Rudi Webster has been synonymous with success on a cricket field — from managing the all-conquering West Indies side of the 1970s and 80s to being an integral part of Kolkata Knight Riders’ IPL-winning campaign in 2012. Over the years, he’s also been credited with having helped a number of cricketers and other sportspersons, including Virender Sehwag and Viv Richards, achieve their true potential. Along the way, the renowned sports psychologist has also seen cricket evolve from close quarters. Here, the 74-year-old Barbados-born Webster talks about the pros and cons of having a burgeoning support staff, the similarities he found between the West Indies dressing-room and the IPL dug-outs, and the challenges for the backroom staff of keeping pace with the high-paced environs of T20 cricket.
In Test cricket and One Day Internationals, captains and coaches have ample time before and during the tour to improve, strengthen and integrate the four pillars of performance — fitness, technical skills, tactics-cum-strategies and mental skills.
Coaches and captains in the Indian Premier League do not have that luxury during their short, hectic and pressure-packed seasons. They focus strongly on the strategic-and-tactical pillar but too often ignore the equally important mental skills that work hand-in-hand with it — concentration, clear thinking, self-confidence and self-belief and the ability to use pressure in a positive way to improve performance and to get an advantage over opponents.
With the amazing technologies in the game and the large size of the support staff some coaches now pay too much attention to the gathering of information, analysis and diagnosis, but too little attention to solutions and execution. Many of today’s players have become too reliant on their coaches and have difficulty thinking for themselves. Consequently they run into trouble in the heat of the battle on the field when they have to stand on their own feet and make their own decisions.
During my short stint in the IPL, I worked exclusively with the local Indian players, many of whom were somewhat overwhelmed by the presence of the overseas and local superstars. I tried to increase their self-worth and improve their mental skills and impressed upon them that their contributions to the team were just as important as those of the superstars. I also told them that the team would not win consistently unless they fulfilled their roles and responsibilities.
In the 2012 final (Kolkata Knight Riders vs Chennai Super Kings), one of these lesser-known players (KKR’s Manvinder Bisla) set the team on the winning path and won the Man of the Match award for his brilliant batting and another (Manoj Tiwary) kept his cool in the heat of battle when the pressure was greatest and won the match in the last over.
The Clive Lloyd model
West Indies’ Clive Lloyd had a clear vision of what he wanted his team to achieve and become and he shared that vision with his team members. Next, he encouraged them to take co-ownership and co-responsibility for designing a simple but intelligent strategy to achieve that vision.
He then identified the team’s most important values, priorities and standards and made sure that every player understood and lived by them.
But Clive’s main priority was execution and he spent a lot of time motivating his players to implement the team’s plan because he knew that vision and strategic plans by themselves only take the team so far. In the end it is competent, well-trained, well-disciplined and highly motivated players that breathe life into the team’s plan and bring about success. Clive also knew that playing better is often more about unlearning or removing bad habits, fears, doubts, prejudices, inter-island jealousies and outmoded traditions than learning or adding new ones.
Clive’s greatest asset was his knowledge and understanding of his players and his ability to press the right buttons to motivate them and get the best out of them. IPL coaches and captains will lift the performance of their players if they follow these examples.
IPL-West Indies connect
Just like players from the West Indies, cricketers in the IPL come from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. What they might lack in national pride they make up for in personal and team pride. When I asked some members of the Special Forces if national pride was their main motivating force they said that fighting to help the soldier next to them and to save his life drove them fiercely.
Leaders in the IPL can build their team around a sense of purpose and unity. Players unite more easily when they share a common philosophy, have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and become and are committed to making that vision a reality. And also when they articulate and live by the team’s values and priorities and master the basics of the game.
Cricket has changed a lot in the last few years and every year the support staff gets bigger. Mumbai Indians won the IPL championship last year with a large support staff, but with a different team this year they are struggling at the moment. A large support staff can be both a plus or a minus.
The larger the group the greater is the need for a clear vision, simplicity, cooperation and coordination of effort, effective communication, and accurate monitoring of the system. Specialisation improves function and performance but only if the specialist coaches are well organised and closely integrated to coordinate and direct their efforts towards the common goal.
But too often this is not the case and too many of them place personal goals above team goals and do not get the best out of the players. IPL teams must now work out the optimum size and composition of their support staff in order to get the best out of the players. A large staff might be more harmful than a small one.
The captain should have a cadre of coaches and other people around to support him and help with strategy and motivation of the players but he must be in charge — the leader of the pack.
Information overload is one of the main dangers of having a large support staff. It can cause enormous confusion, pressure and anxiety, and a loss of common sense and patience.
Consequently players play poorly because they cannot differentiate between the important and the unimportant. Alan Jeans, an Australian football coach, summed up the dangers of over-coaching and information overload when he said: “My worst performances as a coach occur when I give too many instructions, when I interfere too often, and when I try to play the game for the players. The best thing you can do is to remind them about what is important and what is required, give them support and direction when they need it and allow them to do their jobs. You can’t play the game for them. Coaches who stay on the sidelines and try to play the game for the players are only fooling themselves. The simpler and more basic the instructions and demands, the better the players perform. Too many complex instructions are a sure way to destroy performance.”
IPL is a very exciting and hyped-up competition. This often gives rise to over-arousal of the players. This is a killer of good performance.
Some coaches compound this state by psyching up rather than psyching down the players before the game. If coaches and captains can find the optimum level of arousal for their players, their team’s performance would automatically improve because the players would be able to concentrate and cope with pressure better.
Players in traditional cricket and in the IPL are making a very good living, and deservedly so. MS Dhoni once told me, “Playing for your country and your team should be your main motivating force but in today’s competitive and fast changing world we cannot ignore the importance of money in the life of a cricketer.”
And Wasim Akram stressed, “If you work hard, do the basic things well and enjoy the game you will get success and money and other rewards will follow. But if you make money your priority your performance will suffer because you will have things the wrong way around.”
This is also very good advice for the administrators of the game.
In the end, IPL cricket is mainly about pressure — knowing how to deal with the pressures that you face and knowing how and when to put pressure on your opponents. These lessons can be of enormous benefit to the young Indian players in the IPL.
Of pressure Dhoni says, “Players say a lot of negative things about pressure but pressure to me is just added responsibility. That is how I look at it. It’s not pressure when God gives you an opportunity to be a hero for your team and your country.” Perhaps this is why Dhoni is so good in the T20 format.
Rahul Dravid, the other great player produced by India, says, “I predict that the team that masters the basics of the game and copes best with the pressures and challenges in the game will win this year’s IPL championship.