High Performance Practice and Mind-Set: The Route Back for David Moyes

David Moyes
David Moyes

As David Moyes paces his living room over the coming weeks he’ll have this week’s humiliating headlines dancing around in his head.  Does he take a commonly held view that he’s finished as a top line manager and play golf for the rest of his life or  does he bide his time and wait patiently for the next opportunity.  It’s interesting to see the narrative fallacy manifest itself with a vengeance as lazy journalist skip back over the past ten months and weave a story that shows that Moyes downfall was all but inevitable. For what it’s worth I side with Gabriele Marcotti’s view that David Moyes is a very good manager who happened to do a bad job.

He may be surprised but there are many who think he’s in a good place right now.  A number of recent publications, namely Matthew Syed’s Bounce, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, put forward the view that people are not born with unique skills and abilities but develop them over time through “deep practice.”  All of these publications cite the work of Dr. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of high performance and expertise.

In 1991 Ericsson carried out a study involving violinists from the Music Academy of West Berlin.  He split them into three groups 1. Outstanding students who would end up as soloists in the world’s best orchestras, 2. Extremely good students who would eventually play in the top orchestras, 3. Students who were not as good but who would go on to teach.  Ericsson found that by the age of twenty the outstanding violinists had practiced for an average of 10,000 hours, which was 2,000 hours more than the violinists in the second group, and more than 6,000 hours more than those in the third group.  This led Ericsson and his colleagues to the view that the difference in skill level was not down to innate talent but the individual effort and length and time spent practicing.

Matthew Syed, a former British table tennis number one and two time Olympian puts his own success and skill set down to a number of unique advantages he enjoyed growing up in Reading that led him to practice longer, harder, and more effectively than his peers.  Syed’s parents bought a table tennis table in 1978, his older brother was as smitten as he was and practiced at every opportunity, he had a primary school teacher who was Britain’s top coach, and he was a member of a unique club which produced “an astonishing number of the nation’s top players.”  This led Syed to the view that “it’s practice, not talent, that holds the key to success.”

Drawing from Ericsson’s research Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers shows that in any field it’s necessary to practice for around 1,000 hours a year for up to ten years in order to become an expert in a complex task.  David Moyes has already clocked in well over Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and the fact that he lasted for over a decade at Everton points to him being a very good manager .  It’s worth remembering that his predecessor at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson, was dismissed four years into his managerial career by St. Mirren chairman Willie Todd who declared that he had “no managerial ability.”

If there is any thing missing from Moyes’ training it may a lack of exposure to some of football’s finer tactical minds, and

José Mourinho
José Mourinho

on his journey back he may be minded to pay more attention to this area. José Mourinho’s route into management was different to David Moyes – who became the manager of Preston North End once his playing career there ended –  but in hindsight entirely logical.  From an early age Mourinho understood that he did not have the skill to succeed as a player and focused on management.  He was a regular attendee at coaching courses run by the English Football Association, completed a diploma in sports science, and taught physical education.

Before he took his first head coaching position at Benfica in September 2000, Mourinho had served a six year apprenticeship at Sporting Lisbon, Porto, and Barcelona under the late Bobby Robson, along with a further two years at Barcelona under Louis van Gaal – the current favourite to take the reins at Old Trafford from Moyes.  Robson was renowned as an excellent people manager while van Gaal was regarded as one of the most tactically astute and innovative coaches in European football having led Ajax to Champions League success in 1995.  Such was Van Gaal’s respect for  Mourinho’s potential that he relinquished control of the first team to him for more minor competitions such as the Copa Cataluña which Mourinho won in 2000.  In the past ten years across three different clubs and countries Mourinho has won two Champions League titles, one UEFA Cup, six league titles, and one FA Cup among others.  Incidentally Mourinho’s Inter Milan beat van Gaal’s Bayern Munich 2-0 in the 2010 Champions League final.

As Moyes addresses resuming his football managerial career in the coming months he is also going to need to have the right mind-set.  Carol Dweck is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.  Over a number of decades her research has led her to the following conclusion: “It’s not our abilities and talent that bring us success, but whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mind-set.”  People with a fixed mind-set believe that “either you have it or you don’t.”  In this mind-set having to work hard is a sign of weakness.  Their goal is to prove that they’re smart and not to lose face, which leads to an unwillingness to experiment and take risks.  It goes without saying that this is the prevailing mind-set across most organisations today, and for that matter among most high profile sports pundits too.

People with a growth mind-set hold the view that ability is malleable, and that real success comes from working hard and experimenting.  If they hit a bump in the road they are not discouraged but view it as a learning experience and move on.  It’s similar to building physical strength.  If you want to get stronger you have to work out, whereas those with a fixed mind-set view it more in terms of height.  If you want to get taller, well it’s not going to happen.  If David Moyes believes that managerial intelligence is a fixed quantity then every challenging situation will be a chance to prove how good he is, or a chance to lose face.  If he believes that managerial intelligence can be developed, then every challenging situation will be a chance to grow and find new ways of solving problems.

Life may look bleak to David Moyes this week but it’s far too early to pass judgement and call time on his managerial career.  He still has a long way to go and it’s all to play for.

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