The Barefoot Coach | How sports can benefit from psychological coaching

Published: June 2, 2019 1:35:05 AM

How sports can benefit from psychological coaching, as exemplified by Paddy Upton, who quit competitive cricket at 25 to take up a career in sports coaching

The Barefoot Coach book, gary Kirsten, cricket in india, sports for psychology, psychological coaching

By Ambi Parameswaran

Best selling author, former CEO and executive coach Prakash Iyer tweeted this a few days ago: “80% of the time batsmen fail due to a mental error and not a technical one. And yet conventional coaches spend 80% of the time fixing technical errors. This and more from @PaddyUpton1 . Makes me think: what’s true for batsmen is true for leaders in corporates too?”

You may have heard of the concept of a barefoot doctor — doctors who work in the rural areas, almost ‘barefoot’. Now, get to meet the barefoot coach — Paddy Upton. Where did Paddy Upton pick up this interesting name for his book on Life-Changing Insights from Coaching the World’s Best Cricketers?

Paddy Upton is a Johannesberg-born, South African cricketer, who has played for his country, and at the young age of 25 decided to quit competitive cricket to take up a career in sports coaching. He is also a surfing enthusiast, and loves ‘barefoot surfing’. He explains that at times he includes a ‘surfing clause’ in his coaching assignments.

The Barefoot Coach book, gary Kirsten, cricket in india, sports for psychology, psychological coaching

What is so different about Paddy Upton’s story? For one, he is not a normal coach. He is a psychological coach. He joined former South African cricketer colleague Gary Kirsten as the psychological coach of the Indian cricket team in 2007. He says as they were flying to India for the assignment, like true managers, they were putting down their goals for the Indian team: Become the No 1 Cricket Test side in the world; win 2011 ICC World Cup; create a happy team environment; and help players become better people (self-mastery).

These look ‘BHAG’, to use a term popularised by Jim Collins in his book Good To Great (for the uninitiated, BHAG aka Big Hairy Audacious Goals), especially in the light of the relatively modest run that the Australian veteran Greg Chappell had with the Indian team.

But at the end of the assignment, Gary and Paddy had achieved all the objectives they had outlined on flight while flying over the ocean.

What made this possible? Was it the combination of skill and psychological coaching? And keeping them separate yet together?

In management terms we say, “hire a person for attitude, train him for aptitude”. Indian cricket team got the benefit of both skill as well as psychological coaching, and the results showed for themselves.

Paddy Upton is eminently qualified to perform the task, and write about it. Unlike many sports personalities, Paddy is academically qualified or even ‘overqualified’, with a Masters degree in business coaching from Middlesex University. He also has degrees from four different universities, two Masters degrees, and was appointed professor of Practice at Deakin University (Melbourne).

The book is divided in three sections. The first, In the Beginning, lays out Paddy’s relationship with Gary Kirsten and their own definition of what coaching should be and the changing landscape of leadership. Section 2 is the India journey, starting with their arrival in India to getting the team to play as one — towards a common goal. Section 3 is all about Paddy Upton’s views about ‘Life as a Journey’.

Like other books by cricketers, you will get to witness many behind-the-scene episodes. The one when MS Dhoni decided to go out to bat at the World Cup finals, and how he signaled it to Gary and Paddy deserves special mention. You will learn about the thorough professionalism of a player like Rahul Dravid, and the interesting psychological coaching sessions Paddy conducted for Indian players who were feeling down-and-out.

What will be of special interest to Financial Express readers is the fact that Paddy Upton weaves some life truths on striving for excellence. The comments about ‘The seven habits of highly effective losers’ were very fascinating — gaining perspective, expecting and accepting failure, knowing that this too shall pass, controlling the controllables, reviewing to learn, planning to improve, and growing character.

If you are interested in knowing more about how cricket and pretty much all high-level professional sports have benefitted from the special breed of psychological coaching, you will find this book a great read. Even if you are not inclined towards sports, but want to learn how businesses can benefit from the knowledge of sports, this book makes a good read. A little longer than I would have preferred, but the nice pictures and the anecdotes, including the one about ‘Madiba and the Pen that would not write’, make interesting reading.

(Ambi Parameswaran is an independent brand strategist, author and founder of, a brand advisory.)

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