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Coaching & Development | Jun 16, 2014
Essential Characteristics for a Successful Team

There is more than a generation of football followers who have simply not known a time when Ryan Giggs has not been right at the top of his chosen profession, Chris Brady asks Giggs about achieving and maintaining excellence.

On the same day as the Ryan Giggs interview another interview, given by his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, was published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). What came across when comparing the two interviews is the similarity of the language the two men used regarding the central facets of high performance; not surprising given that they have spent more than 20 years working together. In particular, one word dominated both interviews – “winning”. For Ferguson it was deep in his DNA,

Winning is in my nature. I’ve set my standards over such a long period of time that there is no other option for me—I have to win.[1]

When asked what types of characters he believes are essential to successful teams Giggs answered immediately, “winners”.  How did he explain this common but elusive concept?

Winners are people who will go to the edge to make sure that you win the game; and that includes in the week as well, in training. They would kick their teammates; they would do whatever it took. It would ruin their day if they lost a 5-a-side game; it really means that much to them”.

It is this `winning’ characteristic that high performers seem to value above all others. Next on Ryan Giggs’ list was dependability and reliability:

You need a group of 7 or 8 players who are going to be reliable week in and week out.

When pushed as to what excludes the other 3 or 4 players from this duty he was, perhaps surprisingly given his own reliability, less concerned. The other players would include those who are considered to be game changers. These players can, to a certain extent and for the benefit of the team, be accommodated. The solid citizens in the team will put up with their relative unreliability for the benefit of the team, Giggs thought. In this respect he may be slightly at odds with Ferguson who explained in his HBR interview that,

There are occasions when you have to ask yourself whether certain players are affecting the dressing- room atmosphere, the performance of the team, and your control of the players and staff. If they are, you have to cut the cord. There is absolutely no other way. It doesn’t matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual, and the manager has to be the most important one in the club.      

Maybe when Giggs becomes a manager himself, as he most surely will, he will harden his views. Having completed his UEFA `B’ Coaching Licence in his early thirties and his `A’ Licence more recently, Giggs is now part way through his UEFA Pro-Licence.  He is now formally employed as a player/coach by United and demonstrates his professional dedication to performing as a player by his ability to be able to almost completely separate the two activities.  He tells an interesting story about coaching Antonio Valencia on a particular aspect of wing play and then deriving pleasure from seeing Valencia performing the manoeuvre in a game. What was interesting about his explanation was the casual aside that he had seen the event just after he had been involved as a player in the same game:

I got subbed against Liverpool and was watching the game and saw Antonio do exactly what we’d worked on and I was really pleased.

I asked Giggs if they’d discussed it after the game, “No”, he said, “We’d lost”.  So, even an opportunity to savour a coaching point could not interfere with the fact that they’d lost; with his role as a player.

Giggs explains his ability to separate his two roles by stating that for him,

The coaching is the hard part, the training and playing is what I’ve always done, it’s almost a relief to get back to just playing. I don’t think that I overthink the game; I think I’m playing just as a player. You’ve got your tools in your bag, you’ve been in the same situation thousands of times and you pull those tools out automatically.

This ability to be able pull out relevant tools as a consequence of hours of practice is now a common theme of modern performance theory, the ten thousand hours[2], and the power of practice[3] . Giggs could be the perfect poster boy for the repetitive practice theory.  As an example, he says that,

I wasn’t a good crosser, I didn’t need to be, I ran with the ball, I dribbled passed people. So, later in my career when maybe I needed other options I just had to get better at it and so I practiced as often as I could. I practiced from different positions on the pitch, on both flanks, ten yards into the opposition’s half, 20 yards, level with the penalty area, on the bye-line (that’s where I was able to help Antonio) ; practice, practice, practice.

What about the age-old and surely now non-debate about penalties? Can they be practiced? Of course they can – and should. Everyone now understands, as Giggs says, “penalties are mental not technique”.  Failure to score, according to Giggs is predominantly about “indecision”.

When I practiced for the European Cup Final my mind set was that I’m going to put it in the same spot. If the keeper saves it, he saves it. I took 15 penalties and out of those 15 I scored 14 and hit the post with the other one.  You’re not walking up to the spot thinking, should I put it left, should I put it right; forget the keeper, its going where I practiced. And don’t worry about missing in practice.

In the sudden death phase of the shootout – he scored!

Indecision can be caused, as Marc Sagal mentions elsewhere in this edition, by a failure to concentrate which in turn can be caused by overthinking the consequences. This surely can be the only explanation for the world footballer of the year, Roberto Baggio, and his compatriot, Franco Baresi, voted the second greatest AC Milan player of all time, both missing the target by a good two feet in the 1994 World Cup final shoot-out against Brazil. Indeed, Giggs tells how his teammate, Anderson, demonstrated a complete ignorance of the consequences when he too scored in the sudden death phase of the Champions’ League final against Chelsea.

In Moscow, Andersen came on with two minutes to go in extra time. He’d never scored for United, he’s got that carefree character and he scored. That’s probably because he didn’t think too much about it; he just struck it down the middle.

Whether it is supreme confidence in their own ability or a lack of concern about the consequences, the ability to be able to perform perfect technique under the greatest pressure is a mark of all great champions, like Giggs.

However, irrespective of his/her mental approach, an athlete must remain in peak physical condition to be able to perform on cue.  The physical regime credited with Giggs’ playing longevity is now legend but how did it evolve?

I remember the moment. We were playing Bayern Munich at Bayern, I must have been about 28/29 and the day before the game we were training at Bayern’s stadium and I was playing the next day; the Gaffer had told me I was playing and he said, `swap teams’ because one of their players was a bit of a dribbler so he wanted me to dribble against our guys. So, anyway, I got the ball and started to dribble and my hamstring just went. At that moment, I was feeling really good, I was flying, I was beating players easily. I remember that I went back to the dressing room and I was gutted because I wanted to play – it was Bayern Munich versus United in the Champions’ League. I thought that I really need to do something about this because I’d never had bad injuries, I’d never been out for more than 6/7 weeks but my hamstring just kept reappearing. So, I talked to the physios, I read up on anything I could find and from then on I changed my routine. I got a more comfortable car, not messing about changing cars every five minutes, changed my bed, changed my diet. I just tried to tick every box. I tried acupuncture, I used an osteopath which I still do to this day and I did yoga as well. I just tried to cover everything so that this wouldn’t happen again – you know, Champions’ League, injured, missing the game. I never did it to prolong my career; I just did it to play.  

Ultimately, great players need to play, they need to be great and they need the stage upon which to demonstrate as much to the world. Ferguson puts it perfectly when he says:

I expected more from the star players. I expected them to work even harder…. That’s why they are star players – they are prepared to work harder. Superstars with egos are not the problem some people may think. They need to be winners, because that massages their egos, so they will do what it takes to win[4].

What drives them on is the need to meet ever increasing challenges.  When asked why he had never played abroad, Giggs’ answer was simple,

I’ve always wanted new challenges and I thought that every year at United there’s always been a new challenge. The time for me to go abroad was probably between 25 and 30 but I never got close to it, I just wanted to play for United. At that time I just felt the challenges at United couldn’t be beaten. I was 27 and we’d just won the treble so it never occurred to me. I’ve never thought that I missed a trick there.

But what do great players believe are the crucial elements of a successful team? Which comes first, for example, winning or team spirit? For Giggs it is the chemistry of the team under the guidance of a strong winning philosophy. United, he feels had the winning mentality embedded in them by Ferguson’s personal winning mentality and the traditions of the club for particular values such as trusting youth and taking risks to win. As Ferguson put in the HBR,

I am a gambler—a risk taker—and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches.

and

I always take great pride in seeing younger players develop. …. When you give young people a chance, you not only create a longer life span for the team, you also create loyalty. They will always remember that you were the manager who gave them their first opportunity.  

This has been the United way from the glory and tragedy of the Busby Babes through Tommy Docherty’s young team that brought United back to the top division in the 1973/74 season to the more recent glories under Ferguson.

But how has this been achieved over such a protracted period? How does the acculturation of incoming players work at United? For Giggs it is about the way in which they are received and dealt with in the dressing room.

New players are coming into a good dressing room, which makes transition easier; also, training is probably more competitive than they’ve been used to[5]. Each individual is welcomed according to their own personality. A player can come in and have a compatible personality from the start; Ronaldo, for example, wasn’t that brilliant in the first couple of years but he was a likeable lad, he wanted to learn, he was a bit of a joker and he came into the dressing room quite easily. Others, who are quieter, they can earn the respect of their new teammates by what they’re doing on the training ground and in games. I wouldn’t say that Robin [van Persie] wasn’t like Ronaldo but he instantly became a success because he was scoring winners every week. That made him difficult not to like.

Both Giggs and Ferguson believe that building and maintaining mutual trust is a key element of high performance and as such has to be integral to the acculturation process. As Ferguson puts it,

I would remind the players that it is trust in one another, not letting their mates down, that helps build the character of a team.

Similarly, Giggs cites trust between the players as an important component of team performance. Interestingly, previous research in this area seems to challenge this assertion.  In his work on trust and its relevance to performance, Dirks[6] found that it appears that while trust is essential between the players and the coach and it can even be an indicator of future performance, it does not appear to have any statistical significance between players.

However, are the same acculturation factors equally true of younger players, the lifeblood of United’s philosophy, as they come into the dressing room? Giggs has strong views on this. He was reluctant to have the words, “In my day”, in his answer but, in a sense it was inevitable.

The problem with many young players is that they expect, and get, rewards before they have really achieved anything. In my day I was told that rewards would come as a result of consistent performances over time. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great kids out there; I just don’t think there’s the hunger in young players in enough numbers as there was 20 years ago – I don’t just think that, I know it. Because they’re getting the money early on and they’re getting cosseted, the hunger goes quite quickly.

To be a United player they’ve  got to be strong mentally to be able to put up with some of the stuff in the dressing room and on the pitch. You’ve got to be able to withstand getting kicked by Vidic, or Roy Keane or me and rising to it and being able to handle it. It’s not bullying it’s testing you. You’ve also got to welcome the pressure of the traditions of this massive club. Walking into the club and seeing the famous pictures, Charlton, Best, Law and Cantona, on the walls and saying to yourself, `that’s where I want to be in 15 years’ time’. That’s what it means to be a United player.

 As Ferguson says,

The idea is that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards that the older ones had set.

He would be proud of Ryan Giggs who has, virtually from his debut in March 1991 as a 17 year old, set the highest standards for his successors to follow.

Finally, I asked Ryan to score on a scale of one to 10 how important certain aspects are for high performance and ultimate success. Here are his responses:

  1. Having talented players – 5
  2. Having a great manager – 8
  3. Having a strong team identity – 9
  4. Having a strong team chemistry – 9
  5. Luck – 8

Was there anything that I hadn’t asked that he thought was of overarching importance?

Working hard as a team.

Perhaps that is a fitting quote to end on for a player who has worked for almost his entire career under a manger who says that,

Working hard all your life is a talent.



[1] Harvard Business Review article, October 2013, REPRINT R1310G

[2] The ten thousand hours thesis was made popular recently in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.  Gladwell was elaborating on the 1973 Herbert Simon and William Chase article in the American Scientist (Simon, H. A., & Chase, W G.  Skill in chess, American Scientist, 61, 394-403. They argued, that, “There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…

[3] Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, by Matthews Syed, Harper, 2010.

[4] Harvard Business Review article, October 2013, REPRINT R1310G

[5] Ferguson asserts that a key to the maintenance of standards was, “never allowing a bad training session. What you see in training manifests itself on the game field. So every training session was about quality. We didn’t allow a lack of focus. It was about intensity, concentration, speed—a high level of performance.  (Harvard Business Review article, October 2013, REPRINT R1310G)

[6] Dirks, Kurt T., Trust in leadership and team performance: Evidence from NCAA basketball.

Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 85(6), Dec 2000, 1004-1012.

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