THERE is a brilliant exchange in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when the Mad Hatter asks "Have I gone mad?" and Alice answers, "I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are."
It’s one of my favourite quotes and it’s often popped into my head in competitive situations. Those lines passed through my brain again last Saturday when Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal decided to bring on his sub goalkeeper in the 120th minute of the World Cup quarter-final match against Costa Rica.
Surely he had gone a little mad? Pundits everywhere wracked their brains to understand the reasons why and struggled to find them. Van Gaal made a big call at a big moment. He doesn’t appear to be a man who likes things to be dull.
We all know what happened afterwards and Van Gaal has been lauded as a genius for his decision as Holland march on towards the World Cup semi-finals. To make a call of that magnitude at that moment can been seen as mad, brilliant, tactical or bonkers. But whatever adjective you want to use, it worked.
I wrote last week about Van Gaal’s strategy and his players buying into it. No matter what the sport, I believe having a good management style is key to achieving success.
During my career, I worked with a few different high performance managers appointed by Athletics Ireland. To receive funding from the Irish Sports Council, it’s a prerequisite that there is a person in this position but the reality was that I was never really managed by any of them. I set up my own system and management structure with people that shared the same vision as me. My coaches managed my training and championship preparation, with an athletics agent managing my race schedule. I always worked with people who I had a level of harmony with.
Managers I came across in the high performance role seemed more concerned with performance funnels to predict reasons why success would be difficult or telling me what made my competitors great athletes. We were never on the same performance page, so they had little or no influence over my racing planning and strategy.
The first race agent I had was an Englishman by the name of Andy Norman. I was in my early 20s and knew very little about the sport at an elite end. He was a controversial figure in athletics but for me, he was the perfect manager. In my early years racing in Europe, he would put me in the worst lanes at competitions, either lane one or lane eight. When I would complain, he’d tell me: “They are all bloody 100m, stop complaining and learn to run fast in every lane.” I later ended up in lane one at a world championship and European Championships final, running an Irish record both times. I remember reassuring myself that all the lines were bloody 100m!
In 2007 I had a disappointing world championship, rather than telling me everything what went wrong, he told me all the reasons why I would come back stronger. Sadly he died shortly after this but I learned a massive amount from the years he was managing me. I believed in what he was telling me and he believed that I would listen.
I always thrived on being managed by people who would find the one reason why I was good enough to succeed, despite there being 99 reasons why I should not succeed. I don’t think normal logic works in high-pressure sports situations, that’s why I liked working with people who could think outside the box. I never wanted to hear that, statistically, the chances of winning an Olympic or world medal are very slim. I wanted to know how I could do it. I believe in people who create solutions.
Watching Van Gaal’s management performance at the World Cup is an absolute joy. He has been right too often to claim it’s luck or good fortune. His absence of fear seems to mean he is more inclined to take risks with bold decisions and put his neck on the line.
Watching the reaction of the Dutch players last Saturday night to the unorthodox substitution choice was a lesson in shared belief and vision. In one massive moment, Van Gaal changed the landscape of the game. His whole team, possibly excluding the goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen who was subbed for Tim Krul, had full faith in their manager’s decision.
Rather than pressure being mounted on the players taking the penalties, the focus was on the unconventional decision to bring on a fresh goalkeeper who had not touched the ball. Even the keeper, Krul, was in a win-win situation because he had nothing to lose but everything to gain from getting into the penalty box.
Undoubtedly the Costa Rican team had studied the style of the Dutch number one goalkeeper Cillessen and would have had information to feed to their players. Does he move from the line? How fast does he go to ground? That type of information can calm and reassure a player under tremendous pressure to perform. The introduction of Krul may have thrown doubt on their preparation and with doubt comes anxiety. Imagine taking a penalty for your country to get through to a World Cup semi-final but being a little anxious because of a goalkeeping substitution, not exactly ideal.
The World Cup isn’t quite wonderland but long may Van Gaal’s madness continue. He is one of the best managers out there and has earned the faith of his players and the Dutch nation. That faith may take them the whole way.
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