“After two defeats in a week, Wigan returned to winning ways and the top of the table in emphatic style with their most comprehensive victory of the season. Their attacking play was nothing short of scintillating, but to say Crystal Palace were disappointing would be something of an understatement.” ED JONES, THE OBSERVER
The Crystal Palace Eagles, football (soccer for Americans) team playing in England’s First Division, had the dream start for their 2003-2004 season. The team won their three first matches, leading the League. Then the team stumbled. Out of the next thirteen matches, the Eagles only won one. They lost eight, and four matches ended in a tie. In other words, out of 39 points, Crystal Palace only managed to get eight. The team’s standing in the League at that time was by itself a catastrophe. The way they played those thirteen games was another. The team was in a state of utter confusion. The players walked onto the field to win, but trying too hard, stupid mistakes and the resulting goals by the other side would quickly take the spirit out of them. Their eighth match to end in a loss was particularly humiliating. Wigan Athletic slammed five goals behind the Eagles’ goalkeeper, while the Eagles scored nothing. Crystal Palace coach Steve Kember defended himself in the post-match interview, blaming the players for the bad result: “The talk has been about the pressure on me, but I am disappointed personally because in situations like this you expect the players to go out and do it for you.”1 Midfielder Aki Riihilahti was one of those who had had a bad match against Wigan. He had little to show for the game: a small injury and an early substitution. The players were disappointed as well, both in themselves and in their coach. According to Aki, the team expected and even hoped that their coach would be changed. They wanted a new beginning. Both team performance and mood were at their lowest point. “People were irritated, accusing each other, going it alone, not caring about common goals. A lot of people did not feel like they were part of the team,” Riihilahti recently said, about a decade after these events. “I think many of us requested transfers to other clubs.” Practicing did nothing to bring up the team’s spirits. Mostly they dwelled on mistakes made in earlier games. The coaches seemed to believe that the team could win if they removed all mistakes from their game. After losing to Wigan, Riihilahti joked with teammate Kit Symons that Kember would probably get the sack, and Kit would be made the coach, being the oldest and worst player on the team. Riihilahti’s prediction turned out to be true. Kember was fired and Symons got a call. It was from the owner of the club, appointing Symons the team’s temporary coach. The Eagles were 20th in the league. It might be an overstatement to say that the team was in a panic. However, they were definitely worried, anxious and in a crisis.
A game of football lasts 90 minutes. During that time, one player has the ball for an average of 56 seconds. The rest, 89 minutes and 4 seconds, he spends preparing for his next contact with the ball. By taking the ball, a player can become a hero – or a public laughingstock. Just like that. Football is serious business in the UK. Players are the objects of criticism off the pitch as well as on it, and there is nothing they can do about that. As it is a very public sport, the public criticism is unavoidable. Your successes and failures follow you to the shops, newsagents and pubs. The press scores players, and sports journalists turn the day’s high scorers into stars, while presenting clinically precise – or at times wildly, maliciously inaccurate – analyses of the failures. Players getting good reviews may, for example, refer to an assessment by The Sun when asking for more pay, as if stars given by journalists were scientific proof of how good their game was. What players may not always think of is that when the reviews (which are usually the general impressions of sports journalists) turn against them, the pressure starts to mount. For some players, the most difficult thing is winning the game inside their own heads. One player who has publically spoken about this is Tony Cascarino, known for his long stretch playing for the Irish national team, who frankly discussed in his book Full Time how his inner voice ruined his career. Cascarino’s inner voice was uncontrollable, frequently coming to haunt him in situations where he needed to focus on the game rather than on thoughts of failure. Cascarino’s brutally honest book contains many examples of how his inner voice emphasised every weakness of his team and destroyed his confidence. After three bad passes, the voice would pile on the pressure: “One more pass like that, and that’s it.” Cascarino’s inner dialogue was negative and out of control. He struggled to play a steady game. He could be in excellent shape early in the week, scoring a goal or two, and then play his worst game in the next match. Cascarino was prone to negative thinking, and as the tide of poisonous thoughts would grow strong, his game would collapse. Cascarino may have laughed at criticism by the press or his fans, pretending that he did not care, but in reality he was sensitive to criticism, and bad reviews stayed with him for a long time. Then there are the fans, who are merciless – in particular the fans of the enemy team. The jeers of those sitting closest to the field are fully audible to the players – and they are mean. If a player has made mistakes on the pitch or outside it, he will hear about it. It is part of the nature of the game that you are not allowed to forget a class A blunder, and the social media certainly does not help. Thanks to fast internet connections and YouTube, your mistake can turn into a viral hit in minutes. You can make such a mistake in many different ways. You can miss an empty goal by miles, kick the ball right at the goalie on a penalty shot, or selfishly hang on to the ball when you should have passed. You can pass to the opponent, look like a fool because the opponent dribbled past you, fumble with an easy ball or make an own goal at the eleventh minute. “Fear spreads. It’s contagious,” says Aki Riihilahti. You can see it in the players’ body language and hear it in the coach’s voice. Some might speak too much, while others fall silent. Many players show their anxiety already during warm-up. The body’s fine motor skills and sense of timing weaken, so a player moves early or too late. He can no longer perform a pass that he has done flawlessly hundreds of times during practice. Fear takes its toll. Most players have gotten into the sport because they like playing. But no one likes playing when the losses stack up. Talking to Aki about what happened to Crystal Palace in 2004 suddenly brought back a conversation I had with a professional ice hockey team that had been on a losing streak of 11 games in a row. At some point of the conversation, I asked them whether they remembered why they originally started to play hockey. There was a long silence. Finally, one of the players sitting slouched behind the table raised his eyes and said: “Because it’s fun.” Some of the others burst into laughter. Losing time after time is hard. It wears down your self-esteem.
It took a while for the owners of the Crystal Palace Eagles to find a new coach. Meanwhile, substitute coach Kit Symons created a foundation on which a new coach could build. In December 2003, former football professional Iain Dowie was chosen as the Eagles’ new coach. Symons turned over to him a team that had managed to score a few wins but that was still at the bottom of the league, ranked 19th. At the time, Dowie looked more like a boxer or rugby player than a former top footballer. The big and burly Dowie first met the team at the end of December 2003, holding a speech for the Eagles. He announced that everything about the way the team practiced and played would change from that day on, and that someday the Eagles would play in the Premier League, England’s highest football division. Dowie ended his speech by telling the players that “for the next two weeks, we are going to play football that looks like me. Ugly.” They immediately set about raising their level of physical and mental performance. The players were handed a weekly schedule of a kind that they had never had before. The coaching team indicated how committed they were to the players by their attention to details. When the team arrived for practice, the coaches would already be there, and the equipment needed for the first exercise would be set out on the field. These small but important acts built trust between the coaches and the players. Dowie brought with him John Harbin, an experienced fitness coach and sports psychologist. The team practiced harder, smarter and more diversely than before. Besides football practice, the players also beat punching bags, danced and swam. They started holding voluntary “self development Wednesdays.” The daily schedule usually included a film or a story. The coaches would go over the stories of people or teams who had struggled from being the underdogs to victory. The coaches were laying out a new story for the team. This time it was not about avoiding mistakes but about rising from the bottom. Dowie’s first match was not particularly promising. It was a local game against Millwall at the Eagles’ home pitch at Selhurst Park. Almost 20,000 spectators came to watch the new coach’s first game. However, to the disappointment of the fans, the match ended in a 0-1 loss for the Eagles. However, the way they played had completely changed. The team no longer looked like the group who had lost so shamefully to Wigan almost two months ago. The Eagles were now playing good football. Things looked promising. In addition to developing their physique and football skills, the team’s mental state was also improving. After this first loss “our game opened up,” in Aki Riihilahti’s words. First they beat Ipswich Town, then fought Burnley to a tie, and then crushed their opponent 1-5 in an away game at Watford. The Eagles won seven matches in a row. The team climbed up in the league table toward a playoff spot. The Eagles won no less than 14 of the 22 games they played under Dowie. Out of 66 possible points, the Eagles took 44. By the time the whistle blew on the last match of the series, a miracle had happened. The team had risen to number 6 in the league table. The Crystal Palace Eagles were in the playoffs. In the playoffs, the Eagles were up against Sunderland, number three in the league. The Eagles won the game 3-2 without going into overtime. The next match at the Sunderland home pitch ended in a tie, 1-1, followed by a nerve-wracking shootout, which the Eagles won. A second miracle had occurred. The Eagles had fought their way to the First Division final. The Division final was played at the massive Cardiff arena in front of 75,000 spectators. The match was even, with the only goal scored by Neil Shipperley. When referee Graham Poll blew three times on his whistle to signal the end of the game, a third miracle had happened. The Eagles had won the final and a place in the Premier League. Heaps of people, celebrations, raised fists, U2’s Elevation, pyrotechnics, fireworks, confetti and the championship cup in the upraised arms of scorer Neil Shipperley: “C’mon, beautiful isn’t it?”
The press were as surprised as everyone else, and ended up coining a new word for the team: “bouncebackability.” Dowie and John Harbin had done something incredible. A team mired in a deeply defensive way of acting and thinking had been turned around, and brought right to the top. How? According to Aki Riihilahti, one of the key factors was that the new management built new, professional routines for the team. Physical and mental exercise was greatly increased. Everything was done systematically. During practice, players concentrated on honing their own skills and expertise, and no time was spent poring over the mistakes of past games. In addition to carrying out radical changes, the new coach spent a great deal of time with the players, talking about their wishes and goals and about their lives outside the pitch, such as their families. One key factor in building mental fitness was feedback. Dowie gave detailed feedback and encouraged the players. He built up their self-esteem by focusing on the things that they were good at and helped them to notice the simple things in which they could improve. The players did not have to play a guessing game of what the coach had seen on the pitch and whether he valued his players. From his feedback, the players could tell how much the coach cared, and how much time and energy he had spent on them. Before every match, the players would receive a sheet of A4 paper from the coach. On the top row would be the names of the two teams playing against each other. Below that would be the name and position of the player, as well as playing time. The next three rows would be numbered, and there the player would write his own aims for the next game. At the bottom of the page would be a different quote for each game. Most were familiar to the players from “self development Wednesdays,” such as the Adrianne Rich quote: “Courage is not defined by those who fought and did not fall. It is defined by those who fought, fell, and rose again.” After each game, the players would dig out their sheets of paper and grab their pencils again. Each sheet had two more boxes, labelled “personal evaluation” and “team evaluation.” The players would write their own analyses of the events of the game. In the evaluation fields they would write a score from 0 to 10 for both themselves and their team as a whole. Finally, the papers would be returned to the coach, who would write personal feedback for every player for that game. The one thing that is striking about Dowie’s feedback is how precise – but on the other hand safe — it is. When he compliments a player, he states precisely what he did well. When he gives constructive criticism, he also explains what needs to be improved. Dowie’s feedback centres on two important areas: the player’s performance on the pitch and his attitude. “You looked hungry and strong,” “Brilliant morale and much better focus on defence” and “Once again you did the dirty work of the team on the pitch very well, but you looked a little anxious and did not ask for the ball. You intercepted a lot of key passes. That did not go unnoticed.” Dowie also often had a Yoda-like attitude to the actual end result of a given match. The team and the players could not fail. Things were what they were, no matter who did what, and the result was the result, however a game ended. Overanalysing or overreacting was pointless. To an outsider, it looks like Dowie used every means available to try and lower the stakes. This is one of the key ways of trying to make a fear-struck team, company, group or individual work at the extreme limits of their abilities. Think of it like this. Few people have a problem walking along a half metre wide line through a parking lot. However, if you raise the line twenty metres in the air, the stakes become so high that many will grow unsteady. Mental stakes have the same effect. For example, if a player feels that a game must be won or that he must show his new club how good he is, avoid shame, try not to make mistakes, or keep from showing his anxiety to the fans, all of this can trigger a fear-based defence mechanism. Usually a group of players, a team at the workplace or an individual whose defence mechanisms have already taken over will not benefit from additional pressure. The Eagles’ coaching team very wisely saw this, and decided to cut off the poisonous thinking. Dismantling these defence mechanisms also had other effects. Once the crisis had passed, people had enough energy for doing things together. Someone brought new gym gear, the dining hall was done up with the team colours and the team decided to fix the club house showers together. Before, only two out of ten showerheads had worked. While they did not turn their showers into a luxury spa, at least the showers worked. Team morale was booming on all levels. “I remember how Tommy Black brought a bloody big bouncy castle and kids’ party hats, so we could celebrate the birthdays of two players for five minutes before practice,” Riihilahti says, recalling the change that took place in the mood of the team. The players took up the slogan “Sometimes beaten, never conquered” for the team, and had a print made of it, hanging it on the wall of the club house. Some players would cut individual quotes from the speeches of Muhammad Ali and fix them to various places around the stadium. Perhaps at this point it would be a good idea to recall pianist Maria João Pires and conductor Riccardo Chailly. Chailly calmed Pires with his manner, and managed to get her to stop her defensive reaction. Even in a hall full of listeners, Pires felt safe with Chailly. As we will see later, there is a reason why we behave differently when we are safe than when we feel threatened. These reasons are also not purely mental or emotional, but derive from the nervous system. When our defence system is not involved, messing things up, the required higher functions such as fine motor skills, sense of rhythm, the ability to make observations, creativity and other cognitive functions are wholly at our disposal. Blood flows to those areas that are most important for that performance, the mind focuses on the task at hand, the fear systems become less active and our emotions fade into the background. Iain Dowey and his co-coaches worked hard, carefully creating an environment without fear. They chained the monster and set their team free.
Usually a company operating at a loss does not act like Iain Dowie’s Crystal Palace when it tries to rise back up. Kember’s term is more indicative of what often happens in companies and teams that are in a downward spiral. Once the company is doing badly, people easily focus on mistakes – which is what Kember did. During practice, they focused on correcting mistakes, which is to say going over the failures of the previous games and wondering how to correct them. Dowie’s model was different. During practice, the team would prepare for the next game, and players would know how to change their performance based on very detailed feedback. This was crucial. If a person’s self-esteem is already in ruins, then focusing on mistakes only confirms the player’s low opinion of himself and his abilities. Self-esteem can be bolstered through success. Dowie arranged things so that players got to experience small successes during practice. You can create exactly the same environment in companies. This requires forgetting the bottom line for a moment and emphasising small, concrete actions that everyone can do. Dowie was not interested in the end results of the matches, which also took some of the pressure off the players. The stakes were no longer being raised. People were focusing only on what they were doing, rather than factors partly or completely out of their control. The public to-and-fro accusations, which had torn the team apart, also ended with the change of coaches. The mutual trust inside a team will immediately suffer if it becomes apparent that management does not want to take responsibility. Mutual trust can also be endangered for other reasons, for example if people communicate in a hostile way due to frustration. This will lead to a collapse in the amount of communication between group members. In the business world, a decrease in communication and the creation of cliques can be even more dangerous than in team sports. In team sports, poor morale or a negative atmosphere evidently leads to poor results. Meanwhile in companies, the importance of an open atmosphere and sense of trust and worthiness may often go unnoticed – but it is crucial for doing things smartly. Creative problem solving, performance speed and getting the information necessary to overcome a challenge all become difficult when people are no longer meeting each other or are afraid to give information to each other that might weaken their own position in the work community. When problems in the work community eventually arise, a poor atmosphere or weak sense of community means that the best people generally start looking for a new job in another company. This is what happened in Crystal Palace before Dowie set in, and this is what all too often happens in companies. Once the external pressure mounts up and the company is in crises, management often shifts the pressure onto the staff. Spreading awareness of the crisis does not help, however, if people are already anxious or afraid. Even though it is important to give an accurate picture of the situation, it is one of management’s most important tasks to make individual employees feel safe enough that they will continue to carry out their work creatively and at a high intensity. Iain Dowie accomplished this by spending a lot of time with his players. A manager often cannot promise what the future will bring, particularly in the age of unpredictability that started with the Subprime crisis. However, a manager can be there for the employees, showing them how much he or she values and supports them, and spending time with them as a person, rather than just as a manager. What is most important is that Dowie offered the team a new story. During Kember’s term, the team concentrated on fixing mistakes. In terms of classical stories, Kember would have been, through his actions, telling the story of a beast and how to conquer it. This is also what many CEOs do. The beast can be a recession, structural change, digitalisation or the transfer of labour to cheap countries. Conquering the beast can be a rousing story, if the situation is short term. However, let us stop and think about what this story is about. Jaws is a typical example of a story about defeating a monster. Once the shark has been killed, the mission is accomplished and the end credits roll down. However, we never get to see the heroes return home to the town. Furthermore, that town will never be the same. Friends, children and tourists have been killed. When someone looks at the beach, their first thought will not be a seaside vacation but the tragedy that occurred there. The environment is full of triggers for fear-related memories. A story about defeating a monster is not always optimistic, and we recognise this on an instinctive level. However, Dowie told his team a very different kind of story. In practice, he told and retold the players the story of Cinderella, i.e., the classic rags-to-riches story. Through his anecdotes, Dowie showed the team how you could overcome difficult circumstances. Even though your company or team might not struggle through a difficult period only to end with victory celebrations and champagne, a rags to riches story seems to communicate that even small improvements are victories and setbacks are only temporary. It is an important story about learning.
Conductor Riccardo Chailly and football coach Iain Dowie have a functional model that leads to great results: restoring people’s sense of security, reducing excess pressure, restoring self-esteem, building a constructive interpretation of the facts, inspiring people and focusing on simple, concrete things. In addition, this is a very human model, but it is not about being soft or encouraging positive thinking while ignoring the facts. Even though Chailly and Dowie faced different circumstances, both started from the facts. Pires was in the middle of a live performance before an audience, and she had rehearsed the wrong concerto, which was not something she could change or affect. Instead, Chailly and Pires concentrated fully on what was actionable and turned the focus away from the negative emotions, especially fear, that were preventing Pires from accessing the information and skills needed to perform the unrehearsed concerto. Chailly encouraged Maria João Pires, telling her that the right notes were there in her memory, and it would in the end not be such a big deal if she failed. It was the best thing Chailly could have done to help Pires during the extremely limited time available. Dowie also spent time reducing the stakes and restoring his players’ sense of safety. In addition, he came up with a demanding physical programme and routines for his team, which by themselves created continuity and a sense of safety. A management style that emphasises this kind of safety and improvement by small steps is something that we ought to see much more often in today’s working life, where dwelling in a negative spiral of losses and in an atmosphere of fear have become the norm. It is quite understandable that even the management get frustrated in a difficult situation. It is also understandable that aggressively addressing mistakes seems intuitively like the right way to respond. If there is a problem, it can be rectified. However, even if this may intuitively seem correct, it does not appear to produce much in the way of results. It is in any case not the only way out of a negative spiral.
1 Ed Jones in The Observer, 2 November 2003.  Even though team observer Simon Jordan had promised Kember that he had a job for life with the Crystal Palace Eagles, the Wigan game was Kember’s last.  Plus of course injury time, which accrues due to various stoppages, most commonly injuries. Based on the players’ reactions, it might look like most injuries require urgent orthopaedic care. However, players generally seem to undergo a miracle cure after having lain on the turf for a few moments.  The Sun is a major British tabloid, writing about celebrities, politics and sports.  According to some thinkers (from Nietzsche to sacred Buddhist scripture), a spiritually mature person ignores both compliments and scorn. They have the same root. If compliments touch your ego, then it means you are also vulnerable to insults. The door has been left open.  The first two, Norwich City and Wes Bromwich Albion, rose directly to the Premier League.  While Neil Shipperley and Simon Jordan could not have been happier, their opponent West Ham was full of disappointment. Hayden Mullins was particularly disappointed, as he had requested and gotten a transfer from the Eagles while the team was at the bottom of the league.  The last of these was naturally filled out only after the game.  Yoda-like is similar to Zen-like. Those who are not overly sensitive to Zen can substitute for example Dalai Lama-like or Suzukiroshi-like for Yoda-like.  However, some people seem to be immune to pressure, or actually get a kick out of it.  Some players had their own ways of breaking free from their own and others’ excessive expectations. Aki Riihilahti is one example. When he was very young, he understood that he was not an exceptionally talented player. However, he was a hard worker and could be top class in a certain narrow area, while delivering a good performance at what he was paid for. Aki also has a strategy for when things do not go as planned. Through practice and conditioning, he has created a safety net to which he can return, a playing foundation that never wavers, and on which he can build and improvise.  We watched some videos from that season with Aki Riihilahti. On spotting the team canteen, Aki burst out laughing. It was only now that he realised that table cloths had been brought to the canteen in red and blue, the team colours. What was important was that the canteen was decorated by team members. Wonderful things were happening in the team.  Sometimes beaten, never conquered is the name of Australian star runner Raelene Boyle’s biography.  The mood and the slogans also caught on with the fans. The words chanted by the crowd of the Ali vs George Foreman match, “Ali, Bumbayee!” (“Ali, kill him!”) were shouted at Selhurst in modified form: “Aki, Bumbayee!”  The financial crisis that started with the US sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-2009.  The theory of story types is from Christopher Booker, according to whom there are only seven basic plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Booker’s theory is explored at length in his mammoth volume Seven Basic Plots (2004).