Paddy Upton chats to Sport24

Paddy Upton (Gallo Images)
Paddy Upton (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, PADDY UPTON talks about the art of successful leadership, why Russell Domingo has been let down by the system and South Africa’s impending series against Australia.

Sport24 asked: How has the role of a coach evolved and what are the challenges that still exist?

Paddy Upton: 30 years ago, a coach of sports team occupied the position because they knew more than anybody else about what needed to be done. They were the content expert and the approach was one of instruction and telling players what to do because they knew better. Yesterday’s model was about trying to make players dependent upon the coach. Today, however, the role of the modern coach is to get players to think for themselves and it’s about creating an environment where the player’s natural motivation can flow. Subsequently, the coach becomes a learning partner, as opposed to an instructor and it revolves around starting players on a learning journey so that they can become their own best coach at some point. However, the crux of the matter is that the old model is still firmly in place and many coaches still haven’t made the shift from an old-school command and control hierarchical leadership to more of a collaborative, facilitative leadership style. A coach who feels that the latter approach affords players too much power needs to deal with his own insecurities. Empowering players doesn’t mean standing back as a coach and letting them make all the decisions. It comes down to guiding players into making smart decisions, rigorously testing the thinking behind the solutions that they are suggesting, and ultimately holding them accountable. There is a real shift happening within the global game and, as coaches, we need to lead the change.

Sport24 asked: What are the core deficiencies in terms of support structures within SA cricket?

Paddy Upton: In my opinion, a big downfall within South Africa cricket is that we place a coach, such as a Russell Domingo, into a position when they are not the finished product just like any player that steps into international cricket. When Domingo first came him, he hadn’t had the exposure to international cricket. Strong support structures around him would have been a key piece to setting him up with the best possible chance of success. However, he has been left much to his own devices and is there anyone within his support staff who is really questioning him, pushing him and having the difficult conversations? In South Africa, I believe that we fail to provide strong support structures around the coach and someone to give them difficult feedback, hold them accountable and plot their growth and learning journey. It’s one area in which we can really advance. Meanwhile, a player in his first year within a side, as opposed to his third year is a different individual altogether. Much of that is because of the growth, accountability and learning structures around the player, but we don’t do anything like that with coaches and interestingly in some cases with captains. For example, 22-year-old Graeme Smith was thrown into the deep end and handed the captaincy because we believed that he had all the right ingredients, but we failed to provide him with support to navigate his way. In the first three years of his tenure, Smith probably made more mistakes than what he should have had he been afforded sound guidance. There was some fallout early on and he didn’t necessarily make all the smart moves, but it was not his fault, as he did the best he could at the time.

Sport24 asked: It’s often said that culture is king. How would you relate it to an SA cricket context?

Paddy Upton: Culture is crucial in bringing out the best in people and creating an environment in which different individuals from diverse backgrounds, languages and races are able to express themselves rather than have to shapeshift themselves to fit into a little box. Creating the right culture, particularly in South Africa, is a really key piece to getting the best out of very different individuals and ideally creating an environment which attracts the best people. That type of skill goes well beyond a level-one, two or three coaching certificate, where you learn the ins and outs of tactics and strategy of the game of cricket. We are not really setting up our young coaches to go into a very complicated environment where they are presented with additional culture challenges such as the transformation issue. It’s certainly a tricky terrain to navigate. I have now done 15 years of one-on-one coaching with individuals across a number of different sporting codes and levels, and about 80 percent of all my conversations revolve around trying to help an individual overcome some of the obstacles to performance that exist within the environment. In a business context, if you are not happy you put in your resignation and go work down the road after giving a month’s notice. Whereas, in cricket you are pretty much locked in, so if a player is not content with his franchise or national coach, they can’t resign mid-season and play for another team. For argument’s sake, AB de Villiers can’t play for Australia because he would rather play under Darren Lehmann than Domingo. Players literally have to suck it up and keep quiet. But if they do speak up, they risk being side-lined. As coaches, we aren’t really held accountable for the way we are managing and leading our players.

Sport24 asked: You won the 2011 ICC World Cup with India. What led to that successful journey?

Paddy Upton: Myself and Gary Kirsten inherited a relatively unhappy team when we first arrived in India in 2008. Former coach Greg Chappell had great ideas and probably a better coaching and cricketing brain than Gary just by virtue of his experience. However, it was an unhappy environment because of the way Chappell had tried to forcefully impose his will and way upon the team. When we took charge of the Indian set-up, we didn’t really understand the language, people and culture. However, what ultimately led to a successful journey was that we paid attention, listened, observed and learned and did not impose our ways. It was essentially about finding a way that worked best for the players and I knew that if we could remove a culture of sub-optimal leadership, we would have fewer obstacles in front of us and a far greater chance of taking our game to the next level. We worked with the players to set up the best possible environment, which allowed them to express themselves and not have a fear of failure. It was the same approach when I worked with the Proteas. We collaborated with the players to set up ideal training environments and balance between hard work and rest. We had set our goals in terms of getting to the top of the mountain across all three formats and, at the start, Gary said: “Guys, I don’t have the silver bullet and can’t tell you how we’re going to get there, but I know that if we get on the same page, together we’ll figure out a way to get there.” An effective modern coach is able to put his ego aside and realise that it’s about the players putting on the best possible performance. It’s about using the collective intelligence that sits in the room to create the best possible way forward. I’m not intimidated by working with top cricketers because I don’t need to always have the answer. My need is that the best possible answer in the room lands on the table. My job is to facilitate the best answer emerging, as opposed to providing it.

Sport24 asked: SA face Australia later this month. How would you approach the latter opposition?

Paddy Upton: Australia will come at South Africa really hard in terms of their strategy, personality and verbal jousting. I would approach them with the understanding that if we repel that initial onslaught, behind that macho bravado they are not as tough, strong and skilled as they will try to appear. We need to break through that facade. The bottom line is that they are not the team that they were 15 years ago. However, they continue to play that brand of cricket and conduct themselves in the same manner. On the plus side, by our players playing alongside various Australian cricketers within T20 leagues around the world, they have come to see that the uncompromising competitor they face on the field is a good bloke, with his own set of vulnerabilities and insecurities. They would have gained an understanding that the Australians are not as tough as they initially thought they were. However, young players who haven’t played abroad, or someone like Domingo, who has only ever seen the Australians from the outside, wouldn’t have a deeper feel or understanding of who the Australians actually are, compared to who they present themselves to be.


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