“I’ve been working with Ed since I finished playing football for Norwich City and Ed’s understanding of a professional footballer’s mindset has been invaluable in the work we continue to do together”.
I’ve felt very privileged to regularly plan and write the blogs for Paul McVeigh’s website and business for some years now.
For over 25 years, Paul has been an elite performer in two of the most competitive industries on the planet; elite sport and performance psychology.
As a Premier League and International football player for Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City and Northern Ireland, Paul competed with and against the best players in the world on a daily basis which has shaped his understanding of his methodology of high performance. As a world-renowned expert in elite performance, Paul’s credibility comes from his unique combination of reaching the pinnacle of elite sport as well as being the first Premier League footballer to qualify with a Master’s Degree in Psychology.
Paul specialises in implementing the mental tools required to elevate the performance of leaders and teams from organisations across the world; especially financial services, technology, and the professional services industry. He has recently worked with PWC, Grant Thornton, Aviva, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Nat West, Microsoft, Cisco and many more.
He wanted someone to reflect his values and beliefs in a fortnightly blog, a request and commission I was only too pleased to accept.
The feature below is an example of one of the blogs I have written for Paul, the subject he’d asked me to write about was innovation. As Paul is an ex-professional footballer, I decided to base the blog around an innovative football team and their manager-back in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, one who were truly ahead of their time.
Leeds United-Early Sporting Innovators
Many people will still remember, with mixed emotions, the nearly all conquering Leeds United of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Led by the enigmatic Don Revie they were a side capable of playing devastatingly effective football, a team moulded by Revie into one of his own maverick image, a footballing visionary who saw the effects of psychology in sport and wielded it to great effect with his formidable side, creating suspicion and downright dislike from many people within the game as he did so.
The home team dressing room at Elland Road was, as was the approach at the time, a spartan, almost minimalist environment. Stark bare walls, wooden benches, old fashioned lockers and a large communal bath at its periphery. The same sort of facilities as any team, anywhere in the country might have had at the time. The bare necessities.
Yet Revie swiftly realised that the home team dressing room was, and should be regarded as, far more than just somewhere his players used to change into their kit before a game. He made it a psychological battleground, his personal war room.
Thus whilst the days leading up to a fixture could be spent focusing on just that and all the minutiae that typically accompanies match preparation-tactics, opponents strengths and weaknesses and the game itself, Revie used the last half hour before kick off to work on his players minds with just as much intensity as he and his coaching staff had done so on their bodies in the days leading up to the match itself.
Pride of place in that home dressing room went to a small sign, one that was not much bigger than a car number plate-indeed, the letters on it looked as if they had been made up of those you would normally find on one. Its message was succinct and to the point.
Two words that summed up Revie and his Leeds United side.
The sign was small but the message it screamed out was enormous. Football was war. Revie was the General and Billy Bremner his Captain. He had, with one simple act, created a siege mentality in his players. Note the way the phrase is used. It’s not “Fight” or “We Fight”-its KEEP Fighting. What we’ve always done, what we will do today, what we will always do.
And it was hugely effective.
Billy Bremner recalled in his autobiography what those simple words meant to him, his teammates and the club, saying that he wanted that sign and its message to, “…be a constant reminder to the rest of the lads that no matter what we are faced with in life, we will keep fighting until we can fight no more and even then, defeat wasn’t an acceptable option for us as individuals, as a team, or for Leeds United…”
Revie’s forward thinking had given them an edge.
Prior to Revie’s appointment as Leeds United Manager in 1961 the club had won no major honours in the game. By the time he left them to become England Manager thirteen years later they had won every honour there is to win in English football as well as two more trophies in Europe. They were also, in addition to that, either runners up in the league or a major cup completion on numerous other occasions. They were, quite simply, the team of the moment and of the time, one of the most formidable sides there has ever been in English football.
One that kept fighting. Led by a man who realised, decades it would seem, before anyone else in the English game did, how important innovative thinking was and how effective it could be. He introduced a training ground regime at Leeds which made them the fittest and most technically proficient club in the Football League; his methods including hiring ballet dancers to teach the players about balance as well as imposing strict dietary and nutritional standards onto his players, one of his ex-players, the Scotland international Peter Lorimer saying that no other teams that he played at the time, whether club or international level, were doing anything remotely close to what Revie had introduced at Leeds.
He was as influential a figure at his club and within the game as Arsene Wenger was today at Arsenal. Yet, where-as Revie’s methods, his innovation, his psychological approach to winning was treated with suspicion, even derision back then-not for nothing was his mistrusted and mis-understood team referred to as “Dirty Leeds”, even though their onfield disciplinary record was comparable to most of the other leading teams at the time-Wenger’s equally cerebral and innovative approach to playing and coaching is treated with reverence and respect.
Don Revie was, quite clearly, a man ahead of his time, one whose innovative approach would have been far more appreciated and, critically, understood, in the modern game. His towering achievement was not as much as the innovation itself but in getting his players to subscribe to it at the time, a period in the game when anything connected with change was regarded with great suspicion and where habits and traditions within it were pretty much as they had been three, maybe even four decades earlier.
Innovation in sport as a whole is now regarded as essential for progress and continued excellence in the game. ThinkPRO emphasises this by differentiating between those footballers who are comfortable with doing what they have always been told to do with those who are open to escaping that familiarity who, in the words of Paul McVeigh, “…look to the future, embrace the change and get ahead of the game.”
Which is exactly what Revie and his team were doing in the 1960’s and what, similarly, all of the top sporting teams and individuals are continuing to do today-and at all levels in all sports.
Take, for example, Netball.
Long derided as the sport that was forced upon a generation of unwilling schoolgirls and unfashionable in the extreme, it sent about reinventing itself in 2009 with the appointment of a Chief Executive to the sport and a new vision and direction to it that put the player at the centre of everything that England Netball did. This led to the development of the Back to Netball initiative; one that, over a four year period, contributed to an increase in overall player participation of 34%. Their reward for such an innovative and successful approach was conformation of a total investment of £25.3 million in the sport from 2013-2017, an investment that sent out a very strong message about its credibility as a sport.
But it also sent out a message to those who would stand still and be complacent. For, at around the same time as the massive interest and new investment in Netball was announced, it was also revealed that Sport England has cut funding to the FA’s grassroots football programme by £1.6 million due mainly to the fact that the FA had not even come close to its own participation targets at that level, struggling to encourage people to play the game at the same time as English Netball had revealed its own increase in player participation by 34%.
The footballers used to laugh at the netball players. But who’s laughing longest and loudest now?
The innovators, that’s who.
You wouldn’t normally expect Don Revie and the England Netball team to have anything in common. Yet, as it can be seen, with innovation, anything is possible-the only limits are those of the participants imagination.
Edward Couzens-Lake for ThinkPRO