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Leadership & Culture, Performance | Nov 19, 2021
The West Ham Manager also shines a light on the importance of leaders safeguarding their mental wellbeing and why sabbaticals may become more common in football.

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By John Portch

“I think I’m in the best place I’ve been for a long, long time,” says West Ham United Manager David Moyes.

“I’m in the job because I want to be in the job, not because I need to be in the job.”

Moyes, who recently celebrated his 1,000 match as a manager, is enjoying a career renaissance at the London Stadium. He returned to West Ham in December 2019 with the Hammers in danger of relegation and worked to ensure their survival at the end of the Covid-hit 2019-20 season. It was the second time he had achieved that feat following an initial six-month stint in east London in 2017-18.

This time, he remained at the helm for the 2020-21 season and oversaw a transformation of the club – far quicker than anyone had anticipated – from brittle and perennially relegation-threatened to European contenders capable of posing opponents questions from front to back. In May, Moyes steered the club into the Uefa Europa League courtesy of a sixth-place Premier League finish – their highest since 2001.

A new three-year contract for Moyes followed in June and his team has carried their superb form into the current campaign. They sit atop of their Europa League group while again challenging at the upper echelons of the Premier League.

It is a remarkable turnaround for Moyes, who had endured a series of unsuccessful spells at Manchester United, Sunderland and Real Sociedad before again finding stability at West Ham. His reputation has not been as high in nearly a decade.

“I’m personally in a better place and managing in the way that I want to and I’m not having to be miserable because I’m losing games all the time!” he told the Leaders Performance Institute’s Jimmy Worrall in October. “I’ve actually got a team that’s winning.”

Moyes, who was labelled the ‘Moyesiah’ by West Ham supporters for his feats last season, instinctively understands that a manager is never more than a few bad results from being ridiculed, despite the elusive mix of talent and circumstance required to succeed at the highest levels of the sport.

“Winning makes a big difference and, in the sport we’re in, it really does change how you feel, how the media perceive you in all things. But I would hope that I would still be treated the same way if we were losing. We’re in a sport where there is winning and losing, not everyone can win. In fact, there’s very few people who can win. I really enjoy it. I don’t want to step away from it at the moment. I feel good and I hope it’s helping me manage and work better.”

What has changed? “If I’m being honest, I think I’ve changed a lot as well,” says Moyes, who did not manage between leaving West Ham in 2018 and returning to the club a little over a year later. At times during his hiatus he worked as a technical advisor with Uefa, a role he returned to during the delayed Euro 2020 tournament last summer.

“I was out of work, I was doing lots of stuff with Leaders, I was listening to people talking, I was listening to how people were building their clubs or what sports they were in. I did a lot of games for Uefa, I did a lot of speaking at conferences, and I think that, myself, I had to change.

“I said this in some of the conversations I’ve had with Leaders before that I felt communication has become even more important in modern day coaching and managing, whether that be to your players, your owners or the media. I think people do want to hear more and I think they want to see more positivity; the players need it as well.

“I felt as if I had to change a little bit and see if I could alter my approach. I’m not saying that’s the reason for any success, but I’m trying to remain positive in the job where, in recent years, it’s been quite difficult for me because there’s been a lot of negativity around me, around maybe some of the clubs I’ve been at. But overall, I’ve felt if I could be a bit more positive that would be a starting point, so I’ve tried to do that.”

Moyes then elaborates. “I probably looked closer to see how I’ve been doing things and checking if I thought they were right,” he says. “The majority of the things were right, all the basics, all the organisation, all the planning, but I had to look at things differently. I think my communication had to become better. I think that was the biggest thing I found with the players. I think there is a need for much more communication, but even the message you’re giving out to the media now. I felt as if I had to change from where I’ve come from.”

Moyes became player-coach of third-tier Preston North End in 1998 at the age of 34 and was a typically coach of that era: stern, aloof and sparing with praise. It was effective and he led Preston to the second tier in 2000, and later enjoyed a successful 11 years at Everton in the Premier League with largely the same approach. A generation of players has passed through the league since then and it feels like something of a bygone age – a fact not lost on Moyes.

“On days gone by, I think people would tell you, you wouldn’t come to the manager’s door very often,” he continues. “I’ve tried to be in and around the players as much as I can but keeping my distance because they have to understand that I’m still the manager. Nowadays, I’m talking to them more, about their daily lives, whether it be their families, what they’re up to, whether it be what their interests are.”

It might be a stretch to pin this as a direct reason for West Ham’s resurgence, but this approach has perhaps enabled Moyes to do his best work by helping to improve his general wellbeing. “It’s made me feel much better by having a positive outlook as well.”

The last point resonates in particular. “Sometimes people forget about the mental health of the leaders who probably have the decision-making responsibility,” says Moyes, who acknowledges that it is not easy for his players either. “The winning or losing means so much. Quite often, we can sit and listen to a radio show, which will be discussing if you’re getting the sack or not. And that, nowadays, for any other member of the public now would probably be seen as a mental health issue, but for sports coaches or managers, that’s seen as an open forum and it’s allowed to be spoken about. Most people’s lines of work would not be discussed because it would be seen as not right.”

Moyes has not been out of work for long periods during his 23-year coaching career but there have been occasional spells. What went through his mind during those times? “When you’re out of work, you can’t wait to get back in it. When you’re in work, quite often you’re saying ‘I wish I was out of it!’ because of the pressure and stress you get from it,” he says, adding that he can see more and more coaches opting for sabbaticals as a means of staving off burnout.

“Being out of work can sometimes be a good thing for managers. Pep [Guardiola] took a year out where he went to New York and did something different. I think you’ll see more of it. You’ll see some of the top managers really thinking now ‘I don’t want to be under this level of such stress every week and probably 10 or 11 months of the year I’m away from home every weekend or I’m working every weekend.’ So I do think you may see this in the next generation of managers where you might do a couple of years, and then take a year out and try and come back in again. For me, at the moment, I’m enjoying it.”

Few of Moyes’ contemporaries from his time at Preston and Everton are still operating at the highest levels of the game in England or abroad and the man himself believes that continuous learning has improved his chances when he has been out of work.

“Sometimes when you get this job you might think ‘I’ve got a job now, that’s set, I don’t need to look for anything new, I don’t need to hear what other people do’. I think you have to keep trying to find a way of learning. At the moment, I want to update all the football sessions I do; I’m trying to move them on, I’m trying to find other ways. I want to be able to test the players in as many of the football sessions as I can. I’ve got enough library material in my head to put on coaching sessions every day, but I want them to become new, fresh and updated and I’m always trying to challenge myself to find out what else I can do. But I think being out of work, I had to find ways of [working out] how you do that. When you’ve been near the top it’s difficult.

“You’ll know the people I’m going to talk about: David Brailsford, Gareth Southgate; so many of the people I get to hear from, so many great leaders, people who are great in different sports. It’s amazing how many tips you can get off of people and hear little things that complement [what you’re doing].

“I wouldn’t say I’m a great reader but I’ve picked up a couple of books and I’m picking things out of reading. Sometimes it can be enough to give you a little bit of motivation to say something or to encourage yourself to be ready.”

He mentions Guardiola again. “I heard Pep say he used the word ‘football thief’. I think we all have to be football thieves, I think we all need to steal a little bit from wherever you go.” He cites his work covering the Champions League and Euros for Uefa. “[That is] part of understanding what the new trends are and what’s up to date and where the goals are being scored from, what way teams are now lining up. The new flexibility that’s coming into football.

“If you want to stand still you can do so, but I want to try and move on and keep up with the best teams and coaches.”

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