I have been a part of a number of teams as a player, and more recently as a coach. The need and dynamics of bringing a set of individually skilled players together and aligning their efforts towards a common goal is a unique and inspiring challenge to take on as a coach. Through this column, I would like to share with the readers some of the lessons I personally absorbed from these experiences.
My most recent assignment was with the Uttar Pradesh Ranji Trophy team for the season that just went by. When I was offered this opportunity, I thought long and hard about the pros and cons of taking up the same—I finally decided to take the plunge and give it my best shot.
Imagining divides where none exist
As I embarked on this assignment, I had multiple people giving me words of caution and advice. The first and foremost one stemmed from the so-called cultural divide that exists in India—that a “conservative south Indian” should be coaching a team of “aggressive north Indians” seemed incredulous to many people. In my personal experience, I never felt this—it helped that I had interacted and worked with some of the players in the team during my previous coaching assignments.
I found that where there is professionalism and a focus on achieving the larger goal, the cultural aspects can be very easily overcome. One of the keys to making this successful, however, is for the coach to lead by example. I realized that unless I was out there, sweating it in the middle and demonstrating discipline and work ethic, there was no way of inspiring my wards to do the same. Once I started the regime—of fitness, practice and rigorous technical assessment—I found that the players were more than happy to comply.
Your team is better than you think
The other caution that I was repeatedly given was to guard against internal politics in the team and perceived ego clashes—in reality, I found that the perception was far from the truth. What I found instead was a team that was hungry to perform, succeed and elevate itself to the next level. There is an important lesson here on not prejudging the environment in any new assignment we take up—in the corporate world, it may be a role change, a department change, a new job or a new country—it is critical to go in with an open mind and allow things to settle down before making judgement calls.
This particular team had a unique mixture of “stars”—players who had represented the country at the highest levels, local stars who had been consistent domestic performers and newbies. While the first group was obviously regarded with awe and looked up to for constant motivation and guidance, the mix was actually very beneficial. In fact, it so happened that we could not avail the services of many of the international players for multiple matches in the season due to conflicting commitments. What was good to see, however, was that their absence did not deter the team from pushing ahead towards the collective goal—someone or the other always put their hand up to be counted and delivered a performance that helped the team win. This, I am sure, is a dynamic that exists in ample measure in the corporate world as well. My belief is that the onus lies on all three constituencies—the stars, the hard grinders in the team and the coach—to make sure that the presence or otherwise of any single individual does not deter the team’s focus overall.
Goal setting: well begun is half done
An important starting point in this exercise is a firm, collective goal setting exercise. We engaged the services of a professional firm to conduct this activity at the beginning of the season. While there was the usual scepticism about the effectiveness of such an exercise, the preparation, approach and the execution mechanism of this programme ensured that it was a “by the players, of the players, for the players” exercise. Players were encouraged to set their individual goals for the season and agree on multiple milestones for the team. For e.g., the first milestone we set for ourselves was to qualify to the knockout round and then take it from there. The collective focus of the team around this goal ensured that we actually achieved it during the season—not only did the team qualify for the knockout round, but we ensured that we did not lose a single match in the process. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this exercise at the beginning of the journey—there is no more powerful driver than a common set of goals that everyone rallies around.
Keep it simple
As a coach, one of the key mantras I have followed that works well is to keep things simple. In today’s age of technology, analytics and an avalanche of available date, we often tend to over-complicate our diagnosis and any remedial measures that a player may require from the coach. A case in point is a situation many years ago when one of the most promising fast bowlers from India had a torrid debut session—he was spraying the ball all over and in his eagerness to make an impression conceded a bag of runs while not taking any wickets. As he came back to the dressing room crestfallen, I realized that the moment was then and there to give him one, simple tip to make a small technical change to his action. I remember spending just 30 minutes with him and focusing on this one simple change that needed to be made. As the media, including many cricketing experts, crucified him in the newspapers next morning, the player in question proceeded to bag a five-for and prove a point. The point here is not about the technical change that was made, but to emphasize that as leaders and coaches, keeping it simple is much more powerful and impactful than doing multi-dimensional, complex analysis.
A coach is often in a very unique position—he/she cannot go out there and perform. The technical skill that a coach possesses may just be one aspect of the overall skill sets required—in my case, bowling—yet, it is often required that you have to be the guiding lamp and voice of reason for all the players.
It is increasingly clear that coaching roles, just like the game itself, are less about core skill and more about context, perspective and human dynamics. Keeping your own chin up all the time and brimming with enthusiasm and confidence, can get the best results out of your team. Most importantly, as a coach, you have to enjoy what you are doing and why you are doing the same—it is often not just a job, but a state of mind.
All rights reserved © 2013 TENVIC
The writer, Venkatesh Prasad is a former Indian cricketer.
First Published: Tue, Apr 02 2013. 12 23 AM IST in the Mint