Managing Team Energy


On Tuesday England drew with Montenegro in a workd cup qualifier.   Having dominated for much of the first half, leading 1-0 at half time, they were left scrambling to hold on for a 1-1 draw by the end.

The make up of the England starting line-up included five players from Manchester United, three from Manchester City, two from Liverpool and one from Chelsea.

Under Roy Hodgson this is not the first time the England team have started well and then struggled in the second half. This might be seen as surprising, given that nearly half the team was from Manchester United, with their reputation for coming good late in matches.  Some time ago in Never Know When You’re Beaten! the point was made that Manchester United because they have this attitude on numerous occasions have scored the winning goal late in games.  So why should this England side have developed a habit of fading.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, quoted this week as saying that England should play more like a club side, pointed out that where players are familiar with each other cohesion in the way they play will come easier.  However, he also pointed out that the confidence that teams thrive on is also fragile.  “… it takes very little to destabilize a team.  You can play very well for 30 minutes but then one player loses one ball where he should not do and the opponent has a goal chance.”

FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), as discussed last week, has a destructive impact on performance and, as Wenger observed, occurs at the team level not just with individual performances.  Confidence, the counter to doubt, is a fragile thing (more for some than others) and needs to be fostered,

The same is true of team energy.  The dynamics of the relationships between players are complex but an important factor.  Teams that have been together and are comfortable together develop their own culture and habits.  Rituals that they develop reinforce the culture.  As the playing season goes on getting out of a bad run of form is extremely difficult.  Just like winning teams develop winning habits so do losing teams.

However, in team performances, like England’s last week, it is relatively easy to start with high level of energy but managing the momentum over ninety minutes is more difficult.  Energy will ebb and flow to a certain extent but to be able to pick it up after a brief respite, without any damage to the team performance is the mark of good teams.

In failing change programmes, teams are beset by a culture of failure.  The typical consultancy approach is one of replacement.  However, stats in the premier league football would indicate that replacing the manager of a relegation threatened team rarely succeeds.  There is clearly a need for action but what?

Team culture plays a crucial part in performance, as does ensuring team members have a clear vision of how what they need to do to execute a winning performance.  Building a habit of winning, or success is critical to high performing teams. One of the (several) reasons for large work programmes failing is that delivery is remote, given the time it takes to deliver, so in large change programmes small and early wins need to be engineered into the plan and then celebrated when they’re achieved.  Of course, taking the England analogy, there needs to then be a time to re-focus on the next milestone or phase of the programme.


The impact of FUD, or what do you do when you choke?


We’ve all seen it in sport – that momentary shift in a match and then the choke. As John McEnroe said: “We all choke, winners know how to handle choking better than losers.”

In 1984 McEnroe stood on the verge of winning the French Open, two sets up against Lendl, yet lost in five. Years later he commented on his outburst early in the third set, which was followed by his collapse, describing letting his opponent know of his uncertainty.  Up to that point McEnroe had not lost a competitive match all year, so why this uncertainty, or doubt?

It shows what a fragile thing confidence is.  The odd mistake, or rejection can hit us and suddenly performance is impacted.  It goes for all of us, though, as McEnroe stated, some people handle it better than others.

There has been limited studies on the impact of doubt on performance, yet it is probably one of the major elements impacting performance in a whole range of contexts.

What often happens is that we hit a poor shot, so for example in golf we end up in a really poor lie.  Then the regret starts, the perception that it is a bad day and it becomes a reflection on us personally. In a work context there are numerous ways in which doubt can occur, whether we fail to meet a target, get a sale, get criticised by our boss or colleagues, or something we’re working on just doesn’t work out in the way that we wanted.

One perspective is to look at dealing with doubt before it even occurs. One of the comments made about Tiger Woods is that when he hits a poor shot, leaving him in a difficult lie, that he sees it as a challenge to demonstrate his ability in getting out of the situation.

Of course, for the golfer or tennis player the goal is simple and feedback is straightforward.  However, doubt in our capability can still occur.  As work, in the main, is much more collaborative, then looking for accurate feedback on our capability should help us get a grip on where we are.  Ensuring that we are clear on our goals should help us see difficult situations as challenges that exercise us, rather than something to back off from.

By the way, for those who don’t know – FUD stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Nadal’s Mental Strength and Preparation Pay Off


Well, having mentioned Rafa in the last post, only a couple of days back, it’s worth bringing everyone’s attention to his astonishing victory on Sunday in the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells. 

Whatever you might think of Rafa, no other player in the current era could have achieved this.  Rafa had not played competitively from his second round loss at Wimbledon last year until last month.  He eased himself in with tournaments on his favoured clay in South America.  However, here he was back on hard courts, with all the top players present.

He beat Federer in the quarters and Berdych in the semis.  Meanwhile in the other half of the draw Del Potro removed both Murray and Djokovic in phenomenal displays of  aggressive hitting, particularly on the forehand side.

In the final, despite an early lapse, Del Potro hit his stride and took control, winning the first set and going a break up.  But as I mentioned in the last post, the very best do not panic and by sheer strength of will (plus some very good tennis) Nadal pulled himself back into the match and went on to win in three sets.

For most players, however good, getting back into their stride after a long lay-off takes time.  Nadal’s mental strength and preparation meant he came back strong, getting to the final of his first tournament and subsequently winning tournaments on clay and now on hard courts.


Practicing mental skills at work…


In top level tennis the difference between winning and losing between any of the top five or six players in the world is largely mental.  They have all honed their skills with many hours on the practice court and many years experience playing matches.  In the men’s game all the top players have phenomenal self-belief, though even that can be fragile.  They all have the technical tools to play at the highest level but have developed mental approaches that vary.

It would be unfortunate to go out to compete or work with self-belief but crash and burn because we lack the technical ability.  There are no lucky successful attempts by untrained mountaineers on the North Face of the Eiger, whatever one’s level of self-belief (or folly) such a venture will likely end in death or hospitalisation.

We need to develop the relevant technical skills to whatever role we fill, or venture we undertake, whether in a work or sporting context and these skills need to be practiced. Once developed, just as in the sporting context, mental skills are also important but how do we develop them and practice them?

It needs to be pointed out that practice, like performance, needs preparation and that requires time, which we often feel we don’t have.  Make time to practice and your performance will benefit.

So, what are the skills we need to practice?

We’ll look at three areas which are inter-related and outline how they might be practiced, which are:

  • Attitude
  • Goals and vision
  • Energy

1.  Attitude

One of the sayings that I use frequently is that ‘while we can not always control what happens to us we can choose our attitude’.  So we can choose how we respond to circumstances.  Much like the tennis player who is beaten by a phenomenal winner we can blame ourselves or acknowledge the skill of the other player and recognise that it is only one point in a game of many.  Of course, a common response when that happens, or we make a mistake, is the negative self talk that emerges.

In a work context these issues invariably relate to our dealings with other people, whether peers, those who we work for, or those we manage.  We can prepare for our interaction, both at the start of the day and at intervals during the day.  At times we will be aware of the potential impact on us ahead of time, at others it will hit us.  In the former we can think through how we might react, including how we might feel and subsequently reflect on what actually happened.  In the latter it is slightly more complex.

2. Goals and Vision

Rafael Nadal has a very deliberate routine prior to matches, some of which we see when he comes out on court, placing equipment, drink bottles, etc, very deliberately.  However, what we don’t see is what happens prior to his appearance on court.  One exercise that he reputedly goes through when he is playing on a court for the first time is to go through the walk from changing room to court earlier in the day, actually taking the walk and then getting a feel for the court itself.  Where he is familiar with the court he will spend time visualising the time from changing room right through to practice and starting to play the match, as well as working through a mental plan of how he wants the match to go.  Of course when it doesn’t go his way he stays in the moment and, like all top players, doesn’t panic and works through what he needs to do to win.  Hence when being hit off the court by Federer, as he was at the start of the Frnech Open in 2011, or the Australian Open in 2012, he is able to respond.  Similarly, skiers will mentally visualise the run they are going to make ahead of a race, going through every turn and bump from start to finish.  While our interaction with work colleagues may be a little more complex, if we work through how we want it to go and reflect on the actual events we can improve over time.

Being able to take time out to think through your goals at the start of the day, or before a meeting and visualising how you will achieve them will improve the way you work.  Then take time out after to reflect on what actually happened and how you can continue to improve.

3. Energy

Energy is not limitless, while we may not be running during the working day, we do expend mental and emotional energy.  If we fall into the trap of negative self-talk following a mistake or incident our energy and motivation levels drop.

Mental energy is dependent on our exercising it.  Like our muscles practice improves resilience.

Spend time not only practicing being present but also being self aware – how are you feeling, are you feeling drained or invigorated?  Recognise when it’s time to take a time-out and do it, it might be macho to keep going but it hinders performance and the quality of decision making.

In all these areas it is important to recognise that change takes time, practice with the aim of improving but don’t expect dramatic improvements immediately.


Goals Provide a Focus for Energy…


So football, for those on the west side of the Atlantic, is an 11 against 11 game, without body armour, or time-outs, over 90 minutes.  However, it does compare with theatre in terms of some of the dramatic, almost oscar winning performances of the occasional player when physical contact occurs.

Last week we witnessed a moment of comic tragedy, when Manchester United played Real Madrid in the second leg of their last 16 Champions League tie at the Theatre of Dreams (Old Trafford, Manchester).  For 55 minutes Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s manager, seemed to have got his tactics spot on.  With a slender advantage, having held Real to a 1-1 draw in Spain, they needed to win or draw 0-0 to go through.  In fact by that stage they were 1-0 up and in defending well kept Real Madrid at bay.


The  match was transformed by the decision of the referee to send off Nani, following his attempt to control the ball in the air led to contact with Real player Arbeloa.  Nani was watching the ball and couldn’t have been aware of the presence of Arbeloa until the last minute.  However, contact seemed minimal, if high, though from his reaction you’d have thought Arbeloa had been shot!

Cue the referee showing the red card.  A change of tactics from Real Madrid and a clearly rattled United side saw the game changed over a ten minute period when Real took advantage, scoring twice to go through.  However, what has received little coverage was the way United responded in adversity.  Some time ago we talked about not giving up (Never Know When You’re Beaten, 13 December) and United responded superbly over the last twenty minutes.  Their goal had been crystalised into needing to score twice to go through.  Despite the numerical disadvantage of being a man sort they rallied and only a series of fine saves from Real’s stand in goalkeeper, Diego Lopez, kept them in the tie.

There are a couple of lessons here.

  • Clear goals focus energy and this is not only true at the individual level but is essential for a team.
  • Don’t always judge on outcomes, the right performance may not always produce the outcome you expect but you should always be looking to improve on the performance.