Pippa Grange: Working on the soul of the team
Written by Simon Austin — November 8, 2019
DR PIPPA GRANGE left the Football Association after 20 months as its Head of People and Team Development in September.
During her tenure, she worked as performance psychologist with the men's senior team during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when they reached the semi-finals.
In a fascinating interview with the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast, Grange gave insights into her career and explained her philosophy around culture and performance psychology.
This article is an abridged version of an interview you can read in full HERE. And you can listen to the podcast below.
Pippa Grange: I am an Englishwoman born in Yorkshire. I consider myself a global citizen. I’ve been 20 years in Australia and a couple of years in California as well, so I’m recently back to England discovering the joys of winter. I live over in the Peak District, which is fabulous, and I have had a long 20-year plus career in elite sport and business culture-coaching.
I’ve done a lot of work in Australia – predominantly in Australian Rules Football teams that many of you may not know anything about, but they’re very famous. New Zealand rugby, rugby league, Australian Olympic teams and some extreme endurance athletes as well.
I’m a psychologist by trade but I think of myself as a culture coach. I guess that people ask me what would be the base mantras that you have and I think that excellence can be found anywhere. Love is definitely stronger than fear when it comes to performance.
WHAT DOES YOUR JOB INVOLVE?
I guess there are two things - to understand resilience and work on the soul of the team. That means making sure that the tone is right, that the relationships are solid, that it’s not fake, that it feels good and that people are genuinely in it together. That’s the stuff that wins.
Resilience isn’t just about the ability to bounce back from something that’s gone wrong. Toughness is like a block of concrete, it’s immovable, it’s hard, whereas resilience is more like a sheet of flexible steel and it’s got give in it.
Resilience requires us to have moments where we’re on the lower side of okay. Sometimes we get a little bit caught up in the idea that resilience means always being positive, always okay, always brilliant. That’s not what it is.
With a challenge mindset we can know which of our own skills to draw on to get us through something that’s difficult.
People have an impression of you spending hours a day with a player to get something right. The schedule of elite sport just doesn’t work like that though, especially in high-turnaround sports like football.
It’s important for me to be able to work through the other people who are front-line. The kit man is definitely a psychologist, the physio is a psychologist, the massage person is going to be spending an hour with somebody working on their back or their hamstrings and they’re going to hear a lot.
So how do I help them get really good at culture? How do I help them do what they imagine I do, so we connect the dots? I guess most of the time I’m trying to see patterns and connect the dots.
If I’m making everyone else in the staff, including the coaches, brilliant at culture, we’re going to be a lot further ahead. Yes, you can improve the culture and lose a game.
And you can win lots of games and not improve the culture at all, because winning is not the same as good culture. The two go hand-in-hand but they’re not necessarily causal – culture doesn’t cause winning. But sustained winning is absolutely underpinned by good culture.
This is the common theme for sustained performance for the truly great. There’s an enormous protective element to quality relationships that are characterised by care and intimacy.
It doesn’t mean friendship, but it means knowing that person is going to be authentic and there’s going to be an exchange that’s compassionate.
Those things are enormously protective for wellbeing but also for performance. I’ve seen it time and time again - where the relationships are fickle, fake, or too agenda-ed, it is much less stable.
If you don’t have great relationships, you may have a honeymoon period - with a new coach or a star player or amazing talent - but it won’t be sustained.
So the first thing I always look for is the quality of relationships. Who’s in good relationships and where are the relationships sour or tense or not yet connected? That’s everything in high performing teams.
The second thing I look for is ‘where is the power’? The power isn’t necessarily with the top guy or the coach or captain. The power might be in a really old hand, a veteran, somebody with real battle scars who’s very revered or feared in the team.
Or it might be with somebody who’s really disruptive in a team who’s a troublemaker and gets in the way of culture but nobody knows how to deal with them. So I look for who’s got the real power and the quality of relationships - unravelling those two things is key.
PART OF A PACK
I think about the Rugby World Cup that England won (in 2003). The Jonny Wilkinson kick. The smart things to understand about the psychology, whatever the outcome, is how that person is connected to the group before and after the event.
If somebody feels like, ‘okay, I’m standing with my pack at that moment’, it’s a big deal. There’s nothing the coach can do from the sideline at that point - or the psychologist, or anybody else - it’s them.
But if they have an identity connected to more people that are absolutely looking at the same things they are, absolutely sharing their dreams and are there for them good, bad or ugly, that is extremely helpful in maintaining a sense of motivation. Especially when things aren’t going very well.
In the strongest teams I’ve seen there is a ‘we’. For me, great culture looks like ‘all of us’. There are moments in time where you pass the baton to the captain or the leadership group and know you’re standing on their shoulder, even if you’re not physically there doing the work with them.
If you know people are in the trenches with you, genuinely, then there’s a sense of safety created by that, a sense of home, a sense of belonging, that’s very comforting for people.
I think the England cricket team this year – as well – have shown some really good examples of that. The team behind the team or team within the team that have been super beneficial.
In Olympic sports, people are literally competing with each other for funding or a spot on the team. But they are supposed to be a team and that’s very tough.
Anything you can possibly do to elevate it to an identity - in that case a national identity - that is bigger than the individual identities or areas that they come from is precious.
For there to be something they want to belong to that is appealing, that they can love, that they can connect to in a really deep and meaningful way; and also feel that the people who went before them and the people that come after them will still will also believe deeply.
COACH AS CUSTODIAN
The coach is the custodian of the culture. He or she needs to be talking about it. They need to be explaining why it matters, what it is, how it feels.
He or she is the author, the orator for culture. And I think that’s a really important role of the leader in any team, in business or in sport.
If that person is the storyteller and is leading people in a direction, then it’s very easy for other people to follow.
So yes it is ours, it’s the performance group’s, and there are moments where the player or the individual business performer is there on the line. But actually that sense of the culture being narrated by the leader is critical.
If you have a situation where the leader goes missing in terms of the storytelling and in terms of speaking about the culture and describing what’s happening - even though it might seem obvious - that can be really detrimental in moments of high pressure and high performance.
If a leader defers to doing the technical work, if a leader goes and sits in the middle of the orchestra rather than conducting out the front, that can be really detrimental, because people need that guidance at that point of pressure.
It seems like such a simple thing, such a humble thing - to stand and talk about what’s happening when people can clearly see what’s happening - but it’s immensely powerful.
The stories we tell are just so important around culture. The narrative that is underpinning everything is massive. I’ve done a lot of work on that across my career.
Explaining who we are, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and having everybody else in a position where they’re into it.
In an ideal situation, they would be specifying ‘these are the things we care about’. You can’t impose culture, just like you can’t impose values. But you can inspire them and storytelling is a great way to do that.
Where I’ve seen coaches tell stories about what matters and why this game can be what it is - and why they want to go about something a certain way and what matters to them - that usually gets the best outcomes.
There were a couple of Australian teams I worked with where things were pretty pear-shaped at half time.
One coach was an extroverted, really strong orator, and he stood at the front of the room and spoke Churchillian about what he was proud of and what he believed in and it gave the team enough to get back out there and focus so they could carry on the game.
The other was much less extroverted, but really highly-regarded and highly loved and respected by the players. He took a chair and sat in the middle of the circle of players at half-time and said, ‘Boys, what do you think we need to do next? Here’s the story I’m seeing unfolding, here’s my view, but you’re out there with the mud on your boots. What do you think?’
He still narrated the story. He still orchestrated the story.
I also remember seeing a piece about a coach who I really respect in the AFL, when his team had just lost the Grand Final. It was devastating for them and he had a moment of leadership that I think was brilliant, where he actually said at the end of the game, ‘I don’t know how to lead you now boys at this moment in time. What I can tell you is that I’m super proud of you and I’m inspired by your effort. But right at this moment I don’t know how to lead you’.
And I thought that was wonderful role-modelling for culture. The practice of standing and talking intimately and authentically about how they feel and what they care about and why they’re proud and what didn’t go well.
It works if it’s true for you. The whole strength in the ability to tell stories and be believed is if you’re being yourself; if the player can feel you as authentic. Players, like most of us, can smell a fake a mile off.
They don’t respond to inauthenticity or over-engineered over-glossed dramatics. But if that person is genuinely impassioned at that moment and is likely to be fairly extroverted normally – I imagine that’s how Jurgen Klopp normally is – then that’s the right way to address it.
If it’s not the next person’s way, then do it your way.
Failure is a brilliant teacher, but it’s a hard teacher, because you only work it out after the fact. You’ve got to go through the test and the pain before you work it out.
It’s so important that we actually spend time making the lesson of what happened. When you come back off a big event like a World Cup or an Olympics or something like that, the emotional hangover work that you do is really important.
How do I make meaning out of this? What are the lessons I’m going to take out of this?
Because it’s too easy to go ‘it’s done, full stop, move on’. If you’re emotionally drained, leave it some time and come back and make sense of it.
When you talk about a coach who’s experienced adversity, I think that the the critical bit is ‘how are they making sense of what happened?’
It can make them more relatable, so long as they’ve worked out the failure and learnt the lesson. And as long as they can tell stories about it well.
Admiring from afar is much less powerful than if that person has the vulnerability to stand up and talk about it. And not with loads of gloss, but in a real, human way.
I think Brene Brown taught us lots about vulnerability in that way. If you want to be whole and seen as somebody who can be resilient to things like shame or pressure, then in some ways you’ve got to also be willing to be vulnerable.
CHANGING ROOM BEFORE THE MATCH
It’s amazing. It’s awful. It’s a mixed bag of emotions. A couple of hours before going out onto the field it’s really like a quiet buzzing vibe. People are getting ready. That’s a time when they’re getting in their own zone. It’s tunes, it’s headphones on. Some people sit back, some clown around.
Whatever they need to do to let go of their energy, to get in the right space. There’s a lot of side chats between captain and player, between coach and player, that might be tactical, or just making sure people know what’s to be achieved.
The physios are strapping, the kit men are running around. It’s a really interesting quiet energy, a building energy. The pre-address before you go out is usually quite tactical. There’s a strong emphasis on belief and ‘we’ll love you whatever happens’. That’s good stuff to be talking about.
After that, it’s all the backslapping. I love that bit. The last few minutes before they get out into the tunnel it’s loud. You never get so many hugs in your whole life. It’s really boisterous for a minute and then in the tunnel it’s pin drop silence. I don’t know if anybody remembers that scene from Gladiator, where they’re all about to go out? It’s really like that, apart from the bit where the guy pees down his leg!
I need to say first of all I did not do the unicorns. That was Bryce Kavanagh, who’s a physical prep guy. He’s a genius and that was his idea. The basis for anything like that is, ‘can you create the conditions for somebody to have a laugh?’
Can you allow people to release tension and to just feel like, ‘Okay we’re done with that performance, we can reset, we can have some fun, we can just be.’
One of my favourite examples was before the New Zealand v Australia Rugby League World Cup final in 2013. We were a few days out from a massive game. I was with New Zealand.
There was a lot of tension in the camp. The arrangement was that we were gonna go to a haunted house in London. So we’ve got these enormous burly tough guys, a lot of them had had quite tough upbringings, and on the bus on the way to the haunted house there was all manner of giggling and all sorts of ‘I’m not going at the front, you’re gonna go at the front’.
I have never heard such high-pitched screams in my life. But it was just such an enormous tension release.
They had heaps of fun for a half hour and then had a Nando’s and went home and went to bed and it was a couple of days out from a game and it was a really good reset.
Those moments where we can create fun or an opportunity to break out of the deep focus are hugely powerful in performance.
But you don’t have to create fun. If you create conditions for it, people will find their own fun. Play is very natural to us. Laughter, fun, oxytocin, endorphins have massively positive effects on brain chemistry.
Psychological space, to me, is a mental freedom. It’s about where you can be something other than a performer for that moment in time, where you genuinely turn off.
Sometimes I think we drive really hard for the next thing. ‘We’ve got to stay focussed and stay in the zone’. But in reality you can’t even stay focussed for more than 90 minutes you know. So it’s a ridiculous idea.
It's almost a higher value than the time we spend on the foundational pieces of physical stuff like sleep or nutrition or exercise.
If any of us stay in a mode where we’re performing all the time we’re going to burn out. Or even if we don’t burn out, it’s going to be boring or much less fun than it could be.
Your actual peak performance moments, whether it’s in business or in sport, are relatively small in comparison to what you doing with the rest of the day. And if we try and stay in a performance zone all the time, there’s no quicker route to burn out or boredom than that.
So we have to recognise that there’s off time. There is a peak performance time, a build-up and readiness time, recovery time. And then there’s an off-time. And that’s the same for all of us in life.
Having those opportunities where they’re not on show, they’re not in the public domain and where they’re not being judged on something critical are really important. That can just be going to Nando’s and going to bed early.
With elite athletes, everybody wants a piece of them all the time. But it’s so important that they just have a moment to Facetime the kids at bath time.