Image: Scott Barbour-CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images
Paddy Upton’s CV already boasts of associations with top-flight cricket teams: As the physiotherapist of the South African team led by Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje, the mental conditioning coach of the Indian team that attained the No. 1 ranking in Tests in 2009 and then went on to win the World Cup in 2011, and the Proteas who were No 1 across three formats between 2012 and 2015. But Upton, a professor of practice at Australia’s Deakin University Business School, would rather be known as a leadership wonk who’s looking to upend the conventional notions of a chain of command, with instructions flowing from the top. In his book The Barefoot Coach, released recently, he gives a peek into his unique philosophy to draw out the best in a high-pressure environment. Upton spoke to Forbes India about the behavioural lessons he’s gleaned from his interactions with top players and how leadership has gone from instruction-based to a collaborative approach.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Q You were the physiotherapist of the South African cricket team in the mid-1990s, and the mental conditioning coach of the 2011 World Cup-winning Indian cricket team. How did you integrate two professions with seemingly disparate skillsets?
When I was the fitness trainer of the South African (SA) cricket team between 1994 and 1998, the team under coach Bob Woolmer was a leader in terms of sports science. But I felt there was something missing and we could do better. But I could never understand what was amiss.
In my journey over the next four to five years (one among them with a professional rugby team), I came across what was then a first masters degree in leadership coaching. Enrolling for that, I was exposed to what top corporate leaders were doing to bring out the best in their teams, and what academics were saying about how leadership was undergoing a change in the early-2000s.
In the last 200 years, leaders were picked for their domain knowledge and strategic expertise, and they instructed other people on what to do; people were also happy receiving instructions. But the advent of the internet changed where that knowledge and expertise sat—from an individual’s head to out on the World Wide Web. A content expert delivering instructions was no longer a relevant model of leadership. I figured what I always sensed was missing—harnessing the collective intelligence of individual players and helping them become their own best coach.
My research on SA cricket, where I interviewed 21 most-capped players who played under 36 provincial and five national coaches, confirmed what academia and business were saying: What players wanted from their coaches in this knowledge era was different from what they were given in the industrial era command-and-control structure. So it was easy to plot where sports coaching needed to go. But administrative doors were closing on me because it threatened the old-school leaders. The first player I approached was Jacques Kallis: He had gone 14 months without scoring a 100, his father had died, his girlfriend had broken up with him. Through the skills that I learnt through my studying, I did a few personal sessions with Jacques and immediately afterwards, he went on to score centuries in five consecutive Test matches. That’s how I became a mental conditioning coach by default.
Q Indians are culturally conditioned to follow instructions. How did you manage to change that when you took over, along with coach Gary Kirsten, in 2008?
Half that foundation was already laid by Greg Chappell, the previous coach, using an authoritarian approach. The players were openly unhappy with that. That’s what they told us when we arrived. So we knew being dictatorial wasn’t going to work. One of our key phrases at the time was ‘Nothing to Resist’. Right upfront, we decided to have a collaborative approach.
I remember the first meeting we had with the players, where we presented a strategy on the road ahead, everyone nodded their heads. They seemed to suggest they were happy, and everyone said they were fine with it, but it didn’t feel like it. During the tea break, one and a half hours into our stint with the Indian team, Gary and I did a 180-degree turn. We broke up the players into small groups and told them, “You discuss and tell us what are the things that are working, that we mustn’t meddle with.” And they came up with a lot of such things. Over the lunch break, I helped Gary work that into a strategy and when we presented that back to the players, there was a very obvious ‘aye’. That was the first time the players got to experience that if they give us quality input, we will work with them to ensure that it’ll happen.
It was difficult initially, because there were players who wanted instructions, and it’s nice to receive instructions because it absolves the player of any responsibility. But the more mature players adopted our approach quickly, and as that got more traction, the changes came about.
Paddy Upton, who returned as head coach of Rajasthan Royals this year, with Steve SmithImage: Rajasthan Royals
Q What do your stints in India teach you about outsiders doing business in India? What are the socio-cultural quirks that have to be navigated?
I spent the first three months of my job reading how Indians operated. I did a lot of social research as well, and one of the things I learnt was how hierarchical India is. I understood that, for example, giving direct feedback, particularly if negative, is taken personally. Gary and I also knew that we couldn’t expect people to give us critical feedback because of the relationship of the hierarchy; if they weren’t happy with something, they were more likely to say that they were. Young Indians don’t speak in meetings; there was a real difficulty in getting the younger players to speak up even if they had something valuable to offer. Probably my most seminal understanding was about six months into our tenure—and is still now—that even if a foreigner working in India spends an entire lifetime studying Indian culture, s/he will still never get to a full level of understanding. Everything that I understand still has a level of complexity that I don’t.
Q How did you work around some of these quirks?
In my role as a mental conditioning coach, sometimes a younger player would make a really good suggestion that would come up in a conversation between us. I would tell them, “When we are in the next team meeting, if I forget, will you please bring it up?” And I would deliberately set up an environment in that meeting where I’d be talking in and around that subject and I would pause for a moment, as if I am searching for a thought, and look at that player. If they didn’t speak up even after that, I’d say, “What was that thing you mentioned when we were chatting earlier?”, thereby inviting them to share it and then acknowledge the value of his suggestion in front of the group. Everyone likes recognition, so after doing that a few times, some of the younger players began to speak up. It was a case of gradually drawing people out to make contributions. Very soon, it was understood that if you made a contribution during a team meeting, it wasn’t judged as good or bad, but was valued for having been made.
Q You’ve mentioned that when you took charge of coaching a team, you weren’t as technically astute as some other international coaches. How did you get around such a handicap?
Within a team there is always the technical expertise that anyone can require. If on the odd occasion it is missing, like if you have only one leg spinner and not a leg spinning coach, that expertise is always available somewhere outside the team, in a coach or friend that they can refer to. The concept that the coach needs to know it all is redundant. What I need to do as a coach is to see that if a player needs any technical expertise, he receives the best of it. My job is to find the best knowledge for a player.
Q The South African team, in both the stints that you’ve worked with it, has been known to choke in big ICC tournaments. Why do you think a team as formidable as South Africa fails to perform on the big stage?
Under pressure, you can either choke or panic. Choking happens to very experienced people who overthink a situation; panic happens to inexperienced people in a new situation.
There are two aspects to the SA team choking: One is the media label, which is not entirely accurate. If you look at their 1999 World Cup match against Australia, where Allan Donald was run out, if you look at the last five overs, you’d see SA made three game-changing errors and Australia six. Just that SA’s was the final one that gave Australia the game. If SA crossed the ropes, you might’ve seen the media call Australians the chokers.
The other problem is SA was going into tournaments trying too hard to win and overcome the choker’s label. There was a slight lack of authenticity in accepting that ‘yes, that might have happened’. There is something in the male sports environment that makes people wear a mask to hide their insecurities and vulnerabilities and pretend it’s not happening. Under pressure, that mask cracks, your vulnerabilities come out and work against you. One needs to own and acknowledge their insecurities. Which is what the Indian cricket team did ahead of the 2011 World Cup. We accepted the pressure points and chose to deal with them.
Q In the cut-throat world of modern business and cricket, do nice guys actually finish last? MS Dhoni (on the ground) with Harbhajan Singh, Paddy Upton, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag. Upton was the mental conditioning and strategic leadership coach of the Indian cricket team from 2008 to 2011Image: Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
There are two conversations here. One, the result, which is winning or making a profit, and the other is how you get to the result. For me, the latter is really important. If you are sandpapering cricket balls, sledging, taking bribes, that is not the way to get the result. Well, you might get it this time and maybe next time, like good numbers this quarter and next, but there will be a negative consequence in the medium to long term. The process needs to be correct and must lead to medium- and long-term wins.
Not all business proprietors/team owners buy into that philosophy. But as a leader I am uncompromising on that, and would choose not to work in places that don’t. Because I’ve been involved in those organisations and have seen everyone losing, in some way or the other.
Q You mention the high-flying life you led as a physiotherapist of the SA team. Many say this heady cocktail of fame and money makes modern cricketers highly entitled, leading to incidents like pub brawls, or public bluster. How does a cricketer maintain balance and stability in life?
I’m not sure young cricketers are actually willing to hear sound advice, particularly if they’ve already tasted fame. At a stage just short of that, there would be value in having some deliberate intervention to prepare them for the pitfalls of ego and fame, whether by the state associations or the academies. Or even when the sponsors come on board; Nike has lost billions through athletes who’ve fallen from the pedestal because of indiscretion. All players have a batting/bowling coach, a media manager, a dietician, and a bevy of coaches to support them. But the one conversation that seldom happens is how they actually manage themselves around the trappings of fame. There is a gap here at the moment because, in a performance environment, employers aren’t generally interested in that.
Q With the recent explosion of social media, the level of scrutiny and performance pressure has shot up immeasurably. How does a young performer handle that?
I’d explain to players that on social media they are looking externally to other people to get validation. You read it because you want to see someone saying something nice about it, and if they don’t you get upset. Such an external point of reference is a slippery slope in the world of high performance. One needs to look within and one’s close circle to find validation. Would a player stop to listen to what someone said on the road? Why would they do it on social media?
(This story appears in the 10 May, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)