30 March 2018

The power of persuasion: how to sway superstar athletes

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

As head coach or manager, your job is to get the best out of your team. If that means playing your most talented player in an unfamiliar position then so be it. Right? Wrong. Convincing elite athletes to fulfil a role that may be uncomfortable is a much tougher task than it may appear, but with deft management, even the most stubborn star can be swayed.

Joe Root loses his off stump at Trent Birdge against South Africa in 2017.

Joe Root loses his off stump at Trent Birdge against South Africa in 2017.

In cricket, as with all sports, timing is everything. As the world’s eyes were firmly fixed on Cape Town and the still unfolding ball tampering fiasco, England’s Test team were on the verge of a humiliating defeat half a world away.

If you’re going to get bowled out for 58 (the sixth lowest in England’s history) and lose to New Zealand by an innings and 49 runs, it’s a good idea do it in the midst of one of the most shocking scandals in the sport’s history.

Indeed, newspaper inches, website traffic and voices on radio and podcasts have been fixated on the ball tampering exploits of Cameron Bancroft and the Gotterdammerung that has befallen Australian cricket. There hasn’t been much room for England’s woes and the struggles of their captain.

Joe Root, England’s softly spoken skipper and one of the finest batsman in the world, made the subtle shift from four to three in his side’s batting line-up against New Zealand in Auckland after insisting for months that he would do no such thing. For the uninitiated, this minor positional change can have major implications on a batsman’s state of mind leading in to the match, the tactics he may employ out the in the middle and the make-up of the rest of the side. For Root, number four was his slot and he was not going to budge.

He had a point. Root has a career batting average of 52.77 across his 73 innings. Batting at four he has marginally better numbers with an average of 52.92 courtesy of four hundreds and 2064 runs. However, batting at three, just one position higher - Root’s average plummets to 43.96.

So why make the change if his numbers suggest he should have stayed put? And how did Trevor Bayliss, England’s coach, convince his captain do to so?

The answer to the first question is simple; it was for the good of the team as Root at three solidifies England’s top order while alleviating pressure on the fluent stroke makers down the line.

The second question is harder to unpack as there is no cookie-cutter method that a coach or psychologist can use to persuade athletes do something they don’t want to do. Each individual will require different carrots and sticks but that does not mean a sports practitioner can’t have a cohesive strategy when confronting this challenge.

For James Bell, a sports psychologist who is now the head of culture development at UK Sport, the first step must start with an intimate understanding of the individual involved.

“The first thing you must do as a psychologist or coach is understand why that person feels the way he does,” says Bell, whose job includes helping up to 40 different sports under the auspices of UK Sport foster a positive, sustainable and vibrant culture in order to get the best out of their athletes. “The worst thing you can do as a leader is act in a transactional way and dictate what will be done irrespective of how that person feels.”

Bell, who has worked with leading organisations such as the Cleveland Browns in the NFL as well as the Rugby Football Union, references self-determination theory to reduce motivation to three internal sources; autonomy, relatedness and competence.

“Do people feel like they have a choice in what they do? Do people feel a connection to the other people within the organisation? Do people feel confident and competent in what they do?” James says, helping us out by using layman’s terms to explain the three aspects involved. “If you tick all three boxes then you will usually have a high level of motivation to do something. In this case, make that positional or tactical switch that your coach is asking you to do.”

Problems arise when one of the three pillars break down. Understanding where the apprehension lies will go a long way to determining the course of action for the coach and psychologist.

When a player feels they have been stripped of their autonomy, their choice in the matter, a leader must look inward and question how the message is being delivered. Gone are the days of the dictatorial manager who rules with an iron fist. Modern athletes, with their egos and insecurities and bank accounts and haircuts, do not respond kindly to wraps on the knuckles and kicks up the backside.

“You need to include athletes in the decision making process and create an environment where a positional change fits in with the ethos of the organisation,” Bell says, using the All Blacks as a prime example of a team that, at least from the outside, appears to get this part of leadership right. “Steve Hansen could ask [flyhalf] Beauden Barrett to play at hooker and he’d probably agree.”

The success of the second variable, relatedness, will also depend largely on the culture within the organisation. Pride in the badge, the honour in representing one’s country, the comradery within the playing group; connecting to the collective cause will mean different things for different people.

Bell suggests coaches and psychologists narrow their focus when addressing this challenge. The more granular one’s focus, the more one gets to the heart of what motivates that individual.

“Look at Owen Farrel at the England rugby union side,” Bell says, using the flyhalf turned inside centre as a reference. “If you ask him what his favourite position is he will not hesitate and say 10. But he has played at 12 for a while now and you never hear him complain. Why? Because he has the utmost respect for the guy inside him, George Ford, a man he grew up with and rates very highly.”

Bell continues, “It also makes a big difference who is asking you to do that thing and I would hypothesise that Eddie Jones (England’s rugby union coach) is someone who you would normally say yes to. Perhaps this is not the same with Trevor Bayliss and Joe Root. You are more likely to do something for someone who you look up to and hold in high regard.”

The final variable is arguably the most important for an elite athlete but is perhaps the most difficult to solidify. Confidence is the elixir for greatness in athletic endeavours. Where would the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt and the other immortals be without an unshakable belief in their own abilities?

If the athlete is anxious about a positional shift and believes that the potential for world class performances might diminish, it is for the coach and psychologist to convince them otherwise.

“Use statistics to show that a positional shift will be beneficial, compare his abilities to that of a great athlete from a previous era who made a similar positional shift, explain how this new role will help showcase his talents more, provide evidence that the team as a whole would be better off; leave no stone unturned,” Bell advises. “The coach is asking for a positional switch because he believes that is what is best for the team and the player himself. Have confidence but remember not to force anything. Buy-in from the athlete is crucial and it is important that the psychologist knows what the athlete believes are the pros and cons of both a positional shift and remaining in the same position. Weigh them up and then make an informed decision.”

If there is one piece of advice Bell would leave for young psychologists it would be the following: “The psychologist should never be the decision maker. The psychologist’s role is to help the decision maker know what impact each decision will have. Ultimately it is for the coach or manager to decide if a positional change is worth the repercussions. I imagine it would be a lot harder to convince Cristiano Ronaldo to play at right back than Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia [who now plays in that position after establishing himself as a winger]. Each individual will be different and therefore the process will be different. Understand the subject before trying to influence them.”

It should be noted that Joe Root’s outing at three against New Zealand did not all end in failure. He could only manage a six ball duck in the first innings but a watchful 51 in the second showed glimpses that perhaps he may have a fruitful future at first drop.

Clearly that knock wasn’t enough to convince either Root or Bayliss as he returned to four in the second Test where he scored 37 and 54.

If the English Test team is to find some consistency in their performances and rebuild after a disappointing tour down under, they’ll need their talismanic captain to be at his best. No matter where Root settles in the line-up, those with a stake in his run scoring exploits will hope thayt he is filled with a strong sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence.