Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Barefoot Coach - Paddy Upton

Paddy Upton was the mental conditioning coach and strategic leadership coach for the Indian cricket team when the team won the World Cup in 2011 - an interesting job description that caught my eye then. He was with Gary Kirsten who was the Chief Coach of the Indian team. Paddy worked with the Rajasthan Royals after that and one could see that he shared comfort with Rahul Dravid. Paddy has a PhD in Sports Science and is well-read and a seeker constantly pushing his own boundaries.

The Search for Meaning
The book begins where it should begin - when he was part of the South African team as a fitness coach in the Woolmer and Hansie Cronje era. He talks of the addictive life in the limelight but then he chucked it all up one day when he found no meaning there. Paddy is a big one for meaning - which is a wonderful thing. Then he takes off for a four-month trip of Asia, living in the cheapest places and traveling third class. Back in South Africa, a couple of failed businesses, and then a big twist. He worked with Linzi, a young journalist, and the street children in Cape Town for three years to bring the kids off the streets and into the mainstream. He tells a poignant story of how a young man with several dangerous crimes associated with him almost cut him up with a knife when he saw Paddy witnessing him stabbing his girlfriend - but then the boy breaks down and confesses. Paddy says it only happened because his own energy shifted from fear to love for the boy - and that shift transforms the energy between them. Beautiful story. The boy seeks help and meets a therapist and comes out of the situation. To me this was a bigger story than the Indian team winning the World Cup.

Surrender - Give up the need to succeed always
Paddy next talks of surrender, of finding the authentic part of ourselves. He gives the example of Gary Kirsten (when Gary was still a player) in a bad phase in his career and about to give up. That night he surrenders to God and next day plays an innings of a lifetime that prolongs his career by six years. Paddy feels that the search for the authentic Kirsten, the one who let go of the need to succeed, one who worried about failing was what did the trick. Gary was ok with himself as he was, even as a failure and that helped him win. There's a nice line by Paddy - that the person who is in good space is one who can receive praise fully and express gratitude in full proportion. Hmm!

Aims for TEAM India
Kirsten and Paddy head out to Mumbai to coach the Indian cricket team in March 2008 - stint that would end with the World Cup 2011. On the flight they make their aims - 1) Make India the No 1 Test side 2) Win the 2011 World Cup 3) Create a happy team environment and 4) Help players become better players. I think most coaches can take the last two in all teams. They both lacked coaching experience in their respective areas - why then did the Board pick them one wonders. But they are clear that their job is to learn, to practice a servant leadership model where the leader serves, be humble, stand back and focus on empowering and make the athlete accountable. The idea is to collaborate and to be athlete-centered. Fantastic. He quotes Leonard Cohen's song Anthem - Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in. Beautiful. (Leonard Cohen - Anthem)

Role modeling behavior, Building trust
The two coaches then figured their way along in a country full of paradoxes, armed with the best of intentions, a learning mindset, lots of preparation and good intent. They shared their ideas, got the team to share their feedback, role-modeled preparation. Slowly things changed as the team trusted them and their intent.

Play to strengths
Paddy talks about how one must play to their strengths. Excessive focus on weaknesses is what holds back the majority of the people. He cites the following formulae

 - Talent+Smart work = Strength
 -  Non-talent +smart work =learned skill

 - Strength+Regular application = Excellence
  - Learned skill+regular application = Good performance.

He talks of the 10000 hours to expertise theory but puts in a caveat - it only works for areas where one had natural-born talent. and has a learning mindset. Playing to strengths engages people 6x times on the job - so clearly fixing weakness is not a good idea to begin with.

India at war
Paddy makes an interesting comparison of the Indian cricket team and India's history at war - and makes the presentation to the team so they understand their history as a nation when it comes to war.  The characteristics deal with - home and away performance (we are lousy at away), attacking first (never did), fight back (good at that), handing back the advantage gained (most commonly done), susceptible to divide and conquer (we are), individualism (yes) and talk vs action (guilty). It's abroad understanding of the way we think but its brilliant because he helps them think and be aware of the history and how they may have to change a few things if they wanted different results. They create an acronym called TEAM India where T stands for Team first, E stands for Excellent entertainers, A stands for Attitude of winners and M stands for Mature individuals. Nice!

Question everything 
The coaches inculcated a culture of questioning everything - why should practice sessions be fixed and be the responsibility of the coaches? The answer - optional practice sessions where players take responsibility for their own time and game and what they want to practice on. The idea is wonderful - if you want the cricketers to be responsible and mature, treat them like they are. The coaches also empowered the players by treating them as experts in their own lines.

Enable the player to figure it out himself
There's a small example of how coaches at one level are best when not giving the ward advice and instead making the ward figure out thins for themselves - something straight out of Gallwey's method of being non-judgmental, focusing on the feelmage, quieting the chatter in Self 1 and trusting Self 2. - Gautam Gambhir is struggling to get his extra cover drive right. Sachin, Gary Kirsten, and Eric Simmons all have their inputs but nothing changes. And then Paddy tells him to figure out what he is doing whenever he is doing it right - and Gautam figures after a while that he had been looking at his shoes twice before hitting the ball and that was what helped him hit it exactly right. It's such an individual thing. Paddy says, as Gallwey does - don't give advise, ask questions, show videos of the player doing his thing - and the player will figure it out himself. Give them the end result and let them figure out their story. Reminds one of Eisenhower's quote - tell them what to do and not how to do it and they will surprise you. Coaches, listen!

Unconventional ideas, being transparent and building ownership
On fitness tests also the coaches had unconventional ideas. They told the players that they needed the players to be uninjured and to deliver their skill in order to be continually selected to play. Simple. Another example of trusting and empowering a senior players was when Rahul Dravid was undergoing a lean patch and no one knows what to do - Gary simply asks Rahul if he felt he was ready. Rahul said he was and will let Gary know if he wasn't and goes ahead and scores a hundred in that game. How many times don't we include the person concerned in the discussion!

Add some strength to the weak links
Another neat tactic used by Gary and Paddy with their team that had a strong batting line up and not so strong bowling was this - they got the bowlers to bat better with some extra batting and coaching. In a time when the average total of batsmen from 8-11 across the world was 43, the Indian team got their average up to 83 and gave themselves more runs to bowl against. Smart!

Values and humility
On values two stories stand out - one of Anil Kumble coming from Mumbai all the way to Chennai to attend a function that he had promised he would - the flight got canceled so he took the flight to Bangalore and drove six hours to be present. Kumble is brilliant at this - I heard other such stories too about him. Another when Ishant Sharma kicks the ball in frustration and Sachin tells him that the ball is what made him what he was and one must respect it. On being humble there's a story of Sachin who said that the most important lesson he learned was when his teammates told him after his early success as a sixteen year old that he could be a better player than them but he was acting as if he was more important than them/ Kept his ego in check after that.

Talk the walk (and then walk the talk)
The Coaches unveiled their World Cup strategy by first talking the walk - every meeting started with - When we play in the World Cup final in Mumbai on...I like the idea of talking the walk.

Focus and Concentration
There is an interesting chapter on focus (past, present and future, broad vs narrow, and internal vs external). Paddy also distinguishes between focus (which is about breadth) and concentration (which is about depth). He gives the WIN formula - what's important now! To focus Sehwag used to sing, Kallis would say "watch the ball" and Gary would say "Trust" as the ball is being delivered so the Self 1 mind is quietened. There is a formula A+B= C (A is your A game, B is all the things that you cannot control and C is Results).

Mental toughness and Gambhir
Paddy says there is no such thing as mental toughness. I guess that's open to debate. I liked the study that said one out of twenty corporate managers in the USA is a psychopath. Paddy I fully agree. Maybe more. Gautam Gambhir was one of the most insecure people he says. Interestingly Paddy worked on getting him to be positive until he realised it will not work. So he told Gambhir to accept his feelings and he was ok with it. That shifted things. Important lesson - accept what you cannot change and it changes. All said and done - to me it was Gambhir and Kohli who shifted the balance in 2011 - Gambhir specially who in my opinion should have hit the winning shot if he did not get carried away.

Dealing with failure
Paddy talks about dealing with failures and asserts that everyone fails. He gives the example of Team Hoyt and says don't give up when you fail. (I feel one should never give up when you are down, always leave when you are on a high. Come back, stay on top and then resign.) If you lose Paddy's mantra was - behave normally, focus on what worked, be responsible, plan to improve, be fully present.

Mike Horn's immense wisdom
Perhaps the most impactful thing about the book was when Mike Horn comes on. He is an explorer and adventurer who swam 7000 kms fo the Amazon, walked to the North Pole in winter, circumnavigated the earth around the equator and climbed four 8000 meter peaks without supplementary oxygen. He has a lovely TED talk which I watched after I read this book.

Horn says that to achieve complex things he kept his life simple. His definition of commitment is that you will only win if your will to win is bigger than your fear of losing. (It makes immense sense when you are between life and death - a situation he must be highly familiar with on a moment to moment basis in his chosen way of living life.) One needs to bring that kind of intensity to the big moment.

You are where you are, he said. because you can deliver, don't doubt yourself. When everything is dark focus on what you can do. He says how he sees the degree of difficulty and then assesses his strengths and tries to improve out his weak areas. In moments of crisis he says its not about doing it 20 times but about doing it the first time.

Horn spoke of his preparation - of how he uses his imagination - photos, videos, feel, sense, temperature, sound, and lives the experience several times before he actually undergoes it. Before being in an unknown situation he says, feel it, sense it, take your best moment with you.

To the Indian team he said - play a bigger role. Play as a team - use the expectations of a billion people for you. He tells that he does not use supplementary oxygen when he climbs 8000 metre mountains because he feels that is cheating the mountain. A classic line - he tells that in a true team the pressure gets offloaded and distributed amongst everyone.

After Horn left the team changed their talk from "playing the final" to "winning the final". Paddy's final speech to the team was short - it's like a Bollywood movie, we know our scripts, go and win it. And they won. (Mike Horn TEDx Pearl River)

Using collective intelligence
Paddy is a big one for using the collective intelligence available. When working with Rajasthan Royals Paddy says he needs no excessive support staff because he would use the collective intelligence of the team and that he does.

Horn again
Mike Horn comes back in the chapter when the South African team is led by him on a few days of mountain climbing and other stuff. Another gem form him - if the dream does not scare you, it's not big enough. Another one - don't be obsessed with the result that it actually works against the desired result. South Africa badly needs to understand that.

The Greatness of the Greats
Paddy ends with a nice note on how Madiba Nelson Mandela almost ruined a precious photo of Paddy and him while signing on it by dropping some ink on it and before he realised it, Madiba wiped away the ink with his sleeve so it does not spoil the photo.

It's a fine book with a lot of fine points. Paddy is a seeker and will always remain one. His coaching career is still midway so perhaps he will write another one much later. 'The Barefoot Coach' is filled with stories and examples, and showcases his attitude, honesty and keenness to share his craft generously. Though I had some problems with the flow (more because I found the content extremely good), I strongly recommend it to all coaches - sports and executive. There is much to learn here. I am also waiting for the next one, ten years later. Thanks Vijay Lokapally for suggesting this book.

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