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What do great managers and athletes have in common?


To achieve anything, you must have a direction, a purpose, an aim.

Without that fundamental bearing, you can never know how to channel your resources and energy. To have a vision in sport is crucial – and very likely far more common than in business. Looking through the remarkable achievements of the personalities featured here, it's immediately obvious that they were all driven by their vision, their ultimate goal.


For Tracy Edwards, her goal was to lead the first all-female crew into the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, and to win. The vision was that ultimate moment of crossing the finishing line in first place. That image is what she carried in her mind as she dragged herself from one office to another, seeking not only sponsorship, but a boat itself. That image also motivated her as she ploughed through over 4,000 applications to join her crew. She had a purpose, a direction. It was the foundation for her eventual success.

Adrian Moorhouse, too, had a vision. It was cemented in his mind at the age of 12 while watching the Olympics on a black-and-white TV upstairs in secret (his parents wouldn't let him watch on colour downstairs because he was too young). That night, he saw David Wilkie win the gold medal, and Adrian decided that this was something he, too, wanted to achieve. His vision was born. He knew his ultimate goal. All he had to do was fill in the remaining eight or nine years!

All visions vary, and all visions must evolve. Like Jonah Barrington's of developing himself into the best squash player in the world, the world champion, Number One. And like the vision of Seb Coe, who also desired to be Number One, and nothing less, in his chosen track events. Or that of Mike Brearley, whose vision was to win an Ashes series with a group of individuals of varying and difficult talents. But however different their ambitions, the stars all shared the ability to conceptualise a vision. That led to their motivation, their commitment and their eventual triumphs.

Geoff Cooke, the England Rugby Union manager, presented his vision to the national squad in 1988 in a room in the Petersham Hotel, overlooking the Thames. The vision was that England were capable of reaching the 1991 World Cup Final and would do so. At the time of this somewhat startling announcement, England were far from a successful side. Their record in the Eighties made for unhappy reading, unless you were a supporter of the other Home Union sides. Yet Cooke delivered his vision with belief, with honesty, and most important of all, in detail.It was the articulation of his vision to the squad that achieved their commitment. He explained the change that England would have to go through as a squad and as a management in order to achieve that vision. The change would encompass not only the physical but the mental side of the game, and (crucially) the structure of English rugby generally – and the physical structure of the players themselves: a fitness programme was introduced which would monitor players on a regular basis.

The programme tested not only their basic cardio-vascular fitness, but their speed over varying distances, their strength, their fat content, their blood content, their leg power, their arm power – and their ability to smile through it all. Instead of delivering this package as a fait accompli, Cooke explained exactly why the players needed to go through this physical change. They needed to become fitter, stronger and faster if they wanted to compete with the top countries in world rugby. Each player was shown how fitness would benefit him in the long run.

The huge men in the scrum could quite rightly be proud of their immense strength, scrummaging ability and bulk; now they had to be persuaded of the need to change the focus of their training. They had to retain their strength, but they had to lose fat content; they had to add enormous explosive power through new methods of training; their speed off the mark, as well as their maximum speed, had to be increased.

Change is always resented, in whatever environment people operate, But this new regime of fitness and the changed focus of training almost took away everything in which these men took immense pride. It was as though what they had trained for and practised for years was no longer important. They had to be persuaded that they needed to retain their existing skill and basic ability, but also to broaden their horizons, in terms of what else they could add to the side. Only then could the side achieve its vision.

The success of that friendly persuasion must have been the key to England's wins on the field. Whether the side was as successful as it should have been will be debated for many years to come. But one of the most useful benchmarking tours during this period actually occurred only months before the World Cup itself – and England were beaten. All the European sides in the Five Nations Championship travelled to Australia for a four-and-a-half-week tour. Its purpose and necessity were debated heatedly in England; many experts said that the players would benefit more from a rest than from a tour.

The trip, it was argued, would intensify pressure on the team – only months before the World Cup. The players themselves, however, were keen to tour, keen to benchmark themselves against Australia, recognised as one of the best sides in the world; keen to see how strong the side really was and at the same time to discover where its weaknesses lay. In the event, the side that had won the Grand Slam in Europe lost three out of four games on tour. Its weaknesses were cruelly exposed, and the tour was labelled a disaster by many observers.

From the squad's point of view, though, it was regarded as an immense success. The side arrived home feeling that there was enough time to change areas of its game, and areas of approach, to negate the exposed weaknesses. Had the team sat back in England, basking in the glory of England's first Grand Slam for eleven years, these weaknesses would never have been acknowledged. Certainly there wouldn't have been time, once the World Cup tournament itself had started, to rectify the faults. Being benchmarked against the best gave the team a far greater chance of success in the Cup.

The players had to change mentally as well. They were given tapes on relaxation, tapes on concentration, tapes to help them visualise; the tapes were played either in cars on the way to squad training or on headphones. The players had to develop their ability to concentrate in pressure situations, in front of crowds of 60,000-70,000, under intense pressure from the opposition, at times under the over-critical eye of the referee. They had to be able to concentrate on their roles and their team direction – one area which England believed wasn't strong enough.


The side had to learn to concentrate in the build-up to internationals. Each player had to be able to switch on, maybe for only half-an-hour or an hour each week, to the task of winning the nextinternational amid the chaos of club training, club matches, work, family life and (somewhere in the middle) relaxation. You had to learn to switch on, as well as switch off.

Geoff Cooke also explained how the new structure, the new league system and the new management set-up would contribute to success on the field. He had, for the first time, looked not only at the 21 players who were picked, but at the clubs which were producing those 21; the management that selected them; the medical staff who looked after them; and the technical personnel who provided the analytical data on the players. Everyone came under scrutiny for the first time, and everyone was provided with this focus on the 1991 World Cup final.

It was obvious, throughout the explanation, that certain members of the squad would not meet these new and higher standards. But this, far from demotivating the squad, had the reverse effect: their aspirations had been raised, and their desire intensified. They wanted to be part of this new and challenging set-up. They accepted the challenge of achieving the vision set for them that day in 1988.

Since all visions must evolve, progress towards goals must be monitored along the way. For England this was achieved by going on tours, bench-marking ourselves against the southern hemisphere teams. They provided the standard against which the players wanted to measure themselves. It was frustrating that there were not enough tours: nor did the team face enough southern hemisphere opposition. The squad had to make do with what there was. But the valuable lessons learnt on these too few expeditions enabled continual fine-tuning, not only of playing style, but of fitness targets and mental approach.

There were many major lessons learnt from the 1991 World Cup, and the attempt to achieve Cooke's vision. The most important was that the vision of reaching the final was achieved. True, the game itself was lost. The team believes that Australia had a different vision, that England's opponents in the final went into the tournament with the sole aim of winning. It is no use being wise in hindsight, but this lesson is certainly something England took on board with regard to the 1995 tournament. Being in the final was not the vision chosen for 1995: winning was.

Many people make the mistake of believing that experienced, successful individuals and teams do not need a vision, an ultimate goal. They believe that such teams and people will be self-motivated. Here we disagree: experience teaches otherwise. In the 1993 season, England had a phenomenally experienced side, containing many players who had won back-to-back Grand Slams in the two previous years. After their performance in the World Cup Final, England entered 1993 as overwhelming favourites to win another Grand Slam, and to provide the bulk of the British players on the forthcoming Lions tour of New Zealand.

Herein lay the problem. It's been wisely said that in management more than one objective is no objective. Given the cyclical nature of the competition, England needed to view the 1993 season as the bedding-in process for the new side that would contest the 1995 World Cup. But Geoff Cooke, the England manager, and Dick Best, the England coach, were to take on the same positions for the 1993 British Lions. We're both sure that they will agree that this involvement with the Lions deflected the England management from the aim of rebuilding the side for 1995.

Since England had been the strongest side in Europe for the last two or three years, it was expected and natural that England would provide the bulk of the touring party. Many of the key players had the experience and knowledge to be successful in New Zealand. To make matters even more confusing, morever, a number of rules had been changed in the off season. The changes had helped to alter the emphasis of the game in ways that negated the influence and success of many of the very same England players.

The desire to do justice to both England and the Lions eventually proved too much. The outcome provides a classic proof that a team, and certainly an individual, cannot have two visions, two long-term goals. The focus either had to be on rebuilding England with a view to the 1995 World Cup, or a total focus on the British Lions tour of New Zealand. Unfortunately, the side fell between the two stools. The minds of some players wandered during the domestic season, dwelling on the possibilty of a swan-song tour to New Zealand, This led to a lack of focus in the England side of that year, and to an almost directionless season.

Not enough new players had been brought into the squad to provide the edge of internal competition that was needed, and too few minds were focused on the task of winning a third Grand Slam. As a result, England played four, lost two, the worst season since 1988. At the end of that deeply disappointing year, Will Carling sat down with Peter Winterbottom, one of the most experienced players and a straight-talking Yorkshireman, and asked where he had gone wrong as a captain. One of Winterbottom's major points was that the captain hadn't given the team a direction for that year, hadn't raised their aspirations, hadn't forced them to look for a new challenge.

The goal was just another Grand Slam, the same again – and that is never enough. It didn't excite the players and, worse, allowed the opposition to catch up and beat England. The vision had not evolved. Because sights had not been raised, commitment wavered: the England players were unsure of their direction and what to commit to. Lack of a vision, lack of a direction, and lack of an ultimate goal on which to pin commitment, direction, training, desire led to the season's disappointments. It was a sorry contrast to the transformation that could be seen in English rugby from 1988 to 1992.

In that period, England, the so-called under-achievers of the northern hemisphere, were transformed into the strongest side in Europe. Players who had staggered from game to game, hoping to achieve just one more cap, hoping not to make mistakes and thereby forfeit their place, suddenly pictured in their minds playing in a World Cup Final. They suddenly had a management who had that belief in them and told them so. The effect was dramatic. Their eyes, their focus, had been raised from just the next game, the next mistake, to looking into the future and the possibility of playing for England in a World Cup final.

They had been given the processes, the building blocks, which enabled them to visualise progress to this future goal. The fitness programmes, the mental focus, the club rugby, all provided the necessary supports which would enable them to achieve this vision. They could start to plan long-term in their fitness training; a detailed fitness programme and wall chart was given to each of them 18 months before the World Cup.

With this injection of physical and mental confidence, they could start to plan their development as players, and as a team, believing that they would be together for more than just one game. They would have time to get to know each other as people, rather than just as players, to learn about each other's families, to take interest in each other and develop friendships, forming a bond that would actually be decisive in winning many of the extremely close games that were to come. It allowed them to break out of the shackles and restrictions of the no-risk games and blame-culture that had stifled English rugby. Vision gave the players the foundation and direction for England's most successful period.

Robert Heller