Interview: Paddy Upton March 3, 2008

'The more of a superstar one becomes, the lonelier one actually gets'

Paddy Upton is almost certain to be appointed as India's first mental-conditioning coach. Cricinfo spoke to him on the challenges ahead

Paddy Upton is almost certain to be appointed as India's first mental-conditioning coach. Cricinfo spoke to him on the challenges ahead


Paddy Upton: India bound ©
 

What exactly would be your job description?

All international cricketers are highly skilled and they are able to technically score 100 runs every second time they walk to the wicket. There are not many deliveries at this level of the game that are unplayable or that a bowler genuinely earns a batsman's wicket. Probably 90% of the time it's due to the batsman's own error in judgement error in thinking that causes them to get themselves out or allow themselves to be worked out by the bowler. So my work will be to try and eliminate as many as those self-made errors as possible. And that has been my work with the cricketers in an individual basis before.

And from a team's perspective I will look at maximising the different individual's contribution to the team. So my work would be in capacity of mental conditioning coach.

Can you break it down to specifics

Let me speak from my past work. I will help a batsman to see how they are getting themselves out, help themselves understand where their mental weak point is - for every batsman it's at a different place - and I would help them construct a strategy to turn that weakness into strength.

Let's say a batsman is getting out to really quick bowling; there might be some fear around that short-pitched or quick bowling. They are not getting into line or they are not getting into the best positions. I would help them understand that and work with it so that it's no longer a weakness.

Then there are some batsmen who tend to relax or get over excited or over confident when they get into 30 and 50, and start playing a bit more expansive cricket that leads to them getting out. There is something in the player's mindset that does them to switch over to when they reach 30.

So what exactly do you tell that player?

Very few of the batsmen that I have worked with, when we go to a very deep level of awareness, are actually aware of what their problem is. You can see them on a TV or a coach can spot that they are not moving their feet or they are getting overexcited but what actually is causing it is what is ticking behind that player's mind.

The mind causes the body to play that incorrect shot. If the body were to left to its devices it would react and respond appropriately to the ball that is being delivered. But the mind is causing the problem.

For example with Jacques Kallis, it took us seven or eight hours to find out where exactly he would make his error. With Gary Kirsten, it took about six hours and then one needs to work with it on a regular basis. So it's not simple as a batsman saying. 'This is my problem'.

So what exactly was the problem with Kallis and what was the solution suggested?

That's completely confidential. I haven't told anybody and each player I work with I can't go and speak about it. It would be not correct. For example I go and work with an Indian player, there is no way I would tell about it to any body in the world. That's the nature of my work.

OK. Let me read what a player has said about you. Graeme Smith, after he became captain, said: " We have been putting practical systems into my everyday life to help me cope, and it's helped a lot. I am a lot calmer and less emotional now. For the first time in my life, I have someone to bounce things off and talk things through with openly and honestly." How long does it take to arrive at such a personal equation with a player? How do you proceed?

I would proceed cautiously. Relationship is one of the key factors because its just not cricket. As you can see from that Smith quote he hasn't mentioned anything about cricket. I was talking more leadership and about managing the pressures in his life off the field. So if that's impacting and creating stress in a cricketer's life and impacting his performance on the field, I would work with non-cricket related matters. And that's really dependent on the level of our relationship and it requires total confidentiality; so that the player knows he can say anything to me and I am 100% bound by confidentiality.

In business top guys have coaches now; executive coaching is the second fastest growing profession in the world where business executives have somebody to share their thoughts, bounce his ideas and sometimes just offload and discussing something that he cant discuss internally.

Similarly, if a particular cricketer finds a situation stressful they are never going to tell the coach and Gary [Kirsten] is fully aware of it. That's why he would like somebody like me in the midst. If a player has got a problem and they couldn't talk to the coach, because it is difficult and might compromise them there is somebody to talk them through it and clear it so that it doesn't interfere with their performance.

 
 
"I started my own spiritual path there; my spiritual life is formed out of India and I also got married in India in a traditional Vedic ceremony. So I am not a stranger in that respect. I got married to a South African in one of the Indian ashrams"
 

Indian cricketers are like superstars here. They lead a life of a celebrity. How do you plan to work with people like that? Will they open up?

The more of a superstar one becomes, the lonelier one actually gets. Certainly, the top businessmen I have worked with, the superstars of South Africa, it can be sometimes a very lonely place. But with respect to the Indian cricketers, I would need to discover that myself when I get there. For everyone it's very different. While I am familiar with the Indian culture I am certainly not completely familiar. So I would need to be cautious and take my time and be humble about the potential beginnings.

How familiar are you with the Indian culture?

I have toured with the team and I have travelled to India personally. I started my own spiritual path there; my spiritual life is formed out of India and I also got married in India in a traditional Vedic ceremony. So I am not a stranger in that respect. I got married to a South African in one of the Indian ashrams.

Sandy Gordon did a study he conducted with current and former Indian cricketers over an 18-month period from July 2003. Do you plan to speak to him?

I would certainly do as much preparation as I would be able to. If Sandy is prepared to share some of the things, I certainly would seek that.

At some point of time, Virender Sehwag preferred to talk to Rudi Webster than Sandy as he felt more confident with experience in cricket. What's your background in that regard

I had played first-class cricket and been a captain in provincial cricket. When I spent four years with the national team I was involved in all the strategy, all the planning sessions with Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer. So I have an exceptionally deep understanding of the game. I had retired from playing cricket to take up the position with the national team. So it was the choice between playing cricket as a profession or moving to fitness training as profession. And I had completed all available cricket coaching courses in SA and earned distinctions at all the different levels.

I left fitness training in 1999, realising that there is something more important than getting the body supremely fit to perform at the optimum level at the highest level. I did a two-year masters program in business leadership and performance coaching. And my thesis in that program was to look at the coaching approach that was used at that time in all south African national and provincial level coaching for a 12-year period and comparing it with best international practise. Then my work in the last seven years have been preparing for success in high-pressure environment. In sports its focussing on people to get them ready to work with their minds rather than their minds working with them.


'With Jacques Kallis, it took us seven or eight hours to find out where exactly he would make his error,' says Upton © Getty Images
 

Which cricketer's development gave you the most joy?

It would have to be Jacques Kallis and Gary Kirsten. I have also really enjoyed working with Graeme Smith and Ashwell Prince.

Have you been following the Indian team?

I have followed them and have had conversations with Gary. The talent available is great, they are a wonderful bunch of talented individuals. That's the thing that really excites Gary and me.

What kind of response are you looking from the Indian players?

I would start off with humble beginnings, arrive there, and try to understand before I try to be understood.

What's the time frame you are looking at?

The type and level of work I do is relatively new in world cricket. In 1996, when I started as a fitness trainer, I was the first full time fitness trainer in international cricket. It was difficult then to say how it was going to work out but we decided to make a start and see what works, and if it doesn't work, change it and make it work.

I see myself in a very similar position 11 years later in that while there have been some sports psychologists who have done bits and pieces of work with national players, my approach is fairly unique and fairly new. Having spent a considerable amount of time researching the thinking available not only in sports - I have gone outside of sports into business, philosophy, theology, spirituality and taken the best of all of them and see how this works in sports. And the results of sportsmen I have worked with suggests that something is working very well.

So it can't be a short-term stint at all?

This kind of work is longer term and Gary understands that because I have worked personally with him as a player and also in his academy. He has personally seen and experienced the value of work I do as a cricketer and later as a coach; we both complement each other.

It's not a quick fix. People have tried workshops. That doesn't work. I would not want to get involved in that kind of a thing. I don't believe in that approach as it's not deeply effective and not long lasting.

I would say the minimum period I would need is six months. Then let's take it from there. We need the inputs from players, management and see what works out. It would really be something that we have to think carefully and work together.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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