The Value of the Locker Room Break

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Another stunning Wimbledon final, with Roger Federer falling short. He had won five successive games from 5-2 down in the fourth set, saving match points to level the match and look stronger at the start of the fifth. So how did Djokovic pull it out of the bag?

In the 2012 US Open final Djokovic had come from two sets down to level the match before losing the decider to Murray. Murray had taken a toilet break at the end of the fourth and has said that he looked himself in the mirror and was determined to give it his all in the fifth and ended up winning the decider 6-2. So what was Djokovic’s story as he to took a toilet break having just lost the fourth set?

It’s not unusual for players to take a toilet break at key moments. In warm weather, out on court it is unlikely that they have the physiological need but it does give them more time to collect their thoughts, or perhaps to disrupt the rhythm of the player with the momentum. Djokovic was asked later whether he had, like Murray, looked himself in the mirror but his response was that he spent plenty of time looking at the toilet! What he went on to say was revealing though. He said that he was determined not to let Roger see how he was feeling and to be sure that he puffed his chest out and held his shoulders up. He clearly felt wretched, not surprising having lost five games in a row and lost match points. However, what he was doing provided the platform for him to get back into the match and go on and win.

It is often said that our psychology affects out physiology, i.e. our body language betrays how we feel, however, it has been shown that it also works the other way – our physiology can affect our psychology. Indeed this was one of the factors that helped Djokovic – holding his posture, being determined not to let Federer see how he must have felt at the start of the fifth set will have affected Djokovic’s mind positively and helped him get back. This can help us also, as we prepare for difficult meetings or might not be feeling great about ourselves at work, changing our minds can start with changing the way we hold ourselves.

Plans change…

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But you still need to plan to succeed.

It’s still relatively early in the year for the plans of some elite athletes, tennis players & road cyclists plan on a calendar year basis, but for some plans have already been amended.

Earlier this year the weather has caused problems and not just in Britain. In Italy the first major spring classic, the Milan – San Remo one-day race, had the course amended due to adverse weather as a result of the adverse conditions.  Consequently, the nature of the course was changed, with the removal of a 5km climb. As this made it a more sprinter friendly course both Mark Cavendish and Andre Greippel changed their schedule to compete. Subsequently, it was won by the Norwegian, Alexander Kristoff, with Cavendish coming in fifth. As Cavendish pointed out prior to the race, Milan-San Remo is one of the easiest to complete but the hardest to win. Without the change in schedule, of course, he wouldn’t even have been in with a chance of winning.

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Recently, in tennis, Roger Federer had clearly not planned to play in the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 tournament but changed his plans, asking for a wild card late in the day. He beat Djokovic on the way to losing in the final to his compatriot, Stan Wawrinka. His change may have been a motivated by any of a number of factors – feeling he did not need to rest at this point, given he was playing well, it may give him extra clay court time ahead of the French Open, as well as him feeling that he had a genuine chance of winning a tournament he has only ever got to the final of. On the other hand, given his wife, Mirka, is expecting their third child, it may have been an opportunity to add points to his ranking, given he may miss other scheduled tournaments, so giving him a platform to keep him up in the top four, where he is back after a good start to the year. Whatever the reason, again without the change he wouldn’t have had that chance.

In my day job I occasionally come across project managers who are reluctant to plan, or publish their plans because they know they will change.  A shortsighted approach, change happens but this shouldn’t stop us planning to achieve.  Change initiatives need a plan to succeed and the plan needs actively managing and communicating.  Similarly, where we want to improve performance a plan gives something to measure our progress against.

What’s luck got to do with it?

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At the beginning of this week David Moyes, the Manchester United manager, was quoted as saying that his team needed their luck to change to turn their season around.

This has been the worst start to a season for United for many a year, they have lost eight times this season in the league, as well as having been knocked out of the FA Cup and the League Cup and are over 20 points behind where they were at the same point last season with largely the same squad of players.

Sir Alex Ferguson occasionally talked about getting a little bit of luck in a season and often complained about incidents in a similar vein.  However, they were likely to be individual incidents that he saw as being outside of his and his teams’ control, like the sending off of Nani in last seasons Champions League quarter final, that was clearly a game changer. Once it was done he, and the team, moved on.

In contrast Moyes would seem to be scrambling for excuses in his plight.  After all sport is a game of luck, as Ben Hogan famously said: “golf is a game of luck, the more I practice the luckier I get”.  In football terms its clear that at United under Ferguson there was both a phenomenal work ethic and a never say die attitude.  While the former may still be true under Moyes, the urgency that Ferguson instilled in his team when they were behind, or drawing and needed a win was legendary.  Last season there were numerous occasions that they scored in the latter stages of a game.  In sharp contrast United have conceded in the last five minutes five times this season to drop points, as follows:

·       October – Southampton equalized in the 89th minute

·       November – Cardiff equalized in the 90th minute

·       December – Everton scored the winner in the 86th minute

·       January – Swansea scored the winner in the 90th minute

·       February – Fulham equalized in the 90th minute

These were all games that United would have considered they should have won.  Under Ferguson the occasional blip occurred but there was always a reaction, this has not happened under Moyes and the philosophy of throwing everything at opponents in the last 15-20 minutes seems to have gone out of the window.  There is undoubtedly a lower level of confidence in the team but are Moyes’ recent comments likely to anything to change that?

The urgency that Ferguson instilled meant that these types of events were rare and in moving on he focused on the things that he and his players could control.  Sure there are things that we can’t control that may trip us up but it’s the way we react to those that determines how we perform going forward.  For Ferguson they were put behind him and he and his team moved on.  Moyes’ focus seems to be dwelling on things that are outside his control – which is unhelpful for both him and his players.

There are things that we can and can’t control that affect us all, it is pointless dwelling on those that we can’t control, as these are likely to sap our energy.

The Edberg Effect…

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The Australian Open has seen some great matches and some interesting developments.  Following Murray winning two slams with Lendl in his team, Djokovic has taken on Becker and Federer has hired Edberg.

Thus far Djokovic fell earlier than expected and Federer, while getting to the same point as last year fell in straight sets to Nadal.  At 32 Federer taking on Edberg is indicative that he is still looking to improve and in one interview was quoted as saying that he still expected another big thing around the corner.  Is it blind ambition, not recognizing that advancing years are limiting his ability to deliver wins against the very best, or can he really win another slam?

I have my doubts that he can maintain the levels of mental and physical energy required to win seven matches over two weeks that is required to win a slam, however, the hiring of Edberg has helped in a number of ways.

Edberg won all four junior grand slam events in 1983 and Olympic tennis gold when it was an exhibition event for under 21s in 1984, illustrating his potential as future slam winner.  While he won his first two slams in Australia in December 85 and January 87, it was at a time the Australian was seen of lesser importance than the other three (which led to the change from end of year to start of year).  Edberg was seen as mentally suspect by some, Becker for one voiced it prior to Edberg beating him at Wimbledon in 1988 (ironically against Becker).

One of the things that changed with Edberg in the late 80s was his body language (physiology influencing psychology perhaps).  Watching Edberg immediately after the conclusion of a point it was often impossible to tell whether he had won or lost it.   It is a classic way of managing your mental energy and staying present.  Top players use a number of techniques, having routines between points to ensure that they tune out of the last point and focus on the next.  In recent years the current golden generation of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, were all good at this, other than Murray, until he took on Lendl.  Murray could, at times, be seen to get distracted when things were not going, something that has improved since he’s worked with Lendl.  It was something that seemed to be impacting Federer last year, his worst year since he came to prominence over a decade ago. I believe this was something that led to Federer not being effective in staying present.  So what is the benefit of Edberg to Federer?

1   While Federer may have been beaten by Nadal in straight sets in the semis, it was a Nadal playing out of his skin.  Federer did not play badly.  Indeed Federer played some of his best tennis for some time (he maintained ever but I’m not sure about that), in getting to the semis, beating Tsonga and Murray on the way.

2.     Edberg’s experience of changing his demeanour to enable him to focus more effectively and stay present would have been a valuable help to Federer, given his problems last year to enable him to get back on track mentally.

3.     Reminding Federer that his natural attacking instincts have repeatedly reaped rewards, from somebody who has won in every major arena other than Roland Garros provides a level of support that may well have provided additional psychological help – Edberg got to the final at Roland Garros playing serve and volley, even if he didn’t win.

Having the right support is critical and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the tennis year pans out.

It’s that mental thing … it’s easier when you’re having fun and you find your passion!

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Over the last week I’ve seen a couple of interviews by leading sportsmen where the issue of the importance of the mental game and strength of mind has come up.  In a Ski Sunday piece, extreme freeride skier Candide Thovex said “ a lot of sport is in the mind, the mental is the most important. I’ve lernt that through the years in terms of contests and recovery … you have to stay positive and be really patient.”  He went on in discussing recovering from a career threatening back break to say, when faced with the long haul to get back to performing, to say:  “You have fun for yourself, one turn is a good sensation, in the long run you have a lot of good sensations.” And when asked about how long he might continue in such a demanding sport he said: “I’m having fun and it’s a real passion for me …. It’s a lot in the mental too.”

 cav_champselysee7In Hardtalk on the BBC a week ago, when Stephen Sackur interviewed Mark Cavendish, his opening question was: “What’s been more important in your cycling career – strength of body or strength of mind?:

Cavendish’s answer: “For sure, strength of mind, physically I’m actually not that good, if you look at lab tests and that, growing up I was actually told I wasn’t very good and it was my will to win that got me winning and it was my love for cycling that kept me riding.”

Neither of these are particularly surprising, however both have three things in common:

  1. The mental element of sport is far more important than the physical, to the extent that Cavendish talks about his physiological unsuitability for cycling that he has had to overcome.
  2. Thovex talks about having fun
  3. He goes on to say that his sport is a real passion, while Cavendish encompasses both in describing his “love of cycling” as a key motivator.

There are increasing numbers of publications that discuss the mental elements of sport, as there are self-help books that a targeted at helping us overcome obstacles to performance in our lives.  However, rarely do they express the cornerstones of performance in terms of “having fun” and only occasionally does “passion” get a significant mention.  Yet when we are having fun and taking part in something that is our passion we are far more likely to be in ‘flow’ – a term that was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and describes a state of complete absorption which invariably results in optimal performance – doubt and uncertainty (key performance inhibitors) are absent.

I recnetly decided to move from working for myself to joining an established consulting firm that was engaged in the same type of work.  While it was important that the firm I have decided to join is involved in work that I am technically equipped to do, a key decision factor was in repeated conversations with one of the senior management team the use of the term ‘fun’ being used.  We’re aiming to develop a business and it’s capability further but at the same time, amidst the challenges, we aim to have fun.

Similarly, elite athletes cannot compete at the highest level without the requisite technical skills but they’re unlikely to perform at their best if they don’t love what they’re doing.

That Flimsy Little Thing Called Confidence …

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So lots of attention has gone on Manchester United in recent weeks, having changed manager, CEO and gone from runaway title winners last season to an average mid table team this term.  So what has changed?

After back to back home losses in the Premier League, United defender Jonny Evans said “The lads have lost a bit of confidence. You can tell that with the possession and creativity.  Players maybe are not playing how they naturally would. That happens when your confidence drops.”

It certainly does, ask Roger Federer.

Lack of confidence can beset just about anyone.  At times, Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, has undoubtedly lost confidence, most notably this year where he suffered earlier than expected losses at Wimbledon (2r) and the US Open (4r), with a post Wimbledon slump while testing a potential new racket in Europe.

Federer’s lack of confidence against the other members of this golden generation (Nadal & Djokovic) have seen him at times try and go for winners too early, leading to his normally stellar forehand become error strewn.

Why is it that top athletes can be troubled by such a lack of confidence in their own ability?  After all the United team is largely the same as that which won the Premier League at a canter last season and Federer has won just about everything there is to play for in tennis.

A quote in a recent interview with Federer is revealing: “By the end, everyone around me was talking positively again, the mood was much better than in the summer. That boosts my morale for the coming year, and it’s a big relief. The fun has definitely returned.”

So clearly while things were not going well earlier in the year it would seem, by implication, that there were negative vibes coming from Federer’s support team.  Additionally, it would seem tennis, his enjoyment of competing he often cites as motivation for continuing to play at 32, had ceased to be the fun that it was.

We all make mistakes, have bad days, losses, etc. but how we react to them determines our future performance.  In a team or group context how we react to other people’s mistakes or low points can also impact their performance.

One characteristic I observed of Federer in the World Tour Finals in November was that he was failing to stay present.  In matches against Djokovic and Nadal in particular, he resorted to berating himself and clearly unhappy.

A clear sign of lack of confidence and doubt in one’s own ability, for Federer it was ominous but if those around him are now reacting more positively his recent declaration that he still has goals in tennis might yet mean that 2014 might be a better year for him than 2013!

Process – Performance – Outcome…

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Tis’ the season for managerial sackings in football, combined with more doubts raised over David Moyes as manager of Manchester United following the defeat at home to Everton in the week and an insipid performance in losing to Newcastle today.  While the powers that be stated that Moyes was the right man for the job and that he will be given time, it is highly unlikely that he will be given the time that Ferguson was given before his first trophy win.  Indeed the manner of performances that the United squad, which won the title with ease last season, has put in would suggest that his period of grace is rapidly getting shorter.

The focus in football has become increasingly short term over the last 20 years, closely paralleled by that in the commercial world. With Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Arsene Wenger stands out as remarkable as a long serving manager.  In the corporate world the average length of tenure at CXO level has also decreased over the same period.

The focus is of course on results so why the ‘process, performance, outcome’ heading?

In sports psychology it has long been a mantra used to enable elite athletes to think of how they can achieve their targeted outcomes or results.  It enables a performer to work back from the outcome to focus on what they need to do in the present.

  • Outcome or result – what do you want to achieve?
  • What performance is needed to achieve the outcome?
  • What processes do you need to go through to achieve that performance?

The result is not something that is achieved in the present but is a consequence of the processes and subsequent performance.  This is equally true in the work environment.

Too much of a focus on results can end up with a number of negative impacts:

  • too much pressure on players and the possible creation of a FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) mentality
  • takes players out of the present and impairing performance

In looking at most of Manchester United’s performances this season there is a sense that the urgency has gone out of the game, not just the ‘never say die’ attitude at the end of games when they are looking for a win, but during the game they are often second to the ball when they shouldn’t be.  The fluency has gone out of their passing and they rarely dominate possession.

On the other hand, Roberto Martinez at Everton has done focused his team on the process and performance, getting his side to play a competitive passing game that has seen them able to challenge the best teams in the Premier League and, in beating United, achieve at the first time of asking what David Moyes failed to do in over a decade as Everton manager.

In a commercial context, I have often seen organisations focus on financial results without attention to the service or product they provide and the process and performance needed to do that with quality.  The upshot is invariably a reduction in value, or failure, of the organization, the exact opposite of the desired outcome.  Whether in a bank or hospital the focus needs to be on the service provided and the what processes are needed to perform this.

Authentic Leaders Care…

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With the release this week of the film ‘The Class of ‘92’, about six of Manchester United’s youngsters who achieved amazing success on the football pitch.  The six, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville and Nicky Butt, all became household names during the nineties, winning an unprecedented treble in 99.

Despite their fame, quotes from the six reveal a down to earth element but also between each other and from their manager, a level of care that might be surprising but which, I believe is vital to team success.

Quotes include: “It was just six young lads who were enjoying life … We were just playing a game of football with our mates”.

Their thinking of one another came from the man that managed them through that period, whose focus was on team success not personal glory, as Phil Neville says:  “There was a team ethic, there was no I in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. It was team before everything else. It was we before me. That was what was driven into us.  When we were in the youth team, if you could pass to someone who was in a better position to score a goal, even if you were on a hat-trick, you had to pass that ball. It was not about personal glory. The minute you started thinking for yourself, being a little bit selfish, you would be out of the door. We have seen that over the years.”

Ferguson, as we have commented before, was unusual and it rubbed off on his charges, Paul Scholes: A lot of managers now won’t know who the youth team players are, won’t know their names.

“We had Sir Alex Ferguson, he knew who every one of us was from day one. He used to come and watch training on Monday and Thursday night. They don’t have to do that, it is not part of their job. I can’t see many managers today doing that. Sir Alex knew our parents, he would speak to them regularly on the phone. I just don’t think that happens these days.” (Phil Neville).

David Beckham also said in the trailer to the film: “There was not one piece of jealousy between any of us. We all had each others back.”

They had both a unity of purpose together with a care for other members of the team, both essential to high performing teams.  Despite this kind of high profile example, it is not always the case in both the sporting and working worlds.

Some years ago I had been handed a failing programme at a leading bank and we turned it round. Having overseen the turn round I decided to move on.  One of the young technologists working on the team was clearly disconcerted and when asked why he told me that he was worried about who might take over running the team.  His experience of working at this particular bank had been of one where managers focused on managing up and not talking to or engaging with their team members.  His measure of my care for the team was that I spoke to him every day, including greeting him first and last thing.  It seemed that such common courtesy was actually unusual in this environment yet such small things display authenticity, critical to engaging teams.

“If you want to be a leader, you have to be a real human being.” – Peter Senge (Presence)

Why do we bother with Sporting Analogies?

When I started this blog, it was initially at the prompt of one of my kids, who thought I should share some of my sporting (and particularly tennis) knowledge – he has a somewhat rosy view of my sporting knowledge!

The last phase of my career started as a result of my selling the idea of coaching a failing team to a client, who had a particularly thorny problem of a failing change programme, which, as he described it, had lost eight of it’s nine lives, and just about anything that could have gone wrong had done!

As it happened, the combination of inner game coaching and, as I later discovered, a form of action learning exceeded both my and the clients’ expectations in turning around the programme, in the process of which a set of dysfunctional groups across a number of locations were transformed into a cohesive team, which delivered to plan and under budget.  The approach has since been refined and used in a number of contexts, principally in financial services.

While action learning initially came from an academic context, the inner game coaching model was first articulated by Gallwey in the context of tennis.  However, there is plenty of common ground and there are other approaches to change which have similar characteristics, notably Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

In the latest of Gallwey’s Inner Game books, The Inner Game of Stress he says “while I was helping tennis players learn to improve their forehands, backhands and serves, I was really helping them learn how to perform more effectively on the inside. Learning to learn was more important than hitting the ball in court; learning to overcome fear was more important than winning any given match…. Thus the lessons from sport became fundamental in life.”

Reg Revans, who coined the term ‘action learning’, said Learning-by-doing’ is an insufficient description of what I have been on about these last twenty-five years; it is rather ‘Learning to learn-by-doing with and from others who are also learning to learn-by-doing.

The similarities between the two can be seen from the above quotes, while one of the principal distinctions is that Gallwey focuses on learning from an individual perspective and action learning is about learning together to solve problems. Hence when I sold the piece of work over a decade ago based on a sporting analogy and the former, it was the latter that was at least as relevant.

In sport, whether individual or team sport, improving performance is about overcoming the problems or challenges presented.  This is also true of work – we can pitch up and do the same old job, however, if we are not challenged, it is likely that our performance will decline.  Sport can be useful for some in that it provides a connection or point of engagement for their performance in a work context.  However, good we get at an activity there is always the potential to learn and improve.

Federer’s Losing It – Because He’s Failing to Stay Present!

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Well, for some time folks have been writing off the legendary Swiss, yet he’s still battling the sands of time.

McEnroe once said it wasn’t the physical elements that were the major problem as you got older but the ability to maintain concentration.  Henman, on the BBC last week disputed this, saying that it shouldn’t be a problem, even for Federer to get up for the ATP Tour Finals.  The problem here, however, is that ability to maintain focus is, like any other, something that needs to be practiced and once you start to lose it, it can be habit forming.

The signs are now increasingly ominous for Federer, while Nadal has a far superior head to head record against him (22-10), Federer had never lost to Nadal indoors before yesterday.  That has now gone.

However, while there have been occasional signs of Federer being a tad slower, the lapses have been far greater.  In the last week he’s continued to play some outstanding tennis but the unforced error count has been high.  More telling has been the muttering when things are not going well.  Something that I believe plagued Andy Murray, until Lendl became his coach (it still emerges occasionally) was something that never occurred with Federer.  A mistake or a winner from his opponent and he just got on with the next point, almost with Borg-like serenity at times.

This trait is something that Gallwey, in the Inner Game of Tennis, talks about as a major inhibitor of performance and is often common amongst club players and lesser competitors but rarely seen at the very highest levels of elite sport.  Staying focused on the present, playing point by point, is what makes Nadal and Djokovic exceptional as the top two players in the world currently.  Federer may have another year in him at the top physically but mentally he needs to get back to being able to stay present.