18 November 2016

Special Talent, Special Treatment: How to Manage Superstar Athletes

Daniel Gallan

In elite sport, all athletes are equal; some however are undoubtedly more equal than others. In a world where human beings are separated by their abilities on the field, is it fair to treat everyone equally? 

Eric Cantona (7) flies foot first into the chest of Crystal Palace supporter, Matthew Simmons after being sent off in Manchester United's Premier League clash at Selhurst Park in 1995. 

Eric Cantona (7) flies foot first into the chest of Crystal Palace supporter, Matthew Simmons after being sent off in Manchester United's Premier League clash at Selhurst Park in 1995. 

When it comes to fear inducing experiences, few forces in world sport can match Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer treatment. First coined as such by Mark Hughes during his time playing under the former Manchester United manager in the 1980s, the phrase accurately portrays how Ferguson would stand mere centimetres from his victim’s face and scream and shout with such ferocity that the hot air from his mouth was akin to a hairdryer.

Ferguson drove United to 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League crowns, 5 FA Cups and 2 UEFA Champions League titles between 1986 and 2013. He combined a sheer force of will and an unquenchable thirst for success to become the most successful British manager of all time. He also used a healthy dose of fear.

Only one player in the 27 years under Ferguson never knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of the Scotsman’s infamous rollicking. It brought Cristiano Ronaldo to tears, lead to the departures of David Beckham, Roy Keane and Jaap Stam, and put the fear of god in hard men like Gordon Strachan and Gary Pallister. Yet only Eric Cantona escaped unscathed. The ironic thing is, if anyone deserved a lashing, it was Cantona.

On 25 January, 1995, Manchester United visited Selhurst Park to take on Cyrstal Palace, just two points behind league leaders Blackburn Rovers. The two time defending champions were coming off a 1-0 victory over Blackburn at Old Trafford just three days earlier with Cantona, the talismanic Frenchman and reigning PFA Players’ Player of the Year, scoring the winner.

A victory in south-east London would see United return to the top of the table. Instead, something remarkable happened that has gone down in history as one of the most bizarre acts ever seen on a football pitch.

After enduring a first half battering from the home defenders and with the score still locked at 0-0 just after half time, Cantona petulantly kicked out at his chief tormentor Richard Shaw and was duly given his marching orders by referee Alan Wilkie.

Walking back towards to the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms, Cantona’s attention was caught by Matthew Simmons, a Palace supporter who was hurling insults towards him. Most footballers are able to brush off the torrent of abuse they receive from opposition fans, but when Simmons allegedly called Cantona’s mother a “French whore”, he launched himself into the stands and executed a flying kung-fu kick into Simons’ chest. Pandemonium ensued and Cantona had to sit out as United drew the game 1-1.

Back in the dressing room after the game, every player received the hairdryer treatment for the poor result except Cantona. David May, the United defender who scored his side’s goal, was chastised by Ferguson for  failing to mark Palace’s goal scorer Gareth Southgate, but when he pointed out that the departed Cantona was the man responsible for marking his opponent, the manager merely said, “Eric, I am disappointed in you. You can’t be doing those things.”

“I thought, ‘Is that it?’”, May told the BBC. “Any other player would have been given the hairdryer. I just got the hairdryer off the gaffer for not marking someone I shouldn’t have been marking.”

Ferguson must have known in those early moments just after the game that the repercussions of his star player’s meltdown would be potentially derailing. Cantona, who also spent two weeks in prison for what has been described as the “most famous common assault case in the history of the English legal system”, was suspended by his club for four months, ruling him out for the rest of the campaign.

Without Cantona, United finished the season in second place, just one point behind champions Blackburn Rovers. In the Frenchman’s absence, the Red Devils lost two and drew four of their remaining 16 matches, including the dramatic 1-1 stalemate on the final day of the season at West Ham United that cost them the title.

It is impossible to say with any certainty that United would have won the league with Cantona, but they undoubtedly would have stood a much greater chance.

So why didn’t Ferguson let loose on Cantona? If talents like Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Peter Schmeichel and Wayne Rooney couldn’t escape the treatment, what made Cantona special?

The answer can be found in a quote from John Wooden, the highly successful NCAA coach who won 12 national titles with UCLA, in his 2005 book, Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization:

“I thought treating everyone the same was being fair and impartial. Gradually I began to suspect that it was neither fair nor impartial. In fact, it was just the opposite. That’s when I began announcing that team members wouldn’t be treated the same or alike; rather, each one would receive the treatment they earned or deserved.”

Cantona was undeniably the most influential player in the United squad and his absence hindered United’s chances of winning the ’95 league title. Ferguson could have roasted him but knew that had he done so, that flying kick may have been the last thing Cantona ever did in a United shirt.

By breaking character and using a lighter touch than would have been anticipated (perhaps even warranted) Ferguson got two more seasons from Cantona which both culminated in league titles. During this successful period, Cantona also helped usher in a new generation of United superstars that would go on to conquer Europe in 1999. How different things could have been had Ferguson opted to treat every player equally.

For Warren Kennaugh, a behavioural strategist who has worked with the best athletes from Australia’s national rugby union and cricket teams, The PGA and more, the coach’s job is to get the best out of every individual in the team. That means that each individual will need to be treated differently.

“You need to know the individual personalities within your team and to know how they will respond in any situation,” Kennaugh says. “It’s about acknowledging those differences. If you treat everyone the same all you’ll do is create an environment where only one personality type can flourish. That might be to the detriment of your star athlete.”

By virtue of star quality on the field, it is easy to understand why some elite athletes behave a little differently to everyone else. Genius and madness often go hand in hand and understanding that certain players will resist being pigeonholed is the first step towards achieving a bespoke management style.

That is not to say that certain athletes should ever get away with misdemeanours or drops in effort because they possess more talent. As Kennaugh says, “It’s not special treatment but is rather a unique tailor-made treatment that suits the particular needs of each individual.”

Sir Alex Ferguson giving his famous hardryer treatment as Manchester United manager.

Sir Alex Ferguson giving his famous hardryer treatment as Manchester United manager.

Maybe star athletes need something that the rest don’t need. To the outsider this may seem like favouritism but it is merely offering the required attention that particular player needs.

Coaches might wish to create incentives where players can earn the right to preferential treatment, but as Tim Goodenough, author and Meta-Coach who helped guide South Africa’s u19 cricketers to World Cup glory in 2014, this approach requires “high engagement skills to pull off.

“Very few coaches are able to do this,” Goodenough says. “If certain players feel that they are being neglected they will never perform to the best of their ability. It is vital to create a culture of togetherness and offering privileges to some and not to others can create a hostile environment.”

Kennaugh agrees, “The last thing you want is for any player to feel that they are there to peel the oranges for the star player. You’ll never get the best out of them. It’s not like years ago where we can just go out and buy some superstars and build a team around them. Every member of the squad needs to feel empowered to contribute towards the collective good.”

The flip side of this is world class players feed off confidence. All great champions share an innate belief that they are better than everyone around them. Perhaps not a better calibre of human deserving of special societal benefits, but certainly better athletes possessing abilities beyond the command of most compatriots.

A coach who doesn’t demonstrate to the best players that they are appreciated and understood runs the risk of stifling their prized asset’s creativity and flair that makes them so highly valued. If a coach fails to do so, a star talent might seek to find one who will.

Like any resource, attention or one on one coaching, is finite. There will come a time when a coach or manager will have to choose which athlete receives that extra bit of help and which athlete’s needs are neglected. Ultimately the coach or manager must decide what is good for the collective and if that means giving the certain athletes preferential treatment then that is something that needs to happen.

But what happens when two players are injured? Is there ever a time when a medical practitioner gives preferential treatment for certain players for the good of the team? It’s easy to understand why the medics at Barcelona would want to do all they could for an injured Lionel Messi even if it meant that a junior squad player was slightly neglected.

For Jay Mellette, the Director of Performance Medicine at the highly athletic organisation of Cirque du Soleil, this question is “one of the most complex topics in sports medicine.” He says, “It’s the duality of a role. As medical practitioners we have a responsibility to our patient (in this case the athlete) and we have a responsibility to our organisation and sometimes they are in divergence.”

Mellette explains that a medical practitioner needs to navigate this minefield with savvy while maintaining the core values that guide medical practitioners. “Sports medicine is a service and even the largest organisations do not have infinite resource to provide those services,” he says. “I understand how some medical practitioners might be under pressure to ensure that the star player receives the best care but first and foremost, a medical practitioner’s duty is to the patient.”

The quandary can be navigated by foresight and very really will triage, the assignment of degrees of urgency and order of treatment, come into play. “Outside of traumatic events, there is never a do or die choice to make. With proper planning and resource allocation strategies, all injuries are treated as equally important and the organisation can sleep easy knowing that their top performing athletes are being taken care of.”

In this way coaches and managers can learn from medicine. Training programmes are always planned well in advance and so too should strategies to provide adequate support for all players on the roster.

Some athletes will need what could be deemed special treatment. As long as these variables do not conflict with the greater good of the team or the philosophies of the coach, then management should do everything they can to fulfil the wishes of the athlete.

The athletes who perform on the field are the greatest assets an athletic organisation has. Ensuring that they are able to perform to the best of their ability should be a priority as that will in turn ensure success on the field. If that means letting a player off lightly after he has just king-fu kicked a spectator, well, back to back titles for Manchester United in ’96 and ’97 speak for themselves. 

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