Friday 15 February 2013
The Cabinet War Rooms in Central London provided a fitting backdrop for youth academy directors and Barclays Under-21 Premier League coaches who attended the first Leadership Journey event of 2013.
Deep underground in the bunker used during the Second World War by Prime Minister Winston Churchill when guiding the country out of its darkest hour, the coaches responsible for leading the next generation of home-grown footballers gathered to receive some words of wisdom from a series of leaders.
“When everything becomes more complicated and running much faster, you need a core belief system to use as a touchstone”
The key focus of the event was to help those responsible for moulding the game’s future to develop their own ideas about how to guide their talent the performance pathway: the step-by-step route established by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) to turn young talent into Barclays Premier League players.
As mentor and performance analyst to world-class athletes and Premier League players, Mike Griffiths gave an invaluable insight into the mindset of the elite sportsperson, beginning his presentation by emphasising the potential than can be untapped by optimising "the most powerful piece of equipment on the planet”, the brain.
"A British neurophysicist worked out that if you were to replicate the human brain, you’d need 10 billion circuits,” said Griffiths. “That’s 10 million, million circuits. He also calculated that you’d need 1.5m cubic feet plus several million more to house the wiring in one brain.
"Then having built it you’d need one billion watts to power it. And we take it for granted. It’s just there. But it’s the most powerful piece of equipment in the planet, and there’s no manual.”
Griffiths described the traits of a world-class athlete, listing the qualities common to them all: obsessiveness, total commitment, intensity; persistence; diligence; focus, fearlessness, conviction; readiness to work outside their comfort zones.
He added that the very same mental attributes would be required of those youth players hoping to make it in the game today, but Griffiths’ key message was to underline that by coaches instilling the right positive messages in players at a young enough age, the conversion rate from potentially good to successful world-class players will "go through the roof". In other words, he is certain that the performance pathway can deliver.
"If the parents are not tuned in by their kids’ coaches, they will unwittingly undermine them"
"I cannot emphasise enough that the power of this thing on your shoulders is huge and 98% of the population underestimate what they’re capable of and increase the degree of difficulty in what they’re doing,” he said.
Griffiths warned that one reason that aspiring sportsmen fail to make the grade is the negative influence of those closest to them. "Parents are empowering these kids with positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement,” he said. “If the parents are not tuned in by their kids’ coaches, they will unwittingly undermine them.
"Academies need to engage with the parents on this kind of level. How do we want to programme this computer that we’ve got on our premises that’s eight years old?’“
Griffiths went on to explain in detail the difference between the conscious and the subconscious and how the programming of the latter with the right messages is the secret to achieving success; a positive message is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Premier League’s Chief Executive Richard Scudamore, who was interviewed by radio presenter Mark Saggers, also gave his thoughts on effective leadership. Scudamore highlighted the importance of establishing a value system, formulating a plan to make that system work and achieving the set goals through effective communication, firm decision-making and hard work.
“When everything becomes more complicated and is running at a much faster speed, there must be a core belief system to use as a touchstone to refer to,” he said. “In the Premier League for the last nine years whenever anyone joins the company the first thing they see is the virtuous-circle model.
“The model says: 1) Put on the best possible show – by using the top talent we can attract from around the world – in full stadia; 2) generate maximum interest – that can mean commercial interest, public interest, political space; 3) convert that into commercial success, soft power and political influence; and 4) distribute revenues equitably, use power and influence responsibly, balance commercial success with corporate social responsibility and redistribute that money, influence and soft power responsibly to put on a better show.
“That’s what most Premier League clubs do, they reinvest back in new talent so they can put on a better show and keep the grounds full. There is no idea in any of our management meetings that we don’t set against our virtuous circle and ask where it fits within that model; if it doesn’t fit, we probably reject it.
"Our youth coaches need to have the confidence to stick with what they know is right, stick to their value systems and plans and over time let the world find out that what’s been going on behind the scenes has been good.”
Scudamore conceded that the Premier League’s academy directors and coaches are faced with a daunting task in increasing world-class players produced in English football, but stressed its importance to safeguard the future of the game.
"Youth coaches must have the confidence to stick with what they know is right"
“The Premier League has become global, and the gauntlet is down to produce globally qualified talent,” he said. “I don’t underestimate the challenge: this is the toughest thing in the world. But it’s essential; we have to do it. When I talk to clubs at the most senior level they want this to work, they want local homegrown talent to come through and it’s with a heavy heart that they buy rather than promote their own.
“The performance pathway is vital. At present [the number of homegrown players] is not the same as the Bundesliga or La Liga but the trend is starting; we’re not at the bottom of the tick any more, we’re on our way and the numbers are on the up: If you guys can shine up a few gems that will be a hugely positive step.”
In many respects Scudamore and Griffiths had the same thoughts about leadership: Implement a core belief system, carry out the strategy through effective communication, have the drive, application and commitment to reach your goal.
As Griffiths said: "If you were going to climb Everest, would you want to attempt the journey with someone who wasn’t bothered? Your organisation’s like that; you’re the leader, you’re setting the pace. If you have a world-class approach then you’ve got a chance of creating world-class talent.”