The extra mile is never crowded

Jon Pitts of Shrewsbury Town

Jose Mourinho’s sacking as Manchester United manager in December 2018 was big news, but it was hardly surprising. 

After United’s worst start to a season in 29 years, it was inevitable the not-so-special-anymore one would go. What has been surprising is the speed with which Mourinho’s replacement, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, has turned things around at Old Trafford. Eight wins in a row for January’s Premier League Manager of the Month, it’s fair to say the Norwegian has hit the ground running. 

So, are Mourinho’s authoritarian methods simply outdated, or was he just unlucky at Old Trafford? To answer that question, I spoke to Elite High Performance Consultant, Jon Pitts

“Mourinho’s style has been highly successful, irrespective of whether it’s evolved or not” Jon tells me, from his office at New Meadow, Shrewsbury FC, where he is Head of Performance. “I was lucky enough to meet Rui Faria – Mourinho’s former assistant – a couple of years ago. He told me that, when they went in (to a new club), they’d set the bar incredibly high, and inspired people to hit that. They’d push and push and push, but after a while, cracks start to appear. If you look at Mourinho’s record, there has been a short term element to it. In those scenarios he’s incredibly successful, so it does work. But in terms of longevity, maybe not so much.” 

Mourinho may have left United, but it’s unlikely to be long before he’s back in a dugout somewhere. And when that happens, will he need to modernise his approach? “In the past, a lot of management styles were ‘carrot and stick’,” Jon explains. “This is the goal, work hard towards it and you’ll reach it. But times have changed. We’ve moved into an age where people have a sense of entitlement. They think they can get everything yesterday, which they can. The idea of working hard for something and getting a reward at the end, has changed.

“In football now we see player power, agents have driven that to a place where loyalty goes out the window, and it’s very much about short-term gain. Carrot and stick doesn’t really work any more. What we’re looking to do instead is create an environment of mutual trust and respect that creates ‘psychological safety’, where players feel safe to be able to take risks, and to really go for it. Mourinho was openly critical of his players, and that suggests he hasn’t got strong relationships with his players that other managers have.”

Control your mind: control your body

Jon’s worked in several professional sports including cricket, Formula One and football, so his understanding of elite sportspeople in unrivalled. “I work in a world where the brain and the body interact,” Jon tells me. “I’ve been very privileged to work with some of the world’s best in various sports, and it’s their ability to understand what’s changing, to hang in there until eventually things turn around, that sets them apart. A lot of people see psychology as fixing problems, but it’s more about helping people control their mind. It’s about giving them some external feedback.”

Jon tells me about work he’s done with free divers. It may seem a random segue, but the story is utterly relevant, to every sport:

“The world record for being under water is 12:30 minutes,” Jon enthuses. “I was sat on a beach thinking, ‘how the hell does this work’? But it’s the ultimate example of, if you can control your mind, you can get much more out of your body. Free divers use up practically all the oxygen in their respiratory system. Our brains have a defence mechanism which, when we’re under water, alarm bells go off and eventually, if we ignore those alarm bells, we either have convulsions or black out. Over a period of time, free divers learn to use a series of techniques to control these defence mechanisms. This allows them to access the rest of the oxygen that’s in their blood stream and their brain, so that when they get back to the surface, they’re around 95% in oxygen debt. So there’s only about 5% of oxygen left keeping them alive. 

Jon has worked for Red Bull F1 team, Shrewsbury Town FC, and Somerset County Cricket Club.

“This example shows how the mind interacts with the body, and what our true potential is. Under pressure, our brain goes either into a ‘challenge’ state, or a ‘threat’ state. Applying this to football, let’s say we’ve been with Guardiola, very much a challenge state manager. He’s had his arm around us, and he’s challenging us to develop, in a psychologically safe environment. In this challenge state, our blood vessels are far less resistant. Our brain and our cognitive systems remain focused, calm, and everything functions normally. 

“Mourinho’s approach seems more of a threat state; ’you will do this or suffer the consequences’. What happens there is our blood vessels become restrictive. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase. Our brain loses focus, and we start shutting down certain elements of our calculating cognitive processes. Most importantly, our body becomes tighter, even our posture can change. 

“In the challenge state of Pep, or Solskjær, you feel loved and trusted by the person managing you. You work really hard with them. You’ve built a relationship and you feel they’re backing you to do the best you can do. Ultimately you might fail, but you’ll learn from it – together – and then move forwards. 

“Look at Raheem Sterling under Guardiola. There’s been some misses along the way, some errors, but Pep’s helped him learn from his mistakes. The way you learn is by getting things wrong, not by getting things right. Whereas, you saw players getting things wrong under Mourinho and what they got was effectively a beating.

“What’s been impressive about Solskjær, is that he’s come in mid-season. Clearly there are some tricky characters in that squad, yet he has quickly got their respect. This is always a tricky balance; gaining respect is different to getting them onside and happy. Listening to sound bites he speaks with a calm authority – and with the momentum in results, his connection with the group is strengthening daily.”

The example of Marcus Rashford is a good one. January’s Premier League Player of the Month, looked a frustrated figure under Mourinho. “The physiological side is important,” Jon continues. “There are two parts to our brain – our conscious brain and our subconscious brain. In the pressure moments of high level sport, you’re obviously not consciously thinking about everything. But in the background, in the emotional part of Rashford’s brain, is a system which is constantly running on high alert because he was in a threat state under Mourinho. 

“The atmosphere, culture, environment was all driven by threat, which instigates a fear of failure, rather than being driven by challenge. So the brain is not functioning as productively as you’d like it to, and that’s then having a physical effect on technique, posture, balance and coordination.”

Lightbulb moments

So what’s the secret, I ask Jon, to good man-management in modern sport? “The art of coaching is to get lightbulbs to go off in players’ heads,” Jon says. “You’re trying to facilitate an environment in which they’re picking up information and it’s helping them develop. If you’re just telling someone all the time, is it actually sticking in their brain? And is it going to make a difference? 

“We all have those moments where a little light bulb goes off in our head, and it takes you forward a step because you’ve worked something out. And facilitating that is the art of coaching for me. And I think Guardiola, Pochettino, they’re brilliant at that. First of all they’ve created an environment where its possible for a player’s ego to allow them to think ‘oh actually, maybe I could improve’. Then, as a coach, they’ve nudged, prodded, and created this place where gradually the player starts to work himself out, and become the best version of himself.” 

And what about players? What do they need to do to get to the top? “For years and years people used to say, ‘ah Beckham used to spend hours after training on the training ground’. How many times do you hear that the best players in the world are out there after training doing a bit more. And yet, at the end of training, everybody disappears. And you think, ‘nobody’s worked it out, that the extra mile is never crowded’. What else are you doing? The best people I’ve worked with, they stop at nothing for the next thing that is going to make them better. And yet most people don’t do that. It’s a choice, and it’s hard work – it means going further than you need to and for most that’s too far.

“Life as a professional footballer, with all the traveling etc, is tough. But you’re in at 10am and you’re gone by 2pm. Academies take players on at such young ages, but there’s life changing money involved – for the parents as well – and the agents. This creates a world of false entitlement and egos so big that they are resistant to realism. Pochettino and Guardiola, they’ve accepted that. ‘That’s the way it is, so how do we work with it?’ I’m not sure Mourinho has.”

Jon’s role at Shrewsbury Town FC is to get the best out of the players currently at the club. But equally important – if not more so – is identifying new players who could come in and improve the group. “I’ve told the chief scout, ‘look, we’ve got a focus on the person, not just the player. We don’t just want to know about technical and tactical attributes. You need to pick up on elements of a player’s character as well, to make sure we get the right sort of person coming in, who is going to positively contribute to the culture.

“I watch a player on the pitch, his body language, his communication with his teammates, there are certain attributes I pick up on, that perhaps other people don’t see. We look at social media, use sentiment analysis of the language they’re using in their tweets or Facebook posts. We listen to people giving interviews, that’s all very useful information on the player, and what they’re thinking. 

“We might even consider using facial recognition, which is more accurate than a lie detector test. So if you ask someone to talk about a certain subject, we can pick up on micro-expressions in their face to understand whether they’re lying or not. We also do a bit of due diligence, so people you know, trusted advisors, and get their thoughts of people who have worked with them before. All of that goes together, before you even meet the person. 

“But again I would put a lot of emphasis on meeting that person first, talking to them and getting a good sense of who they are, and whether they’re the right people.”

And that’s a really good point, isn’t it? Because for all the science in the game, that personal rapport with a player is still the most important thing, isn’t it? 

“Definitely,” Jon replies. “And going back to Manchester United and Solskjær, the role of Mike Phelan shouldn’t be overlooked. All the data and science in the world cannot replace experience and intuition that is built up over years of watching patterns in football, or any sport. 

“What I’m trying to do,” Jon concludes, “Is remove assumption and compromise. Because that is very much the final 10% of performance – we assume so much is going on, and yet actually we don’t really know. Before we are in a position to look at marginal gains we have to make sure we’re doing the basics well. The beauty of modern neuroscience is it allows us to understand a lot more about a person, something that the best managers in the world are doing better than the rest.”

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