Muhammed Ali, penalties – and Curbs


I often use a Muhammed Ali quote on our leadership programmes

            “The fight is won far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out on the road, long before I dance under the lights”

His thought was that your performance directly reflected the preparation you have put in – obvious no? Not for many managers – at work or indeed in sport. Englands U21 football (or soccer to all my colleagues I’ve been working with in the US) team reached the European final after a penalty shoot out with Sweden – having lost to Holland at the same stage 2 years ago – on a penalty shoot out.

The England manager, Stuart Pearce, spoke of practising penalties at training at most sessions for the last two years to make sure the same didn’t happen again. When the shoot out began the England players looked uncharacteristically confident as they stepped up to take their shots. In a radical departure to normal practices Joe Hart,  the goalkeeper, took England’s second penalty and scored easily. Goalkeepers are rarely asked to take penalties – yet they kick a still football more than any other player on the pitch. It was no surprise that a well prepared England went through – or was it?

What made the difference ?    curbsThe TV studio analyst was Alan Curbishley, former manager of the wonderful West Ham in the English premiership.  Alan’s response staggered me – ” Luck – perhaps it was the law of averages – you must win won sooner or later”. Now despite the fact that you have a 50/50 chance of winning each time on a shoot out – the odds don’t improve the more times you take it (a classic thinking flaw), surely this esteemed manager didn’t think that the preparation was pointless? Well what did the Sweden coach think – who didn’t spend much time with his team preparing for penalties. 

 “We practised yesterday, but I don’t believe in practising them because it is 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent technical,” Jörgen Lennartsson, the Sweden co-coach, said. “If Marcus Berg had practised 2,000 kicks, I don’t think that would have made any difference to whether he scored today.”

Golfing great Gary Player famously remarked “The more I practise the luckier I get”.  Lennartsson and Curbishley both miss the fact that mental preparation is not time wasted and superflous – it is a key ingredient in being successful. How many times do you see people only brushing up on their technical skills – and not getting the overall result they need? Mental preparation, as Lennartsson labelled it, involves working out how you will channel your energies, keep your focus and use your skills to the full under pressure – surely a crucial element in taking pressure kicks? Getting the appropriate attitude to allow you to exhibit your technical skills.

Along with my colleagues I see many managers who honestly believe they are so gifted that practising and adapting are things they can always do in the spotlight and be successful. They hold difficult performance conversations without thinking through what they want to say, how they will create the right environment etc.  They rely on one off influence attempts and charm or aggression to get them what they want – there are a plethora of scenarios where a considered and thought through approach, and managing their own attitudes, may well get them a different result. We see some achieve to a degree -then when they fail or bump against bigger obstacles they blame their luck – or politics or something else, not their own intransigence.

Be lucky – put the time in ‘at the gym and on the roads’. That is why leadership development programmes and coaching are valuable time – they allow you to reconsider your approach, develop options and consider alternatives. Peer coaching and time jointly considering issues with colleagues also provides this. Alternatively concentrate purely on your technical skills – and the law of averages!

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