'In high-pressure moments the quality of decision-making matters more than skill'

Paddy Upton on why coaching is about encouraging players to take responsibility and helping them understand what is best for them

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

"A traditional coach's skill is about the knowledge of the game. To draw the expertise out of the players and create a strategy based around what fits is a fundamentally different skill" © Getty Images

Paddy Upton' gaze is direct. He can stare at you for long without blinking. Equally bold are his thoughts on coaching. Upton became prominent when, as assistant to Gary Kirsten, he helped India win the 2011 World Cup and also climb to the World No. 1 Test ranking. Upton today is an established independent coach and earlier this year led Sydney Thunder to their maiden Big Bash title. Based on extensive research coupled with on-field coaching expertise, Upton says cricket so far has seen instruction-based coaching. The future, he says, will be all about man management.

Is there a role for a coach in T20?
There is a definitely a role, but the role is not necessarily the traditional role of coaches as you understand it. The role needs to be adapted and better defined in the T20 format.

Are you talking about an established team moving into T20 format, like an international or state team? That is slightly different to a whole lot of different individuals coming together to play in the IPL, Big Bash, CPL and all such leagues. Here you need to establish everything from the first base.

The challenge is different. For me the philosophy stays the same, but the application of the philosophy is different.

What is your philosophy?
In the modern day, there is a fundamentally different requirement of leadership, because the answers now sit outside of the traditional model. Twenty years back leaders became the CEOs of companies because they were the persons who knew the most about the business. Coaches became coaches based on their superior knowledge of how to play the game. So their method of leading, of coaching, was through instruction. That model is fast becoming outdated. One needs to bring in an approach - what I call harnessing the collective intelligence that sits within the group.

Even if they might not have the experience, you need to be creating a team based on a player's strengths and personal preferences, learning styles etc. The way you do that is get information from the players and structure the approach around the players and the player's requirements rather than the coach's preordained ideas. So that is one thing, utilising the expertise that sits within the group.

You have spoken about the fear of failure players suffer from. What is that?
Probably the single biggest mental obstacle to success is fear of failure. Fear of failure is not something that sits within our nature. It is something that is learned. And it is learned when our seniors react negatively to a mistake or a failure or something that goes wrong. In sports teams people don't actually have a fear of failure as much as they have a fear of repercussion from the failure, whether it is from the media, from the coach, from the fans. When coaches reprimand, shout, gesticulate when somebody makes a mistake, when a captain gesticulates on a field at someone who misfields or drops a catch, the player then becomes terrified to make that same mistake. And when you have become scared of making the same mistake, you actually put yourself in a [state of] physical readiness to make that mistake.

If we as coaches are responsible for creating fear of failure, we also need to take responsibility for removing the fear of failure by setting up a different relationship with respect to mistakes and errors. In T20 there are far more mistakes and far more errors that happen primarily because people need to take far greater risks than they had taken before. So we need to relate fundamentally differently to players and teams making mistakes.

Playing to strengths is another one. Too often we have the coach and video analyst analyse an opposition batsman, for example, and realise that we need to bowl him wide yorkers at the death because his strike rate is lowest against that ball. And we set up strategies around that, which is an old model of coaching. And very often what we end up doing is asking a player, in the highest-pressure period of the game, where games are won and lost, often bowling to guys like AB de Villiers and MS Dhoni, to execute on his weakness in an area where he doesn't have confidence, because the coach and the video analyst have dictated where to bowl.

"We don't really give people that much experience and opportunity around making decisions because when they make the first mistake, we withdraw that privilege from them"

We need to be changing that and asking the player: what is your strength, what ball are you most confident bowling when you are under real pressure, particularly when your fear of failure is heightened? You need to be doing what you are best at, regardless of what the other guy is going to do. So playing to a player's strength rather than playing to the opposition's weakness is another philosophy I believe in.

"One ball, six runs. How do you maintain your focus and calm?" We are told this is the sort of question you ask your players as part of your preparations. Is this your way of making a player confident and self-reliant?
There's two ways that one can approach the player. One, you can approach him with the answers and tell him what to do based on your so-called superior knowledge of the game or studying of the opposition. The other way is go to the player, ask him questions, enquire and find out what is going to work best for him. I seek to understand players as much as possible rather than fill them up with my knowledge. I seek to draw their knowledge, their expertise, their preferences out of them and then try and find a nice, healthy match between the two.

I know that in real high-pressure moments in a game, seldom is it the player's skill that is going to be the thing that is going to prevail. It is normally the quality of the decision they make under pressure. In all formats, in every team in the world, every cricketer gets a lot of opportunities in the nets to practise his cover drives and reverse sweeps and slower balls and yorkers. So they are practising their skills a lot, and, yet it is their decision-making under pressure that we are actually counting on. We don't really give people that much experience and opportunity around making decisions, because when they make the first mistake, we withdraw that privilege from them. So I want players to make decisions. I want them to think. I want them to come up with ideas and actually get used to making decisions for themselves.

Recently at Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League, you made players dive into the pool to see how long they could hold their breath. What was the purpose of that exercise?
I am always looking for ways to take the individual's game forward. I don't believe that all the answers lie within cricket. One of the approaches that I have come across is called hypoxic breath-hold training. It is one of the most direct feedback mechanisms that a player can experience. As soon as he goes underwater and starts feeling short of breath, the first thing that happens is a natural hiccup-like spasm in the stomach. People panic. What we know is, the amount of time you hold your breath up until the first spasm, you can hold your breath probably that same amount of time again, and endure spasm after spasm. Now what happens usually is, people panic, and as soon as you panic, as soon as you start worrying, as soon you start overthinking, as soon as your mind goes out of the present, within a few seconds your body forces you to pick your head out of the water and take a breath.

However, when you keep your mind calm, when you keep your mind present, keep your mind focused on the right things, players find that they can keep their head underwater for as long as they keep their mind in the right place. So it is actually not a physical thing that gets you to take the breath, it is mental.

What I must say here is, it is a very, very dangerous form of training and can only be done with an expert, because if you hold your breath for too long, you will have a shallow water blackout and you could drown. At Sydney Thunder it was done by an expert and there were very, very strict precautions taken, and everyone was working with a partner literally catching them.

Can you talk about any positive feedback you got from a player based on that exercise?
Chris Green said it was one of the most significant interventions he had had in his cricket career so far. He is a 22-year-old offspinner without any fancy deliveries, but the way he was able to perform time and time again under incredible pressure in the match, bowling to some of the best batsmen, he actually turned out to be one of our main go-to bowlers under pressure.

"In all the research that I have done, players almost always rate man management at least as important as knowledge of the game for a coach, if not more important" © AFP

How much of T20 is about conditioning mental skills?
It is no different to any other competitive sport. The mental side is possibly one of the most important aspects. If someone does not have the physical skills, they are not going to be picked in the first place, but once you arrive there and your skill has taken you to that level, the mental side is the most important standout aspect.

Do you consider yourself to be a mentor or a coach?
I am certainly not a mentor strictly by definition because a mentor is somebody who has content expertise in a very specific area. For example, Allan Donald has expertise as a fast bowler. Strictly, Allan can only mentor another fast bowler. The way a mentor works is by saying, "When I was in the same situation, this is what I did." It is very domain-specific. Rahul Dravid can mentor batsmen. He cannot mentor spinners, he cannot mentor fast bowlers. He can probably mentor slip fielders.

Coaching in its pure form is helping somebody find their own answers for themselves. That is understood in the business world clearly. In the sports world what coaches traditionally do is, they tell people what to do based on their superior knowledge. That is called instructing, dictating. But we confuse that in cricket with coaching.

What are you, then?
I am a modern-day coach. Fortunately we are changing to more of an empowering approach. We are starting in the cricket world to understand that coaching is not telling people what to do. It is actually having a two-way dialogue and discovering what is going to work best for the other person and work best for the environment and creatively coming up with the way that works best for everyone. With an approach like that, you end up with a very good chance of getting the best out of everyone.

At Chennai Super Kings, Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni believed in players taking responsibility for their own preparation and performance, while making sure all the resources they needed were available to them. Do you subscribe to the same method?
Yes, I do. The principle is pretty much the same. It is not necessarily leaving it to the player to take responsibility. It is encouraging the player to take responsibility and having a close dialogue with him to help him ensure he understands what is best for him. What has happened is, because of the history of instruction-based coaching, you have a lot of players on the professional circuit who actually don't know what is best for them. They are so used to other people making decisions directed at them, deciding how much they practise and what they practise. But there are not many players who have a true understanding of what they actually need.

Take fitness training. The fitness trainer dictates across the board to every player. Does the player understand his body and understand if he needs to rest or train today? They are never asked to understand. They are conditioned to follow the fitness trainer's instruction. The player ends up being a robotic follower of instructions who does not have the ability to think for himself. What happens then is, on the field, under pressure, they are not able to make good decisions and they get emotionally and mentally hijacked.

"Too often employers and fans think that if you are winning, the team is great and if you are losing, there is something wrong within the team. That is not the case at all"

Michael Hussey writes in his latest book about an incident where you two are talking about coaching at the outset of the Big Bash last season, and talking about how to help Thunder turn a corner. "Paddy said we could set things up. There's a traditional way, where we would have our head coach, our batting, bowling and fielding coaches and the usual legion of support staff. Or he said we could have none. I must admit I was a bit lost for words. It was counter-intuitive to everything I had experienced in elite cricket." Do you recollect saying that?
I truly believe that [what Hussey said]. But it does require a coach who understands how to facilitate getting or extracting the expertise from within the playing group that other teams would ordinarily have on the coaching bench. That is a fundamentally different coaching skill to what you learn in Level 1, 2 and 3, where they teach how to pick up a bat, hold a ball, bowl an inswinger, schedule and manage a practice session. A traditional coach's skill is about the knowledge of the game, about batting, bowling, fielding, etc. The skill of being able to draw the expertise out of the players and create a strategy based around what fits within the playing unit is a fundamentally different facilitation skill. It is about drawing out of the team rather than putting knowledge into them.

This is what I said in my first ever interview for a head coach's job, which was with Rajasthan Royals. Clive Woodward, the former England rugby coach, wanted to know how I felt the dynamic would have played out if I had more experienced [specialist] coaches under me. This was in 2013. My answer was, if you give me the job, I want no batting coach, no bowling coach, no fielding coach, and I actually want no fitness trainer. Woodward has a business relationship with one of the Royals owners, and was pulled into the interview. They looked at me with this dumbfounded silence.

I explained that if you give me the job, you are going to give me 25 players from five different countries who have played under probably 20 different coaches and 20 different captains and collectively have over 1000 matches of T20 experience. That is the expertise I am going to use to build this campaign. In reality you will find no three coaches anywhere in the world that collectively have more expertise than that which sits within the team.

You were the head coach at Pune Warriors. Why did it not work out there?
My philosophies are largely based on having a fertile environment for them to take root. In a more conservative, instruction-based, dictatorial environment my approach will not work because it will be squashed and suppressed. The involvement of the ownership in the team did not allow for this approach to really have a chance. Within the team leadership there were some individuals who were very, very threatened by letting go of power, ego and the need to dictate and control. Some individuals I had in that brains trust group just did not buy into [the philosophy] and were not prepared to let go of their own power and control. It is quite a threat to a more traditional, authoritarian, power-hungry type of leadership.

Do you think the idea of a T20 team as something you can build over a few years is unrealistic?
No, it is not unrealistic. Take the Sydney Thunder. In my first year, which was 2014, when I brought in this new thinking, even someone like Michael Hussey, who I have spent a lot of time talking to, was busy trying to get his head around it. As he said, it was counter-intuitive. It takes players a little bit of time to come around and understand before they start to work within that system. By the second year, when they start talking to new players, even the new players are prepared for what they are entering into. Team culture is a direct result of the leadership. When people come into the team, they already know what is expected of them, how we operate, what is going to work, what is not going to work. While your personnel might be changing through auctions, injuries, you can certainly maintain a culture where people come in and settle quite quickly.

"The fitness trainer dictates across the board to every player. Does the player understand his body and if he needs to rest or train today? They are never asked to understand" © Getty Images

I was involved in the PSL with the Lahore Qalandars [as head coach]. It was such a short tournament. By the time PSL was over, players were still trying to grapple and understand what is expected of them. The first year is a little bit more tricky with my approach. If I wanted to get immediate results in the PSL, I would have needed to have walked in and told players exactly what to do and directed them like a herd of sheep, and we possibly would have done a bit better. But in the medium-to-long term I know the empowering approach works.

Even at Sydney Thunder, even when we lost four games in a row I was nervous, I was on the edge, but I certainly was not concerned. By the time we got to the knockouts, I knew we were better set up to handle those high-pressure moments.

Who are the modern coaches that you have time for?
Gary Kirsten, Trevor Bayliss, Stephen Fleming, Andy Flower. I have not spent much time with him, but there is Daniel Vettori. One of the things that you see consistently with these guys is, in order to use a more empowering approach, one of the prerequisites is that the ego has to take a back seat. The more you want your ego in front and in the driving seat, the more difficult it becomes. I certainly believe going forward the single biggest obstacle to a coach's success is going to be their own ego.

Stepping aside from your holistic model, how much of a role do analytics play in coaching?
Analytics are useful. I would say nine of ten times they confirm what you already know. The tenth time they give a little insight into something that no one has really noticed before. Russell Domingo [the South Africa coach] nailed it when he said, "Analytics is like a bikini - they reveal a lot, but they hide some of the most important bits." For example, stats can't yet accurately evaluate the critical factor such as how a player delivers under pressure.

But you cannot ignore statistics, can you?
Without statistics you are shooting in the dark. It is the foundation. But you have to study the whole book when you sit for an exam. Even though they might not reveal game-changing information, the stats just confirm and ensure that we are on the right track. Winning does not mean you are doing things right and losing does not mean you are doing things wrong. Too often employers and fans think that if you are winning, the team is great and if you are losing, there is something wrong within the team. That is not the case at all.

"When you have become scared of making a mistake, you actually put yourself in a state of physical readiness to make that mistake"

Do former players make the best coaches? Hussey said it is a hard one to answer. What do you think?
Former players make very good mentors. I remember listening to a lecture Graeme Pollock gave. He said, if the ball is up, you play on the front foot and you time it into a gap, and if it is short, you pull it, cut it into the gap - which is wonderful knowledge.

There are two aspects to coaching. One is the technical, the content knowledge of the game - batting, bowling, fielding. So this is content expertise a hockey or a rugby coach would not be able to come in and provide. But the second part of coaching, the knowledge of man management and creating a healthy environment that allows people to flourish - in all the research that I have done, players almost always rate man management at least as important as knowledge of the game for a coach, if not more important.

At the moment, in professional coaching the ability to man-manage is a completely random skill - people either have it or they don't. I spent a two-year postgraduate degree studying the art, science, philosophy of man management and understanding human beings. That is a field that has really not emerged yet in education of our coaches in sports.

A guy like Gary Kirsten is very good at managing people. Stephen Fleming was really good at managing people. Trevor Bayliss has a natural way of dealing with people that makes them feel comfortable and open and relaxed to speak. All the names I have mentioned are very personable, easy to relate to, good guys. They have not necessarily gone and studied that. They are arriving with a natural flair to be able to relate to people. But we are still waiting for that realisation to start bringing man-management skills and understanding human nature to sports coaching. When you see that happen, performance will improve. It will help also in the case of particularly a number of players who have been marginalised or who have left the sport or become discouraged from a sport because they have been unhappy with the environment because of the way their coaches led their team.

Do you reckon that if you are a successful T20 coach over time, you can graduate to coaching an international Test team?
The answer is a resounding yes. If I take my example, it would mean me finding the right people who I would need to partner with in order to have a very successful Test campaign. The success with the Indian cricket team was possible because Gary and I had a very good partnership. At Rajasthan Royals I could not have achieved what I did without having such a close working relationship with Dravid. At Sydney Thunder I had a close relationship with Mike Hussey and Shane Watson. So it is having the right people and the right partnerships that create a successful environment for a team. A successful T20 coach, if he did not do anything different, and just walked into a Test team, it might not work. But if I am smart enough to pull the right people to partner, of course it will work.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo