently as the ever fiercer left hooks of Runcorn’s Robin Reid continued to swing and connect with the Italian champion, the redoubtable Vincenzo Nardiello. Whenever Reid made an impression, I noted that he immediately skipped away from the champion’s flailing retort and evaded the shot. I watched his trainer, Brian Hughes, who himself watched the proceedings with a silent intensity that enthralled me.
I’d read about the state of flow – defined by the wonderfully named psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced six-cent-mihaly) as the place where mind and body work in harmony to produce their optimum performance – and I watched him completely in sync with the action, anticipating events seconds before they happened. His game plan, prepared after hour upon endless hour in front of video footage and then repeated in the dusty old gym where he had presided for my whole life, had taken its physical form and he watched for any slight insights where he could tinker and adapt.
“Ten seconds,” I offered. This was the signal for the corner to become the boxing equivalent of a Formula One pit crew and busily apply fluids, respite, direction and advice in their minute-long intervention. My voice was loud enough to rise above the raucous Milanese crowd, urging their hometown hero to victory, but I was mindful of the mantra which had been drilled into me over the years. “Keep your voice calm and your body language still during the fight. You need to present an image of complete control because it can panic the fighter.” Brian Hughes had been learning his craft as master coach since he was a boy and these insights always came packed with common sense hewn from years of experience. “Listening to his wisdom, presented with a mix of gruffness and enthusiasm delivered in the kind of accent and phraseology that seems to have stepped straight from the pages of an Alan Bennett script, is one of life's pleasures,” was how the Daily Telegraph once described his instruction.
I played through the different instructions he could offer to Reid, who was coming back to the corner and gulping the oxygen into his lungs. There were only sixty seconds to deliver the message, so it needed to be concise. Reid could be instructed to increase the pace of the fight, trusting his superior conditioning to take effect in the later rounds. He could receive a torrent of encouragement for executing the plan so diligently. How about a warning not to get complacent? The easiest option would be remind him to keep on doing what he was doing. Why rock the boat? Why disrupt a winning plan? I moved closer to listen to the instructions, delivered in just five words.
“Sit down when you punch.”
“Sit down when you punch.” I knew exactly what he meant because of the simplicity and the clear image in my head which it evoked. The plan had been to throw punches whilst the legs had identified their escape route. “Sitting down” was a change of plan. It meant stillness as opposed to speed.
He had seen that the punches were hurting but his fighter was preparing to move away as the punches were landing, reducing the power which each punch contained. The instruction to “sit down” suggested that, rather than look to move, Reid should plant both feet, increasing the leverage and the associated power of a punch, as he had seen that Vincenzo Nardiello’s resistance was falling fast.
Most importantly, Reid understood it too. He nodded his understanding, stood up, adjusted his shorts, punched his gloves together to indicate his readiness to continue and stepped back into the centre of the ring’s canvas for the seventh round of the WBC World Super-middleweight title fight, the most prestigious of the alphabet titles which confusingly littered the sport.
Two minutes and fifty-nine seconds later, I scrambled into the ring to celebrate a victory for Reid and Brian Hughes, my Dad, who had become the first Manchester man in fifty years to train a world champion.
INTRODUCING THE FIVE STEPS
Sport as an industry is unique – in the breadth of its appeal, the scale of its support and its ability to generate emotion. For generations, it has created extraordinary memories, offering us visions of sublime skill and moments of great passion. It has also generated pain and anguish. Across the world, it both divides and unites people of different races, nationalities and every conceivable status. It is sport which binds workers and rulers, children and the elderly.
Professional sport is, therefore, a crucible. The people working inside that crucible, charged with the task and privilege of leading sports teams, are generally known as the managers. In fact, their role has only a little to do with management, and much more to do with leadership. Those that do this in the upper reaches of sport are truly extraordinary. The work they perform is intensive, personal, technical and critical – critical to the success of their teams, the growth of their sport, and the happiness of many. It is also subject to intense personal scrutiny: their every move – whether witnessed, surmised or merely imagined – is subject to widespread analysis in almost every forum imaginable, from bar rooms through offices to internet blogs and live television or radio broadcasts. They have their leadership publicly examined, challenged, lauded and ridiculed on a daily basis. Some of us feel we could do a better job if asked. Others stand back in admiration of the great achievers, and cast a sympathetic backward glance at the ones who look like they’ve failed. But we actually have very little appreciation of the full scope of their work.
The role of a sports team leader is fascinating, complex and tough. Fantasy football leagues may convince us that it’s about buying players, and selecting a team. In reality it is about creating winning environments, recruiting, developing and nurturing talent, effectively communicating a shared vision with a diverse collection of individuals, delivering on enormous expectations from a range of stakeholders, overcoming significant challenges, handling pressure and staying focused throughout – a set of challenges familiar to leaders in all sectors.
The aim of this book is to distil the lessons I have witnessed in my own work as an adviser to sporting and business leaders, enabling them to create winning cultures in sports as diverse as international and domestic rugby league, Premier League football, rugby union, athletics, water polo, swimming, diving, professional boxing, squash, golf and Australian Rules Football, where I have soaked up information about creating a winning mindset. This book is me wringing myself out. This is not to say that one leader has all the answers – or even that a full cohort has cracked it between them. But there is a set of circumstances from which emerges a compelling language, one of creating a winning mindset, that will be useful to leaders in any and every setting.
How to apply it?
The broad question, then, is how do you create a winning mindset?
During my visits, and working with great – and equally illuminatingly, the not so successful - coaches, I have begun to see the same themes, the same attributes, reflected in a wide range of successful environments. What I found was that their ideas shared certain key traits. There is no “formula” for a winning culture – I don’t want to overstate the case. But these cultures do draw from a common set of traits, which make them more likely to succeed.
It’s like discussing the attributes of a great basketball player. You can be pretty sure that any great player possesses some subset of traits including height, speed, agility, power and court sense. But you don’t need all of these traits in order to be great. Some great players are five-feet-ten and scrawny. And having some of these traits doesn’t guarantee greatness: no doubt there are plenty of slow, clumsy seven-footers. It’s clear, though, that if you are ever in the position of choosing a team from among strangers, you should probably take a gamble on the seven-foot player.
Winning cultures and mindsets work in much the same way. One skill we can learn is the ability to spot those ideas, those that have naturally occurring features, like the seven-foot basketball player. But here’s where our basketball analogy breaks down: In the world of leading and shaping mindsets, we can genetically engineer our players. We can create them with an eye to maximising their success.
As I have pored over the thousands of notes and observations from what I have seen and studied, I have recognised, over and over, the same principles at work.
These five principles to develop a winning mindset are:
Simplicity, Thinking, Emotional Intelligence, Practical, Story telling.
An astute observer will note that this sentence can be compacted into the acronym STEPS. This is sheer coincidence, of course.
No special expertise is needed to apply these principles. There are no licensed STEPSologists. Moreover, many of the principles have a commonsense ring to them: Didn’t most of us already have the intuition that we should “be simple” and “use stories”? It’s not as though there is a powerful argument in favour of overcomplicated, lifeless prose.
“Common sense is not always so common,” is how one leading coach proudly responded to my observation that his approach to his work was profoundly simple. This book – and the exercises contained within – shows you how it can be the same for you.
It is a book to help you create a winning mindset both in yourself and others. Usually these topics are treated separately – there is “change management” advice for businesses, “self help” advice for individuals and “change the world” advice for activists. That is a shame because all change has something in common: for anything to change, someone has to start acting differently. Ultimately, all leaders, in any field of endeavour or in any context where individuals lead other individuals in the pursuit of success, are charged with the same mission: can you get people to start behaving to their potential.
Here’s our STEPS checklist for creating a winning mindset:
How do we find the essential core of our culture?
Great sporting leaders strive for the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement of their intentions, so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it. Sir Alex Ferguson summarised the culture he had shaped at Manchester United as an obdurate unwillingness to accept defeat. “We never get beat,” he once said. “We occasionally run out of time, but we never get beat.”
Bill Walsh, coach of NFL giants The San Franscisco 49ers, reversed years of underachievement to win three Super Bowl titles through a relentless focus on every individual doing their job to the highest possible standards. This commitment to the details of the job was articulated in the title of his best-selling coaching bible, “The score will take care of itself.”
Sir Graham Henry’s mission as the New Zealand Rugby Union coach is to help his players “enhance the All Blacks jersey and pass it on in a better state than what it was when you got it.”
This simple understanding was underscored in the jubilant scenes after the team had retained the World Cup in 2015. When 14-year-old fan Charlie Lines attempted to join the team’s lap-of-honour, he was forcefully ejected from the pitch by an over-zealous security guard. Sonny Bill Williams, the team’s high impact substitute, broke away from the celebrations to intervene and present the young fan with his winner’s medal. “I tried to make the night more memorable for him. Better it to be hanging around his neck than mine,” he said.
One former New Zealand player explained to me that the thing he feared most was to be an All Black with just one appearance. “You had the talent but you lacked the attitude to leave the jersey in a better state than you found it.”
George Carman, the legendary defence lawyer, once said, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.” To strip an environment down to its core, leaders must be masters of exclusion. They must relentlessly prioritise.
Two of the great boxing trainers, Cus d’Amato, the mysterious coach who played a seminal role in Mike Tyson’s ascent to the status of youngest-ever world heavyweight champion, and Emanuel Steward, the Detroit-based trainer of twenty world champions including Lennox Lewis and Thomas Hearns, both understood that they had just sixty seconds between rounds to affect a fight. “We must communicate ideas that are both simple and profound,” said d’Amato.
To emphasise the need for leaders to be ever-mindful about communicating one simple message at a time, I use an exercise of throwing and catching of a tennis ball. If I throw one ball to you, it’s quite likely that you will catch it. Now if I throw you two balls simultaneously it will be quite difficult to catch both. Much more likely, in your confusion over which one to catch with which hand, which one to catch first and which one to catch second, you will succeed in catching neither. If I throw three, it’s odds-on that all will hit the floor.
Saying something short is not the mission – sound bites are not the ideal. Barry Gibbons, the former head of Burger King, articulated his frustration with company mission statements. “I arrived in the headquarters and found that the only piece of paper left in my office was the old mission statement hanging on my wall. It was so full of crap and humbug, that there and then, I invented a new word to describe the language normally used in mission statements: ‘crumbug.’”
How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across?
Like elite coaches, we will learn how to learn how to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive. We can use surprise – an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus – to grab people’s attention. But surprise doesn’t last. For a culture of a winning mentality to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically building tripwires or “opening gaps” in their knowledge – and then filling those gaps. I aim to show you not only how these tripwires can be built, but what they require in order to fulfil their purpose: that is, first to open the gap, and then, most importantly, lead them to fill it in themselves through their own thinking and discovery.
Psychologically it’s much more satisfying and validating to find the solution to a problem yourself than have someone else solve it for you. Jose Mourinho understands this. He calls his tripwire approach, “guided discovery,” a technique he learned under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal, who in turn was introduced to it by the Dutch master coach Rinus Michels, the father of Total Football. We will learn more about this soon.
Every training exercise his team complete is done with the ball. Most if not all sessions last 90 minutes, the duration of a game, or a maximum of 120 minutes, like one that goes into extra time.
Each one is devised with the aim of reproducing moments of a match, specific situations so that once they come in a competitive context the players know exactly what to do and where to be on the pitch, how to defend and how to attack in whatever formation they’re in or up against and according to the circumstances they find themselves in too, be they a goal up or a goal down, a man up or down to 10 men.
“A great pianist doesn't run around the piano or do push ups with the tops of his fingers,” Mourinho reasons. “To be great, he plays the piano. He plays all his life and being a footballer is not about running, push-ups or physical work generally. The best way to be a great footballer is to play.”
Before his Inter Milan team played Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League second leg semi-final, Mourinho explained how he had prepared his players.
“I have had to train with ten men. How to play with ten men, because I go there [to Barcelona] with Chelsea, I finish with ten, I go there with Inter, I finish with ten and I have to train to play with ten men because it can happen again.”
Inevitably, when his midfielder Thiago Motta was sent off, the hours of rigorous training paid off. He organised his team into defensive lines to smother the incursions of Lionel Messi and the star-studded Barcelona team. Inter Milan offered a steely, white-shirted resistance and no amount of criticism about possession statistics, or killing the game, or ugliness smothering beauty could alter the fact that they emerged victorious.
“It's the greatest moment of my career,” declared Mourinho.
How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something. Research shows the people are more likely to make a charitable donation to a single individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.
We will look at how this understanding has prompted many elite coaches to delve into the world of neuro-anatomy and understand how to harness emotions to create a winning mindset.
The amygdala, the almond shaped structure in the brain, forms part of what is known as the brain’s limbic system – a set of evolutionary primitive brain structures involved in many of our emotions and motivations. In particular, those emotions – such as fear, anger and pleasure – that are chiefly related to survival.
“If you think of your brain as your own personal ‘government’, then the amygdala may be seen as the Ministerial Office of the Department of Emotion,” suggests Dr Kevin Dutton. It is the part of the brain which provides some of the main ingredients for success, most notably described by Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the former world heavyweight boxing champion as “Inspiration, perspiration and dedication.”
“It is an ancient system, steeped in evolutionary tradition and wields a heck of a lot of power,” says Dutton. “It has the authority to veto ordinary, everyday decision-making processes – to order a Code Red – if it thinks it is in our interests to do so.”
The amygdala is easily persuaded and reacts too readily. These are the times when we run instead of fight, dream instead of do, turn on the telly rather than do the work.
The pre-frontal cortex, on the other hand, is the official headquarters of the Department of Rational Thought. This is the part our brain that tells us that we should be working: that we should turn off the telly and start doing that work.
Compared with the amygdala and the limbic system, it is a relative new-build and it is responsible for the heightened self-control that separates us from our ancient ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. It enables us to plan, weigh up different courses of action, and refrain from responding to immediate impulses and doing things we will probably later regret. It is the cornerstone of wisdom and willpower.
When we set out along the pathway of learning to create winning mindsets, we often experience crossroads or decision points where it can often feel like there is an argument going on inside our heads. An argument between our “good”, rational side and our “bad’’, emotional side. More specifically, this argument is between our logical, conscientious, forward-thinking PFC and our emotional, hedonistic heat-of-the-moment amygdala. Great coaches know how to mediate between these two sides.
This was the internal argument taking place inside the South African golfer Louis Oosthuizen’s head in the build up to the 2010 British Open Championship.
“His pre-shot routine was all over the place. He told me that when he played in the US Open, he was making split decisions instead of thinking about what he should have been doing,” said his performance coach, Dr Karl Morris.
However, when he entered the final round of the prestigious Championship, most of the pundits fully expected his amygdala to take over and he would surrender the four-shot lead that he was carrying. He was expected to “choke”, the sporting term meaning that he would become overly emotional and lose.
But they were wrong and the reason was very simple. A small red spot, just below the base of his thumb. On his glove.
The spot was the brainchild of his coach. A short time earlier, Oosthuizen had paid Morris a visit to help him deal with intrusive thoughts of failure that had begun to creep into his mind at exactly the wrong moment – such as when he about to play a crucial shot.
And they identified a very simple solution.
Whenever Oosthuizen was about to play a shot, he was to deliberately distract himself. He was to zone in on the dot on the base of his thumb and concentrate on that. At the critical moment, it was the dot, not the shot, that mattered. The golfing part of his brain knew very well how to play the shot. The emotional part didn’t need to get in the way and screw things up.
The red spot on Oosthuizen's glove was one way of focussing his mind on the process of playing a shot, rather than thinking of the consequences of victory or defeat.
He won by seven strokes.
How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions – they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally winning mindsets are full of concrete images because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. We will learn the science which validates the former US secretary of state, Colin Powell’s assertion that, “If you can’t explain what you are doing to your mother, maybe you don’t really understand it” alongside the methods to ensure your winning ideas are completely understood.
Peter Coe could have paraphrased Colin Powell’s comment and suggested that the ability to explain what you're doing to your son is equally relevant.
When Sebastian Coe had set three world records – consecutively 800 metres, one mile, 1500 metres – in the space of 41 days in 1979, what intrigued the public about this 23-year-old was the seemingly experienced head upon his young shoulders and the cadence of his limbs which imparted an aesthetic quality, provoking the New Statesman magazine to compare him to Rudolph Nureyev, the celebrated ballet dancer.
More than 20 million Britons tuned in to watch him attempt to add the 1980 Olympic gold medal to his haul. “The Moscow 800 metres final had been mine to lose,” said Coe, “and I lost it.” The balletic cadence, for which his father and coach Peter had been striving throughout the previous 12 years and thousands of hours of coaching, disappeared. He trailed in a distant second behind his great rival, fellow Briton Steve Ovett.
According to the younger Coe: “My father said. ‘You’re the fastest man on earth at eight hundred metres, and at the biggest moment of your career you run three seconds slower than if you were running back home in Sheffield. There is only one thing to do now,’ he reasoned. ‘You’ll have to win the bloody fifteen hundred metres title instead.’”
As the watching world dismissed Seb as a failure unable to win the biggest race of his life, his father would quietly, shrewdly advise his son just how to storm to victory in the 1500, universally regarded as a dead cert for Ovett, unbeaten in nearly 50 races over that distance.
“You have to maintain contact with the athletes at the front,” he told him, before employing an Anglo Saxon twist. “And I don’t care if Steve Ovett runs off to the shitter, you are in there with him before you’ve even realised you’ve left the track. You sit so tight into that action you can smell his armpits.”
True to his father’s judgment, Sebastian Coe stayed on the shoulder of the leading athletes until he reached the final bend, where he kicked and swiftly overtook them to come home four yards clear.
Great leaders are able to explain themselves in clear, understandable language. Martin Luther King Jr didn’t stand at the Washington Monument in August 1963 and use complicated jargon such as, “I have a critical path schedule…” to bring about the civil rights revolution. Equally, John F Kennedy didn’t challenge his people to “strengthen the moon programme” or “create strategic alliances to uncover possible synergies.” Their words were entrenched in the understanding that speaking in practical terms is the only way to ensure that our ideas will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.
How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Coaches naturally swap stories after every coaching session and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalogue of situations they might confront during a session and the appropriate responses to those situations.
We will understand why leaders who mentally rehearse a situation perform better when they encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, learning how to tell stories can act as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing others to effectively respond to the challenges that can potentially prevent success.
Nowhere was this approach better evidenced than The Boot Room; three legendary words infused with success and soaked in nostalgia for Liverpool Football Club. For this was the hub which provided the foundation for the club’s domination of English and European club football in the Seventies and Eighties.
When Bill Shankly arrived in 1959, Liverpool were languishing in the Second Division, despite having been League Champions only 10 years before. He was an outsider with a personality forceful enough to wake a sleeping giant and lay down a template of enduring success.
In an unglamorous part of Anfield, the team’s home, Shankly told his staff, including Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett, “Fellows, your jobs are safe. Some managers bring their own people with them. Not me. I have my own system and it will work in co-operation with you. I will lay down the plans and gradually we will all be on the same wavelength. I demand only one thing: loyalty.”
The four men – Paisley, Bennett, Fagan and Shankly – formed the nucleus of the little meetings that would take place every afternoon after training. Over the next two decades, their stories and insights helped shape a winning formula.
These stories were a mixture of searing insight of how to sustain success, and unashamed humour. When Liverpool progressed to the 1965 European Cup quarter final, they played the champions of Germany: FC Cologne. They played in Cologne and they drew. In the replay in Liverpool, they still could not be separated. They played a deciding game in the neutral venue of Rotterdam, where they remained deadlocked, even after extra time. After 400 minutes of football, the game was decided on the toss of a coin, which Shankly’s team won.
When they returned to England, three days later, they had to face Chelsea in the semi-final of the FA Cup. On the flight back, Shankly mentioned to his coaching staff that the players appeared spent. The fatigue hung over them, even whilst they sat in the dressing room before the game.
Shankly stood and looked at the team. He said, “Listen lads, I've got something here I didn’t want to show you in case it upsets you. But there’s nothing to lose now, so I might as well.” He removed from his pocket, a brightly coloured brochure and held it up. “This,” he growled, “is the leaflet that Chelsea have had printed for when they get to the final at Wembley.”
“They think that tonight is a formality, because they think you’re too knackered to win. They think you left everything on the field in Rotterdam. They think flying over there and playing the Germans took it out of you. That’s why they’ve printed up their brochure for when they get to Wembley. After the formality of brushing Liverpool aside.”
He paused, allowing his words to hang in the air, suspended like a cartoon anvil, whilst he looked into the eyes of his players.
“What do you think, lads, is it a formality?
“Can they brush you lot aside?
“Are you too knackered to win?
“Are you finished?”
“Each question felt like a punch,” recalled star striker Ian St. John. “With each one, the players began to get irritated, then annoyed, then furious.”
Shankly’s team went out and ran the legs off Chelsea, winning two-nil and progressing to the FA Cup Final.
After the match, Bill Shankly walked over to Chelsea’s manager, Tommy Docherty, to shake hands. Docherty described himself as “shell shocked”. I said, “Bill, how did they manage a performance like that? They just come back from playing against the German champions in Rotterdam. How come they’ve got so much energy?’
Shankly handed him the Chelsea Cup Final programme. He said, “There you are Tom, a little souvenir.”
Docherty looked at it and said, “What the fuck’s this?” He didn’t recognise it.
He didn’t recognise it because Chelsea hadn’t printed it.
Bill Shankly had just the one copy printed to show his team before the match.
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