A guide to coaching an IPL team, the Upton way

RR coach reveals how he and Dravid created a winning team enviornment

Mohali 09 May 2013
Where talent meets opportunity – the Indian Premier League is driven on that very motto. One team that has lived up to that belief is Rajasthan Royals. Right from season one, the team have not had an array of sparkling super stars from around the world. What they have had is the leadership group to extract the best out of unknown players and make them household names.

This IPL, after three-fourth of the league phase, the Royals are sitting pretty in the top-four, well on their way to a berth in the Play-Offs – with 18 points from 13 games. It is a remarkable progress given that the only reputed internationals they have are Rahul Dravid and Shane Watson.

Five weeks into the tournament, we now know Sanju Vishwanadh, Ajit Chandila, Dishant Yagnik and Stuart Binny as match-winners.

There has to be something that the leadership group in that dressing room is doing right! We, at, set out to discover the secret behind the Royals’ delightful journey so far in IPL 2013. In our endeavour we spoke to RR head coach, Paddy Upton – one-half of India’s World Cup winning coaching unit with Gary Kirsten and South Africa’s current mental conditioning coach.

In a generously lengthy conversation, Upton gave us some simple and yet deep insights on coaching an IPL team, which the management of some of the other franchises would do well to adopt.

The Royals don’t have too many big international stars. Is it easier for such teams to bond as a unit than the ones with many big names?

Rather than easier, I would say it is more important to teams like ours to bind strongly as a unit. The conditions that are set up make it easier or tougher for teams to bond. We are fortunate that we have all the important ingredients needed to create a healthy environment in the team.

You have been with high-profile international teams like India and SA. How does your job change when you come into a team with young unknown players from all parts of world?

First of all, I’ve got a very different role here, of a head coach. I’ve always been a mental conditioning coach with the international teams. But what is important in both roles is the team environment and the mental space that each member of the team is in. We knew that because we don’t have too many super stars, if we are to get through to the qualifiers, our younger Indians players need to make a significant contribution in at least five of our wins. So, we’ve treated and managed them in order to give them the best possible chance to do so. They’re very clear about their role, they’re treated in the team so as to tell them that they’re as important to the team as a Dravid or a Watson is. Also, we ensure that a no point are they going across the rope to play for their place. There’s a very big difference with someone playing for themselves and with a fear of failure and those just excited about making a contribution to the success of the team.

How similar or different is it to take care of the players’ mental aspect on a long international tour away from home and the fast-paced IPL?

IPL is fast-paced but it is still very much a long tour away from home. Although it’s a lot busier in terms of travel, disruption of sleep and it is hell of a lot busier in terms of the mental stresses the players face each time they get on the park. Also, in an international team the players have a lot of friends in the dressing room, they know people around and they’re relaxed in their company. Here we’ve got a whole lot of strangers together. If that’s not managed properly it can be problematic, which I see in other teams. But if it is managed well, the combination can be exciting. There’s newness and freshness about getting to meet new people and understanding them. It is the single most critical thing that has to be taken care of in a campaign like this.

How do you bridge the gap between the Indian and international players in the squad?

I find it very easy. One thing we’ve done at the Royals is that I’ve spoken to the Indian players and told them, ‘listen, the next two months will provide the richest learning environment that you’ll ever encounter in your entire career. You will never get a bigger opportunity to learn and improve your game.’

I understand that the natural tendency of a young Indian player is to be shy and keep himself in a corner of the room. I said to them that they can choose to do that and their game will suffer, or they can choose to overcome their shyness and go have conversations with people they can learn from. If they do that their game is going to improve.

I’ve also spoken to the big international players and made them understand the big gap between the junior and the senior players in India. I’ve told them that if they’re batting along a young Indian team-mate and notice something about which ball is easier and what area is difficult to face, always to go and explain it to the guy. Same if you’re bowling to someone – bridge that gap, go and talk to him.

What is your overall coaching approach at RR?

We rely on what I call a multiple expertise coaching approach. The opposite would be a single coaching approach where I would go and tell all the guys what to do. In our squad we’ve got 23 players who play under 20 different captains and coaches from five different countries. The amount of knowledge in the room is phenomenal. What I do is work to get that knowledge to surface, get good conversations to happen, get people to share. We get the best of the collective thinking, agree on what’s best and move forward. As a coach I am a facilitator rather than an instructor. I believe that all the players in an IPL team have more knowledge than any one coach or captain can ever have. That approach also invites youngsters to come out and share their opinions and ask questions.

Does a calm and level-headed leader like Rahul Dravid make your job easier?

It helps me very much. I believe that it’s really the leadership that provides the guidance to the team. Rahul and I think very similar; we value a healthy team environment, we value people and we don’t believe in the hierarchies, the egos and people strutting their stuff. We believe in a humble approach towards the game whether we win or lose. We’re very respectful of the processes we have put in place and we follow them diligently.

An IPL team has such big squad. Some players might have to warm the bench for practically the entire tournament. How do you deal with them?

First of all, we’re very aware that every team’s mental and physical energy drops off as the tournament progresses. So, we work very hard in ensuring that we start dropping later than any other team and our drop-level is lesser than them. So we pay a lot of attention in managing the individuals’ energies. For instance, if we know many guys aren’t going to play for four-five days, we let them go home. Brad Hogg’s girlfriend is here and he wasn’t going to get a game anytime soon, so we allowed him to go across the country with her, enjoy for a few days and rejoin the team later. We have a lot of optional practice sessions and very few meetings.

We’re fortunate that we’ve got very few support staff unlike some teams with a large number of them. So the players have to have a bowling meeting, a fitness session, a yoga session, a session with the mental conditioning coach, a session with the assistant coach and then one with the head coach.

Here we don’t have any of those people. We have one short de-briefing meeting after a game and one before when the players are all free. We very deliberately set up the environment such that the players stay fresh as long as possible.

Do you, at times, also have to work closely with the physio to make sure an injured player is not rushing into getting back on the field?

That does happen and I have to work closely with the physio to get feedback from them. What happens is that the players are struggling with niggles and injuries or there’s something that’s happening at home – we have a couple of players whose parents have been ill during the tournament. They won’t necessarily come to me. That’s why I need to keep myself updated by speaking to a number of people, so that things like that are brought to my attention and I can deal with them. Here, in IPL, I need to do that even more because most players are not close enough to me to come and tell me about their personal problems. But it’s important that I do somehow find out so we can do something about it.

Who is tougher to deal with – a strong-minded player with fragile body or a man with a strong body with less mental strength?

Without a doubt, the mentally strong players are always easier to work with. They’re the people you want to be picking first. You know that you can trust them. In high pressure situations when you really need somebody to step up to plate, it’s not the players’ skill that’s tested but their mental capability. So, the person who is mentally strong but has got slightly less skill or is a bit fragile in body, I’ll choose that person any day. 
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