Patrick Anthony Howard Upton, a well-known mental conditioning coach, was attached with the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led Indian team that famously clinched the 2011 World Cup to become the first ever host nation to do that in 36-year history of the tournament. In the just-concluded IPL season, the South African was the head coach of the Rajasthan Royals. Upton has a special relationship with former India and Rajasthan Royals captain Rahul Dravid, whom he admires as a true gentleman whose interests go well beyond sport. He talks about Dravid in detail in his book ‘The Barefoot Coach’ (Published by Westland Sport; Pages: 377; Price: Rs.799).
Upton also describes in detail his experiences of watching the aftermath of the betting-fixing scandal that unfolded when he was with the Rajasthan Royals in 2013. The scandal led to several players being banned by both the BCCI and the Royals.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Outlook:
You have visited 46 countries or more, you say in your book? Not all for cricket, isn’t it?
Yes, not all for cricket; many for conference speaking and corporate speaking. I love travelling and talking about high performance.
You’ve lived virtually a nomad’s life, travelling, staying in dormitories etc. Is that why your book is titled “The barefoot coach”?
It probably was sparked by a comment from Dale Steyn when I was made coach of the Sydney Thunder team for the first time. He tweeted or said something in public something like “it’s not bad for a barefoot surfer from Hotbay”, which is my home town, because when I am at home I don’t wear shoes at any point.
Can you explain for the layman the essential difference between a mental conditioning coach and a psychologist in sports?
It’s really the qualification of the person. A sports psychologist is someone who has done a psychology and a graduate and gone on to do internship as a psychologist, then done a master’s in psychology. So, that’s seven years of studying. And mental conditioning coach is someone who works on the mental game but hasn’t gone the seven years of formal psychology training.
And the role of mental conditioning coach has come into vogue and had become all the more essential because there’s so much competition and so much is at stake, not just in cricket, around the world?
Very interesting that if you ask any athlete or coach in almost all sports around the world the majority of them will say that once you reach a certain level of performance, success is about 80 per cent in the mind – I am not sure where we get the percentage from. But if we do believe that it’s mostly in the mind than the mental conditioning coaches or people working with the mind, one would think that there’s a real scope and opportunity for that person to work in that domain.
And has the role of a mental conditioning coach, or a psychologist in certain sports, become a mandatory position because of the high stakes involved?
It’s not mandatory because very few sports teams in the world still today employ a full time mental conditioning coach or a sports psychologist. The need for them is because when the stakes are high what it does is it really raises the amount of pressure that the player feels and it really raises the fear or the anxiety of failure. I think pressure and fear of failure are two biggest mental obstacles to success in sports, and they increase the more the stakes increase.
You came to India in 2008, along with Gary Kirsten, the chief coach of the cricket team. How has been your stay all these years, though there was a gap in between? Are you satisfied with all that you have achieved either with Team India or Rajasthan Royals?
My first few visits to India were in 1996, with the South African team when I was the fitness trainer. So, one of the remarkable things that I’ve seen since 1996 and now is the change in India, how fast the economy has grown here; it’s been amazing to witness. But since 2008 since when I’ve been involved in India, it’s just been such a privileged journey. India is a country that, I think, I will never fully understand. For 11 years, I’ve been visiting here for four to six months every year and I am beginning to understand and really appreciate the depth and complexity of India as a country, Indians as people, and Indian cricket as an industry.
Let’s talk about your two stints at Rajasthan Royals. You were head coach from 2013 to 2015. The 2013 edition must have been a tough one for you because of the betting-fixing scandal. How did you manage the Royals at the time?
Firstly, it was tough because it was such a family, we had such a strong culture. We were the underdogs and we were pulled so close together; we fought so tightly for one another. It was probably the best close-knit cricket team I’ve been with ever. And it had to happen in the middle of the season. The only word I can use is ‘devastating’ for every single one of us. And it was certainly one of the biggest challenges of my professional career, too, to try and manage the devastation and the hurt and the disappointment of all the players, the management, the owners and the coaching staff -- three days before we prepared for a game in the qualifiers. It was massively challenging. The thing we did was to go away from cricket for two days, completely into isolation as a team. We spent the first day processing the disappointment, the anger, the fears – that all came out. That was really a messy process. There were times when we were questioning the merits of it. But my understanding is that emotions need to come out; they need to processed, not suppressed, because otherwise they would have probably tripped us up in the high pressure moments of a qualifier game. So, we spent the day really just purging and at the end of the day all the players had expressed what they needed to come out of the system and the second day we spent with a whole lot of fun having activities doing fashion shoots, funny photo shoots. We came together in the evening. We went from a day of almost crying I have ever seen in a cricket team to the next day the most laughed in a cricket team. At the end of the second day I knew we were ready to play the qualifiers. We did go and win the qualifier a day later.
When you say you had not seen so many people crying, was everyone crying?
Not everyone, only some people. But some people were just emotional people; some people were crying out of fear of what might happen to them. There were various reasons. A number of players had everything from teary eyed to crying.
You said it was devastating because it came all of a sudden or was there some inkling of it?
There was no inkling whatsoever. Had we had some inkling we would have done something about it. It was only in hindsight, when we looked back, we could see the evidence. But at the time there was no inkling. We certainly wouldn’t have ignored it had we seen it or noticed anything.
Coming to Rajasthan Royals’ poor performance in 2019 IPL, the team, or you, wouldn’t have expected that. What were the reasons?
One of the things we are seeing in IPL these days is that the margins between winning and losing are getting narrower and narrower because teams are understanding their strategies better and better. And the quality of cricket is just improving. There were a few games in which we were in strong positions to get across the line; we probably handed the advantage back, which is disappointing. However, that happens as part of cricket. Sometimes luck went against us. And I am not someone who attributes too much to luck or not. At times, we didn’t close situations as clinically as we would have wanted, or the opposition were more clinical in closing those pressure moments.
How wise was it to change the captain [Ajinkya Rahahe with Steve Smith] midway through the season? Were they cricketing reasons or some other reasons?
That’s really been mentioned, that Smith was picked by the Royals two seasons ago to lead the team because I believe he is one of the best T20 captains in the world. He wasn’t available last season for the reasons we know [due to ball-tampering-related ban by the Australian board]. At the beginning of this season he had an elbow surgery and we weren’t sure if he was going to be fit to play. We asked, as we did last year, Rahane to be the stand-in captain. He did an amazing job last year, taking the team into the play-offs. And when we knew Smith’s elbow would be ready, and when he would be a permanent fixture in the team, it was case of handing the captaincy back to him.
You admit in your book that you were wrong without probably mentioning the word wrong about the sex dossier that you wrote while with the Indian team in 2009. With the advantage of hindsight do you think it was wrong on your part to tell the Indian cricketers to do what you told them to do [sex before matches]?
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-cheek 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. But also 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. 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 that in the book is: make a mistake and put your hand up and own it.
Obviously, one learns after committing a mistake that one has made a mistake. Did you also learn lesson in trusting people after that incident because you admit in your book that you had leaked the dossier?
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. 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.
You have a special relationship with Rahul Dravid. He was instrumental in getting you here. What is so special about him that you like him?
I am not so much impressed by someone who’s good at sports; am impressed by someone who is a really good person and also really good at sports. The two are different things. And I think Rahul really epitomises being humble, grounded, principled, valued human being, regardless of whether he scores runs or not, selected or not, playing or retired from the game. The majority of conversations that Rahul and I had, from all the way back since 1995 and then with the Indian team, Rajasthan Royals, and two years at Delhi Daredevils, Rahul has an incredible hunger for learning things beyond the game of cricket – about life, philosophy, spirituality, ego. His interest go well beyond sport, into living life as human beings. And that’s where we got to connect, to talk about all matters, the philosophy of so many subjects. We learnt a lot from each other from those conversations that go well beyond the realm of cricket.
2011 World Cup, so much pressure on players: Reasons why India won?
We understood that no team had ever won the World Cup as a host. Gary Kirsten and I had three years to prepare the team for that. But very specifically we started really acutely focussing on winning it 10 months before the World Cup started. So we had a lot of time; we knew which players we needed to prepare. We knew what moments we needed to prepare them for. We knew all the opposition we were playing; we were very diligent in preparing to be able to do better than those opposition players in key moments. And from the mental side of the game we identified 10 months before where possible obstacles would be, given the fact that no team had ever won at home and the pressure on the Indian team would be higher than any other cricket playing nation in the world. Playing at home and win your home final at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, and Sachin Tendulkar’s last World Cup would be the ultimate of pressures that players would face. But we had 10 months to prepare their minds for that. So, when they stepped across the ropes it wasn’t like it was the first time they had done that – they’ve been there before – and the pressure was less, than what it would have been had we not prepared so well for.
We worked as a team, worked and prepared each other. A lot of it was to get the team to understand that we needed to work together; we needed to absorb the pressure together. When someone was not doing well instead of ignoring him or criticising, we actually needed to support him and rally around him. We made sure that the team supported each other and worked together all the time, through the highs and the lows. And that was a collective, team effort that helped us build a strong ship that weathered heavy storm and sailed us to the final.
The Indian team for the 2019 World Cup is a very, very balanced team, with very, very good players in it. They are certainly good enough to win the World Cup. And, by the same token, there are players who are not in the team who could potentially have been there. Such is the strength of Indian cricket at the moment that you could probably pick two World Cup teams and both of them would do well.
Does this format provide a more level-playing field to the teams?
This World Cup does provide a more level-playing field and it does open more with everyone playing everyone. The exciting thing is that you have probably got six teams, at least, who feel they’ve got to feel they have got a good chance of going through to the finals. It could even be more. The six are England, India, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan. And the West Indies is also a very strong contender; and as you know Bangladesh have upset people before. It is a very open tournament that is going to be really exciting.