One-and-a-half years before Patrick Anthony Howard Upton played a significant role as the mental conditioning coach of the MS Dhoni-led Indian team’s famous World Cup triumph in 2011, he had inadvertently created a furore in India with a sex dossier. Almost nine years later, the 50-year-old coach admits those were “jokes and tongue-in-cheek mistakes that I made”, but insists that he never passed instructions to players to compulsorily do that – sex before matches.
The bone of contention was a four-page document that Upton had prepared for the Indian team that was competing at the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa, his home and that of then chief coach, Gary Kirsten, also a former South Africa Test batsman. The neatly packaged, customised leather bound folders, with players’ names embossed on them, were handed to each player. Upton has described all this in his book ‘The Barefoot Coach’ (Published by Westland Sport; Pages: 377; Price: Rs.799).
In a chapter titled ‘Ego and my greatest professional error’, and dedicated to the incident in question, Upton describes his greatest error in detail. He writes, referring to the introduction to his sex document: “Does sex increase performance?” And himself goes on to answer the question: “Yes, it does. So go ahead and indulge.” The next line, he says in the book, read: “Okay, so that’s the popular answer, the one that everyone wants to hear. I know that if I want to have this article quoted widely, I should leave it at that.”
In an exclusive interview with Outlook on Thursday in New Delhi, Upton, now head coach of IPL franhise Rajasthan Royals, emphasised that he never gave any instruction to the players; that he was simply sharing information from the knowledge he had accumulated over the years. “I wasn’t telling the players to do anything. I was sharing information. And what was taken out of context in the media was the jokes that I told them; I wasn’t suggesting players to do that. That was just the jokes and tongue-in-cheeks mistakes that I made. It certainly wasn’t instructions or suggestions to players. But, yes, I made the mistake, as I mentioned in the book, easily my biggest professional error,” Upton told Outlook.
Upton, who loves surfing, stand-up paddling and fishing, says he has shared this incident in the book as he wanted to own up his error and also wants leaders to do the same. “The reasons I share in the book are that I believe in honesty and, particularly, vulnerability for a leader, for a coach is very important. So, it would have been easy for me to have written everything in the book that I did well, but that wouldn’t have been real. I wanted the book to represent something that is real. As humans we all make mistakes, and for leaders to own their mistakes gives other people to own mistakes,” he reasons.
Upton has been visiting India since 2008, when he joined the Indian team along with Kirsten, and has observed something in this country that doesn’t please him – vis-à-vis owning up mistakes. “In India, one of the things that happen is that when people make mistakes they work as hard as they can to hide them or cover them up. I don’t think that’s a very healthy way and it doesn’t help a team or individual move forward. So, one of the things I modelled doing in the book is: 'make a mistake and put your hand up and own it',” he says.
After the incident created a furore in India and elsewhere, Kirsten formally denied having a hand in the preparation of the sex dossier and said at a press conference that it was Upton’s idea.
“My family and I have been deeply hurt by the many allegations that I encouraged the Indian players to engage in sexual activity before a match. I would like to state that I have never, and I repeat, never encouraged or told the team or any player to engage in any form of sexual activity. These allegations are absolutely not true and completely against my religious and moral beliefs,” Kirsten had read from a prepared statement. “The leaked article was written by Mr Paddy Upton and provided information for the players on the relationship between sexual activity and sports performance. I never wrote the article and read it for the first time two days ago. It has never been and never will be part of team strategy.”
Upton reveals in the book that he himself had shared his sex dossier with a journalist, unlike the general belief that a player or a member of the team’s support staff had leaked it. But after it became a scandal and made Kirsten a “laughing stock”, as Upton terms it, he reached out to him and apologised. And, Upton claims, the trust between them grew after his apology.
Did Upton also learn lesson in trusting people after that incident because he owned it up that it was him who had leaked it? “No, it didn’t change my trust at all. I think I like to trust people first and give them the benefit of the doubt. And if people make a mistake and they own up I think the trust even grows. I think the relationship between Gary Kirsten and me, after we had navigated that real difficulty, actually grew because I was able to go to Gary and own 100 per cent my error, and why I did it,” he explained.
Upton further says: “I think respect grew out of that real deep sharing and honesty and vulnerability. And very often in life mistakes happening is very human. If it’s really well and maturely handled, properly processed, you end up being stronger for having remedied that mistake and bringing that honesty towards it. That happens. People make mistakes and when you repair it well it strengthens the relationship and when you don’t repair it well it ends up breaking the trust.”
That Upton and Kirsten continued to work in cohesion became evident in less than three months of that incident as they helped Dhoni’s Indian team become the world No.1 in Test cricket. And one-and-a-half years after that sex dossier scandal the duo guided India to become the first team ever to win the 50-over World Cup as hosts in the tournament’s 36-year history.