Monday, 8 May 2017

When Practice makes Imperfect

As a client of mine sat down in my office, it was obvious that he was frustrated about something. He was a very keen amateur golfer who desperately wanted to improve his handicap but wasn’t making the progress he wanted to make. “I work so hard on my golf”, he sighed, “Every spare minute I have, I am down the driving range hitting ball after ball. Sometimes I am there for 3 or 4 hours. On a good day, I can get through about 500 balls. And yet, I just don’t get any better.” He looked at me and frowned, “In fact, if anything, I’m actually playing worse than I was when I didn’t practise so hard”.

He reminded me of a time I was working with another golfer client at the driving range of his course. A man was walking past us, with 2 full baskets of balls, towards a bay a bit further up from where we were standing, when his mobile went off. All eyes turned to him as he fumbled for his phone to answer it. He obviously wasn’t where he was supposed to be because he started saying “I’m in the car,” and then pleaded, “No, I’m not at the golf club. I’m on my way. I be back in 5 minutes.” He then hung up and looked at his phone then looked at his baskets of balls and then back to his phone again as if weighing up what to do next. He then spurred himself into action, poured all of his balls into the automatic dispenser, pulled out his driver and proceeded to whack one ball after another as quickly as he possibly could. The balls went everywhere apart from where he seemed to be aiming. He appeared to become more tense and frustrated with each swing that he made as he watched the balls hooking left, slicing right and, on one occasion somehow, after a loud clatter, actually ending up 5 yards behind him.

There is an often used saying that “practice makes perfect”, which implies that the mere process of practising will make you a better performer at any task or sport. And yet it would be hard to think that this golfer would gain anything from just spraying shots all over the place. What he probably didn’t consider, however, is that practice would undoubtedly have been making him worse. He was actually learning how to hit a ball badly. If you want to make practice effective, quality will always be better than quantity. Instead of hitting 100 balls very quickly, he would have gained far more by just hitting 5 with full concentration.

This is effectively what I told my client. I told him that next time he should get a maximum of 30 balls and for each shot he played, to play it as if it was a real shot on a course. That meant choosing a precise target, pulling the club out of the bag (each time) and going through his full pre-shot routine before playing the shot. Then I wanted him to take a break of a minute before going on to the next shot. This had the effect of getting him into the idea of quality practice. Two weeks later, he came back to see me. A broad grin appeared on his face as he described how his game had transformed and how he’d beaten his best round of golf by 3 shots only 2 days earlier. This is because he had been teaching himself how to play quality golf and it had, over the two weeks, become a habit.

The great Gary Player famously coined the phrase, “The more I practise, the luckier I get”. What he probably should have said was “The more I practise “with purpose”, the luckier I get”. 

Andy Barton
Performance Coach

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mourinho’s strength has become his weakness

When Jose Mourinho first joined Chelsea under the fanfare of the most unlikely of Champions League wins with Oporto, he would have felt fully justified in referring to himself as the “Special One”. His managerial record had been incredible up to that point, having won 6 trophies in just 2 years and very soon he was wielding the same kind of magic for Chelsea before later doing, arguably, even great things with Inter Milan, with whom he won a second Champions League in their “treble” winning season.  

His strength always seemed to be the way he handled his players. Whereas, Alex Ferguson, played the role of a father figure with his players at Manchester United, Mourinho behaved more like the cool uncle to his. He would defend his players to the death and created a loyalty that was unsurpassed by many other coaches. He saved his scorn and criticism for everyone else, using his attacks on the media, opposing coaches, referees, pundits and even UEFA, to develop a siege mentality where it was “us” against “them”. Although there would be disagreements with players, these were kept behind closed doors to maintain that team cohesion that was to inspire his teams over many years of success. Players such as Frank Lampard, John Terry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all remained loyal to Mourinho long after he had stopped managing them because of the great rapport that he had developed with them.

Then, last year, Mourinho seemed to change his winning ways. At Chelsea, the year after recapturing the Premiership, he started to become more openly critical about his players. Nemanja Matic had the humiliation of being substituted only 20 minutes after coming on as a substitute himself and then the once loyal John Terry was dropped from the team for long periods for no apparent reason. The disaffection among the team reached its peak when Mourinho openly vilified club doctor Eva Carneiro after she, quite justifiably, went to tend to the injured Eden Hazard when Chelsea were desperately trying to get a goal in the closing moments of a match against Swansea. Although not a player, Carneiro was very much part of the “team” and Mourinho’s handling of this situation and his unwillingness to back down seemed to have played a massive role in the mental approach of the team and their subsequent fall down the Premiership table.

It seemed, however, that he had learned his lesson after Chelsea with Manchester United seeming to become more positive under him. However, although they are unbeaten in 20 games, half of these games have been draws, leaving them 4 points away from the magic top four places for next year’s Champions League and the pressure is beginning to tell. As a result, we find Mourinho turning his wrath on his players again. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have all had to take some public criticism from their boss but the main censure has been saved for the young defender Luke Shaw.

Mourinho’s decision to inform the world that Shaw has no brains on the pitch and questioning his commitment is hardly going to help his already fragile confidence. To think that bullying a young player is going to make them stronger is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. Mourinho’s record of bringing on young players is appalling and this illustrates why. Rather than creating a culture of free flowing, positive football, this kind of treatment will only serve to instil a fear of failure in his young players. It’s all well and good the likes of Gary Neville saying that Shaw has to respond to this in his performances but, psychologically, it is like making a player wear a rucksack full of lead and then telling them to go out and prove themselves. Surely, Mourinho could learn from his past self and work on building bridges with his players rather than burning them down. As my father always said to me, “Respect and admiration cannot be demanded, they can only be earned”. 

Andy Barton
Mental Performance Coach

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Why wait for mental fitness?

What would you think if a top soccer club waited until their players became really unfit before they were given access to any fitness coaching? That would be madness wouldn’t it? And yet, when it comes to mental fitness this is exactly what happens in most teams, even at the highest level.

I am now writing from the NSCAA convention in Los Angeles. This is the biggest soccer convention in the world with over 10,000 coaches attending from all 5 continents. A consistent theme I am hearing even from the most forward-thinking teams is that, even though they are now providing sports psychologists and mental performance coaches to their players to deal with the enormous stresses involved with playing at the highest level, they mostly tend to be used when there is a significant problem such as a drop in confidence or a sudden loss of form. Essentially, teams are waiting for the players to develop a weakness and then dealing with it, often when it is too late to have any useful effect, rather than putting the emphasis on mental training to prevent the problems from occurring in the first place. The sad thing is that many great young soccer players fail to make the grade in this extremely competitive environment largely because of mental factors. They may lose self belief and confidence, they may develop overwhelming anxiety and fear, they may lose motivation or may just be practising ineffectively. Time and time again I hear of players who were considered the best player in their academy at the age of 13 or 14 but end up dropping out of soccer altogether only a few years after purely due to a lack of mental ability.

So why have I come to the NSCAA Convention? My aim is to work with teams to change the way they see mental performance in sport. Rather than putting the emphasis on supporting players who have specific problems, mental performance training should be coached in the same way that fitness and skills are coached so that young players are equipped with the mental strength they require to make it at the top level. Confidence, determination, self belief and effective learning strategies can be all coached. So, let’s not wait for our minds to get out of shape. Let’s start the training now.

Andy Barton
Performance coach