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Kudos to Virat Kohli for speaking up when things weren't going his way: Paddy Upton

Acclaimed mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton on why the leadership must initiate a change in culture and how elite athletes can put mind over matter

Published: Mar 22, 2024 11:35:39 AM IST
Updated: Mar 22, 2024 11:41:21 AM IST

Kudos to Virat Kohli for speaking up when things weren't going his way: Paddy Upton(File) Paddy Upton (L) talks to Virat Kohli during a practice session at the Adelaide Oval in Adelaide on November 9, 2022, on the eve of their ICC men's Twenty20 World Cup 2022 cricket semi-final match against England. Image: Surjeet Yadav / AFP

When Jacques Kallis went for months without a century, he sat down for a chat with Paddy Upton. To quote Upton, he didn't teach Kallis anything new, only helped him refocus. Soon after, the South African cricket legend went on to score centuries in five consecutive Test matches.

During coach Gary Kirsten’s tenure with the Indian cricket team between 2008 and 2011, which culminated with the victory in the 2011 World Cup, Upton was roped in as its mental conditioning coach. This was way before speaking on mental health had become prevalent. More recently, Virat Kohli turned to Upton to help him through a prolonged bad patch. Kohli’s return to form thereafter is for all to see.

How does Upton, once the strength and conditioning coach of the South African cricket team, help elite athletes build up mental resilience? He shares his thoughts on an episode with Sports UnLtd. Edited excerpts:  
Q. You’ve been the mental conditioning coach of the Indian cricket team that won 2011 World Cup. Now you've been given a similar role with the men’s hockey team. What does a mental conditioning coach bring to a sports team?
The easier and the better-understood aspect is that the mind is one of the most important components of performance as the body or strategy or technical skill. But technical skill is easy to see, and you know where it's going wrong; for the body, it’s easy to measure fitness, speed, measure, flexibility etc, and easy to deal with. But the mind, we can't measure it. But we do know that years and years of training and preparation, for example, when a team goes into final, can fall over if the players mind isn't in the right space. The idea of a mental conditioning coach, generally, is someone who will come in and talk to the player and help them get their mind in the best possible space.

But that's also only a part of the equation. One part that's very little spoken around the mental conditioning role is that in any sports team—and it’s the same with any business or family environment—the culture around that system is the most powerful influencer. If I give a practical example, a team who's got a coach who is authoritarian, judgmental, critical and is prone to shouting and screaming when players make mistakes, you will have a team that is filled with the fear of failure. Most people aren't scared of failures—they're scared of the repercussion of failure, meaning how our superiors or bosses, or even fans for a sports team, are going to behave around my failure. If I were to come into that environment, it's going to be very difficult for me as a mental conditioning coach, working one-on-one with any athlete to get their head into the right space. I'll just put a plaster over their fear of failure and that will only last for a few hours or a day at best.

So, the one role that is not spoken about around mental conditioning, it’s that mental conditioning happens from the level of leadership. In a business, we've heard culture eats strategy for breakfast—it's the same in a sporting environment. And that comes from the leaders’ behaviour and the leaders’ language—verbal and non-verbal—around success and even more so around failure. So as the mental conditioning coach back in 2008 with the Indian team, I probably spent 60-70 percent of my time speaking to [coach] Gary Kirsten, and [captains] Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni and getting them to lead in such a way that created a culture that really frees people to express themselves to play without the fear of failure. It’s the same with the hockey team, where I spend most of my time speaking to the coaches, captain Harmanpreet, and some of the senior players because I know their influence creates the team culture.

Long story short, mental conditioning is about one-on-one, yes, but probably, more important, it's about working with the leadership to create the kind of culture that creates a high-performance environment, freeing people from fear and anxiety.
Q. India’s approach to failure is complicated—people don't like to talk about it, often they are quite ashamed of it. You’ve also worked with cricketers across Pakistan, Australia and South Africa. What are some of the important differences you've seen?
Failure has got a very bad reputation. We’ve borrowed it from the industrial age, from factory production lines that would face a glitch—so, if someone fails, someone makes a mistake, someone has a weakness, that's a problem and there's a judgement around that.

One of the most important things that is getting raised is having a different relationship with the concept of failure. Thinking something through and having the courage to try something is not failure. That is a step on the path towards success. It might not work out and the best example I can give is a player diving for a catch—he knows he's running in the outfield, it's 50-50, if I dive will I get to it, or won't I? A player without the fear of failure will just dive and try. For me, if he dives and drops the catch, that is a huge success. It's just one big fat tick because you've taken the risk to try. The worst thing is someone who runs around and then they back off, realising they’re probably not going to catch it. That is lack of trying.

It's a big struggle with the athletes I work with to try and get them to change their relationship with failure and have a much healthier relationship. As you said, in India, to a fair degree, it starts with parenting. Parents are generally so critical of their kids making mistake of failing and they indoctrinate kids from a very young age that failure is bad. That, to me, is a sad situation.

Also read: In a room full of people who support and love me, I felt alone: Virat Kohli on mental health struggles

Q. When you started, how difficult was it to convince elite cricketers, who are always under scrutiny, to let go of that fear of failure?
It was difficult and it took a long time. The main approach that we took was, number one, how [coach] Gary Kirsten, [captain] MS Dhoni and senior players like [Sachin] Tendulkar, [Rahul] Dravid, [VVS] Laxman, [Anil] Kumble behaved around people making mistakes. As soon as they started behaving differently, didn't have a negative reaction, went around telling younger players ‘well done for trying’, players all of a sudden started realising that senior players were having positive engagements with them around their failure. Initially, if they would drop a catch, or a bad spell, or got out cheaply, they would be so defensive and they would come to team meetings with trepidation wondering is this going to get brought up? They wouldn't even hear the whole meeting, they were just waiting for that point where the coach got to the place where they spoke about the mistakes they made. It took a long time, 6-9 months, before players were reconditioned.

And the second part is to get players to become more and more what we call internally referent, keeping the power of their sense of well-being within themselves. To know that I tried and it didn't work, and I'm happy with myself that I tried. Whereas an externally-referent player listens to the criticism, the social media, the TV, and all the judgment and negativity.

Q. In the modern world today, the idea of journaling has become very popular. Is there something similarly prescriptive that you asked the cricketers to do?
For me, personally, I am allergic to prescribing things to adults, but I certainly presented a lot of ideas, thoughts and options. And I presented a lot of questions and I invited the players to adopt that which made most sense for them. Currently, in the high-performance world today—be it sports, business or elsewhere—there is too much prescription, too much of a leader thinking they are the all-knowing expert who need to tell other people what to do. That might have worked 30 years ago, today, in the Knowledge Age where we have the Internet and the likes of Siri and ChatGPT, it is no longer possible for the leader to be the expert in everything. What we need to do is stop prescribing and do more of educating and allowing people their own free will. And that's how people become the best versions of themselves.

Q. So, for you, leadership approach is basically bottom-up and not top-down as is often the case.

It's a combination of both, when the time is right. But, at the moment, in most legacy businesses globally and most legacy businesses in India—and sports is one of them—there's just way too much top down. Which leads to really disempowering people. I'll go back to Gary’s and my time with the Indian team in 2008 to 2011—one of our key philosophies was to get the players to make their own best decisions for themselves on the field. I'll briefly tell a story. It was during the 2011 World Cup we played the quarter final against Australia. Gary and I had a meeting before the team meeting, and we spoke about if there was anything that we could tell the team about this Australian team that we haven't already spoken about? The answer was no. So, instead of going for a tick-the-box meeting, we went into the meeting and I wrote just one question on the whiteboard: What's really important for tomorrow's game against Australia. When the team came in, Gary stood up and asked all the coaches, including him and myself, to leave, and let just the 15 players to discuss the question and answer it. He also told the players they were not required to tell any of the coaches what they spoke about. Most people know what happened in that match the next day—India comprehensively beat Australia, but, to this day, 13 years later, neither Gary nor myself have a clue about what the players spoke about in that meeting.

Q. How did you go from a strength and conditioning coach for South Africa to work on the mental side?

I started out as a sports scientist and was a fitness trainer of the South African cricket team back in the 90s and I worked in professional rugby as a fitness trainer. But while I worked with the likes of the late Bob Wooler, one of the most innovative and forward-thinking coaches, it was obvious to me that there was something missing. I left fitness training, and ended up doing a second Masters degree in business and leadership coaching. It was during that period that I understood how leadership was changing from the industrial age through to the Knowledge Age. I spent a number of years working as a business coach and a leadership coach in the corporate space, but, in sports, no one was really listening to me.

The door really opened when Jacques Kallis had spent about 14 months without scoring a hundred. I knew him very well, his personal situation—his mom died when he was very young, his dad had recently died, and his girlfriend had broken up with him soon after that. The runs had dried up thereafter. I phoned him and asked to meet over a cup of coffee. We had a couple of conversations that helped him refocus—I didn't teach him anything new. And immediately after a few of those conversations, he went on and scored five consecutive Test centuries. He spoke publicly about the impact of the work on him, and that really opened the floodgates for athletes to come to me and ask for help.

Q. Recently, Virat Kohli spoke about turning to you for help during his bad patch. How do you set the perspective for someone of the stature of Kohli, who’s really seen and done it all?
You know what makes Virat really stand out and be as good as he's been in the last 10 years is that he is probably more hungry than any athlete I've ever come across. He's constantly seeking that extra one percent. His attention to detail in preparing his body for performance is second to none in the cricket world. And, in a similar way, he had the courage when things weren't quite working out, to ask, ‘What can I do?’ By doing that, he was going in search of reclaiming the perspective that maybe was eluding him at the time. Most athletes get to a point where there is a shift, not dissimilar to in business, where they have their midlife readjustments, where priorities start shifting. Our reasons for doing what we do change. We need to then regain perspective and reconnect with probably a new purpose. It's very common in sports when athletes have been there for 10 years and have still got several years to go—but the hunger that they had at 22/23/24 and what drives them to success dries up.

What Virat went through is not different to what other top-level athletes go through. And full credit to Virat for bringing that conversation to the table. Tiger Woods, when he was the best in the world, had a coach. The coach wasn't a better golfer than him, he was just a sounding board and asked the difficult questions for Tiger to engage with.  

Obviously what Virat and I spoke about is completely confidential, but it was the process of speaking to somebody to help organise your thinking, to get that perspective in place, to use a sounding board, to say I'm struggling a little bit. 

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