Coaches realising humility can be true path to greatness

“It begins with humility.”
Coaches realising humility can be true path to greatness

So begins a recent book by the successful basketball coach Rick Pitino, and, as it happens, the philosophy of so many of the top teams and coaches in sport these days.

At the GAA Coaching Conference a fortnight ago, the All-Ireland winning Galway minor hurling coach, Jeffrey Lynskey, spoke about how Kilkenny’s sustained success is rooted in how grounded they are. He saw it first-hand in his involvement with the Ireland shinty team last November.

Ireland had been well beaten in the first game of the series against Scotland with a group of players mostly comprised of players from unfashionable counties: Laois, Meath, Kildare, Down, Antrim, Westmeath, Kerry.

For the second game Lynskey chanced calling up someone a bit more high-profile: hurler of the year TJ Reid. You would have forgiven Reid for thinking such a game was beneath him, especially with an All Star trip to Texas just days away. Only Reid was too happy to devote the rest of his annual leave to the shinty.

“I’d rather play for my country than go on the All Stars,” Lynskey would say is what Reid said to him. The same quality explains why Reid’s team are also the best in the game. We’re nearly all now familiar with the importance the All Blacks have put on humility and their sweeping the sheds philosophy.

That not only do you leave your jersey in a better place, but you leave any meeting or hotel or dressing room in an even better, cleaner place. After a World Cup semi-final, a Dan Carter or Richie McCaw can be handed the task of picking up a broom and cleaning up all the discarded mud and bottles and bandaging on the floor.

Brian Cody infamously revealed little enough in his autobiography six years ago, but there were still nuggets in it, not least being how he practised and preached the All Blacks philosophy long before it became common knowledge or they even won the World Cup in 2011.

There’s a passage in which after a training session in St Kieran’s College, selector Martin Fogarty laughs at Cody himself sweeping the dressing room.

“If the rest of the country could see you now, they’d never believe it!”

But for Cody no task, regardless of how menial it was, was beneath him. “I’ll do anything and everything that has to be done because I regard myself as no more important than anybody else in a long chain that is pulling the Kilkenny senior hurling team as quickly as it can,” he’d write.

The same grounded approach has been adopted by the Dublin footballers. Throughout the noughties, there was a culture of entitlement permeating their squad; for all their work ethic, especially under Pillar Caffrey, too many players were swanning around town as if they’d multiple All-Irelands in their pocket. All that changed under Pat Gilroy and Jim Gavin.

Any endorsement money an individual makes goes into a team fund. They undertake a huge amount of charity work. Players and management underwent a 24-hour fast in which they slept outside Arnott’s in sleeping bags in the cold, windy December air. And according to team statistician Ray Boyne, that has served them well in the heat of battle.

“When your back is against the wall,” he’d say in a recent interview, “it’s the humble guys who will be able to stand back up and deliver for you.”

Pete Carroll, the Superbowl-winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks established A Better LA programme when he was winning national championships at the University of South Carolina. Twice a month, he personally would leave his plush house and walk the streets of south LA at midnight and talk and listen to everyone from grandparents to crackheads and gangsters.

“I don’t go to judge,” he’d say. “I go to just to show that someone cares.” Of course athletes can be, and are, arrogant; at times they even need to be. But more and more we’re learning that sustained success is achieved by grounded, humble, athletes and teams.

Think Kilkenny, now Dublin, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. In realising they can always be better as players, and yet as people, that they’re no better than you or I.

Pitino now swears by humility, not least because for a long time he didn’t. He’s the only NCAA basketball coach to win national championships at two different colleges, Kentucky and then Louisville, but will admit at Kentucky, he believed his own hype. “My greatest regret is I was not humbler at an earlier age,” he’d write in The One-Day Contract.

“I developed a feeling much of the success was about me and what I was doing....That arrogance is one of the biggest reasons that successful people stumble and fail.”

It would be great, just as it will be necessary, for Jose Mourinho to come to a similar realisation and undergo a similar transformation. “Maybe people think I am not humble,” he’d say last weekend in his first interview since being sacked by Chelsea.

“But I am so humble, and I am always ready to learn from people who know more than me.”

If he is to take the Manchester United job, he could learn from the occupant of the other hotseat in that part of the world. “‘One thing I have noticed about [Pep] Guardiola,” Alex Ferguson would comment in the foreword of Guillem Balague’s biography of the Spaniard, “and crucial to his immense success, is that he has been very humble.”

When Guardiola became Barcelona boss in 2008, he signed up as the fourth- lowest paid manager in La Liga. He refused to accept the Audi every player was given from a sponsor, as there was none for his technical staff. When he signed a commercial deal with a bank, he distributed his income to his backroom staff.

A fortnight ago I attended a football psychology conference at the English FA in which video was shown of Barcelona training the morning after a Champions League win over Arsenal. Messi and his teammates stayed and lounged around watching and encouraging the B squad train, like a group of kids in the summertime that couldn’t leave the field.

The cameras followed Guardiola in which he goofed and laughed with Messi. Afterwards in the canteen, Xavi talked engagingly to a 10-year visitor from Japan.

Part of Guardiola’s philosophy, we were told, is to spend at least 10 minutes each day engaging with every individual player; hence the goofing with Messi. Supporting the B team, a way of remembering the club is bigger than just the first team. And mixing with the 10-year-old Japanese kid, another way of remaining connected with people, another way a winner sweeps a shed.

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