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May 13, 2018

The coaches’ coach - Damian Hughes - talks about his career in sport

Tony James talks to Damian Hughes about his career in sport and altering mindsets

The prizes that await a top sports coach have never been so glittering and the results of failure have never been so savage. Inevitably, the sack looms for the man or woman who turns out not to be superhuman after all.

It’s time to find what’s gone wrong and put things right, and that’s where Damian Hughes comes in. Professor of organisational psychology and change at Manchester Metropolitan University, Hughes is in constant demand as the ultimate coach’s coach - an academic with a sports background and an uncanny knack of reducing winning mindsets and improved performance to a formula probably even someone’s granny could follow.

It’s generally reckoned that Scotland’s shock 25-13 drubbing of England in the last Six Nations rugby tournament and their first Calcutta Cup win for a decade was not entirely unconnected with Hughes joining Scotland as coaching consultant.

He is currently managing to balance at least five simultaneous careers with the expertise of a juggler spinning plates: university professor, author of seven best- selling books, founder of a change-management consultancy, motivational speaker and sports organisational psychologist.

He clearly remembers his mother’s reaction to his numerous career shifts. “She said: ‘What are you going to do when you get found out?’ I’m still working out the answer to that one,” Hughes smiles.

No wonder that when he accepted his professorship he made sure that his mother and father were at the ceremony. “My mum just had to be there,” he says. “Otherwise she would have thought I’d bought it off the Internet!”

A personable friendly chap, and son of legendary boxing coach Brian Hughes, trainer of super middle weight champion Robin Reid, Hughes’s first love was football. He made the England schoolboy team before serious illness cut short his career.

After collecting a classics degree at Leeds University, he turned his thoughts to football coaching and after a spell with the Bobby Charlton Soccer School, became a coach at the Manchester United academy.

“I began to think about why young players of the same ability often went differing ways,” Hughes remembers. “I became fascinated by the mental side of the sport, and decided to take a three-year postgraduate course in psychology.

“I loved every minute of it and working full-time at the academy, I was totally immersed in the winning environment. I was working with top people like Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, who was looking after the United juniors.”

After five years it was time to move on. And his girlfriend at the time was working in HR and suggested he gave it a go. So in his mid-20s, Hughes jumped from the world of professional football into the corporate environment of Unilever.

And the girlfriend? Geraldine became his wife and mother of their young son George. The family now live in the peaceful Cheshire countryside.

At Unilever, Hughes could put all his theories to the test. Rising quickly through the ranks he managed to push the company’s Port Sunlight factory, languishing in the bottom three of the firm’s 100 plants, into the top five.

Eventually, sport lured him back. In 2008 he joined forces with former England Rugby League coach Tony Smith and also became sports psychology consultant for professional teams including Rugby Union’s Sale Sharks and League’s Warrington Wolves and the Premiership’s West Bromwich Albion.

For most mortals, that would be enough, but not for Hughes. His book on boxing legend Thomas Hearns won critical claim, the biography of Marvin Hagler was the year’s best selling sports book and his memoir on Sugar Ray Robinson was awarded sports book of the year.

Sporting icons like Jonny Wilkinson, Sir Alex Ferguson, Tiger Woods and Sir Ian McGeechan have praised Hughes’s methods of boosting confidence and performance by going back to basics.

Hughes explains: “I have pored over the thousands of notes and observations from the great coaches and have recognised over and over, the same principles at work and the same mission: Can you get people to start realising their potential?

“It’s all about engaging with people, persuading them to remember your message and to perform well when they come under pressure.”

He believes that great sporting leaders keep things simple. “When Jurgen Grobler arrived to take over English rowing he asked every rower to answer the question: Will what I am doing make the boat go faster?

“Steve Redgrave was dismissive of the idea that he needed to incorporate weights in his training. When Grobler produced statistics showing that increased power from weight training would make the boat go faster, Steve became one of the most committed weight-trainers in the team.

“In a world of noise and hype, what these coaches are doing is reducing things down to their most simple form and understanding the essence of what we are trying to achieve. For instance if you talk to players who worked with Sir Alex Ferguson they will tell you about the way he could get immediately to the point.

“I remember Roy Keane telling about a half-time talk Fergie gave in the dressing room during a game with Spurs. He walked in, said three words: ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ and walked out. The team went out and won the match!
“That was Fergie’s shorthand for ‘We know what Tottenham are about - they’re pretty but not gritty. I don’t have to tell you what to do.’ Those three words said it all.”

Hughes has no doubts about where David Moyes went wrong when he stepped into Sir Alex’s shoes. “You could see Moyes walking into the bear traps that were there for him,” was how he puts it.

“Rather than tackling the big things that needed tackling, he went into micro-management mode. Banning chips in the canteen is a famous one, but I think he was overwhelmed by the big picture.

“One of the trademarks of Manchester United as a club is that they keep on coming at you. Ferguson was relentless with his ‘We expect to win’ tone, but Moyes was ’We hope to make it difficult.’

With that, you create a grey area for players who are under pressure. I think Moyes was let down by some of the players, but his man management wasn’t clear. I never got a sense of the kind of football Moyes wanted to play at United.”

Great coaches, according to Hughes, have one thing in common. “They create an environment in which people feel safe enough to ask questions and admit they don’t know everything. That’s where the real coaching work begins because people are exposing a gap in their knowledge and are looking for a leader to help them fill that gap.”

Hughes says Jose Mourinho is a past master of what he calls “guided discovery.” “Mourinho’s training sessions are only 90 minutes long and game-based. At the start of the session he will give players a question and give them 90 minutes to solve it.

“What he is trying to do is create players who can think for themselves.”

At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola takes pains to persuade players to adapt to the culture of the club, while at Liverpool Jurgen Klopp develops intense personal relationships with his teams so that they trust him enough to follow his demands without question.

“The secret in all cases is keeping things simple,” Hughes says. “I learned that from my dad. In the boxing ring, a coach has only 60 seconds between rounds to get his message across, and that was all Muhammd Ali needed to become champion of the world.”

*Damian Hughes’s latest book, The Winning Mindset, is now out in paperback.

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