Anxiety in managing a team - Michael Palin and Graham Taylor: Everyday anxiety and how to cope with it

Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction - Daniel Freeman, Jason Freeman 2012

Anxiety in managing a team
Michael Palin and Graham Taylor: Everyday anxiety and how to cope with it

Graham Taylor is one of the most successful managers in modern English football. Born in 1944, his career as a player was curtailed by injury. He became the youngest ever fully qualified FA coach and went on to manage Lincoln City, Watford, and Aston Villa with spectacular success, leading to his appointment as England manager in 1990. Taylor is an innovator. The historian of football tactics Jonathan Wilson credits Taylor as introducing pressing into English football. He also pioneered the concept of the ’family club’, reaching out to groups who had previously felt unwelcome at football matches, and developing strong links between the club and community organizations. Resigning as England manager in 1993, Taylor returned to club management, yet again leading Watford from lower-league obscurity to the top division. He is currently chairman of Watford FC.


6. Graham Taylor

Taylor excelled at motivating players, often turning apparently unremarkable footballers into stars. The comment of a former Watford player is typical: ’I would have run through a brick wall for him when I was at the club and I think the supporters felt exactly the same way.’ (We can certainly vouch for the truth of the latter statement.) Taylor’s legendary motivational skills were based on acute sensitivity to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of his players. In this interview with us, Taylor focuses on one element of that psychological insight: the strategies he deployed to combat anxiety in the team.

So, for example, we see how adept Taylor was at giving his players a sense of purpose and confidence, ensuring through practice, routine, and instruction that they understood what was required of them, and, perhaps unusually, why it was required. In so doing, he taught the team to focus on the task in hand, which is the perfect way to prevent anxiety developing. Taylor took great care to get to know the players and their families, allowing him to anticipate problems before they arose. And, as he explains in the interview, he developed the ideal routine for boosting his players’ confidence just before they ran out onto the pitch.

Many experiments have demonstrated that music can have a powerful effect on mood, and the success of the Watford team in 1999 provides a fascinating real-life example. The songs Taylor played in the dressing-room before games filled the players with positive feelings. They also strengthened the team spirit that undoubtedly helped produce so many victories at such a crucial time.

As we saw in Chapter 2, anxiety can be learned from other people; Taylor, full of confidence and optimism, made sure his players could not learn it from him. That said, he knew that nerves on a match day are normal. So he didn’t overreact: he simply maintained the routine. And Taylor’s experience as a player had taught him that people respond much more positively to praise than criticism. When working on players’ technical weaknesses, he always emphasized their strengths.

We learn too how Taylor coped with his own nerves on match day: through meticulous preparation, physical exercise, and perhaps above all by focusing not on his own emotions but on those of his players. And we discover how it felt when, after years of success at club level, Taylor moved into the very different world of international management. In contrast to the iron grip in which he had held his club sides, Taylor was able to exert much less control over the England team, a situation that added an extra level of anxiety to what was already a highly pressured position.

Taylor begins his interview by recalling Watford’s late charge to promotion to the Premiership in 1999, a run that saw them win nine of their final eleven games.

We had two songs — Bryan Adams’s ’Everything I Do, I Do It for You’ and ’Search for the Hero’ by M People — and we used to play those two before the games on the run-in. Our psychologist Ciaran, he was very, very good. There’s no doubt about it: he played a part in us getting promotion. He brought the Adams song into the training ground and he said ’what we’ll do, we’ll get them round after training, we’ll get everyone arms round one another, and we’ll let them listen to this song’. So we’ve all got our arms round one another. I said, ’what I’m asking you is: why are you here? What are we doing all of this for?’ It became very emotional — everything I do, I do for you. Those were two songs that played a big emotional part in preparing our players. They believed in it.

In the 1984 Cup Final, there definitely were nerves because we were too young. Before the game, you could tell from the reaction of two players in particular. One certainly, how he was preparing, he actually sat on the floor cross-legged. Never seen it before. We had a warm-up routine for the dressing-room and he was just out of it. But looking back I made a big mistake because I announced the team after we’d beaten Arsenal. The reason I did it was that these had been the back four in the semi-final against Plymouth and I thought they needed to know. But they were too young to know and I should have kept them on tenterhooks.

How I dealt with my own nerves, I would bring the players in. I had the saying with the players, family first football second. Except on match days. Football dominates all of us on the Saturday. So what we’re going to do is we report quarter to ten on Saturday morning. We would go out at Vicarage Road, not the training ground, and we’d go out at ten o’clock and in that half an hour — it was half an hour only — I took it and it was a motivational talk. We would do some sprints and all the time I was talking to them, about the opposition and a bit about what we were going to do. They go in and have a shower and then go in their cars to the hotel for the pre-match meal; yours truly runs home. And now I’m in my bath, I’m relaxed, I know I’ve done everything. I’ve finished; it’s now up to you, the players.

My next bit now is quarter to three to three o’clock. In that quarter of an hour I’ve got to be very careful I don’t say too much because I’ve already said it. Right at the death I would get up on the bench and I’m now taller than all of them. As they went out, I knew the people that wanted a touch from me or have me say something as they were going past. As the manager I was above them — don’t worry, there’s no nerves from me, fine, come on …

I’m hoping to give them all the confidence that I can feel is in me. But I’ve been able to get that through my running, through the adrenaline you get through physical exercise. I’ve prepared myself both mentally and physically, without them knowing.

Before the match, you see the players going to the toilet a lot. But that never concerned me at all. I just saw that as a matter of human nature. I’ve had one or two people going in to be sick. That kind of thing never worried me.

I remember being a player for Grimsby Town and the manager petrified us and on the morning of a game I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was frightened and I used to say to myself if ever I become a manager whatever happens my players will not feel like this.

Getting to know the players as people, getting to know their families, was a big thing. Watford became known as the family club but people weren’t always aware exactly what that meant. When I signed players, if possible, I’d like their wives or girlfriends — this was before agents — to be there and if they had family to bring their family. But the thing is of course you are signing the whole family. At one stage, we obviously had the birthdays of all of our players but we tried to get the wedding anniversaries too and then like all good managers you sent them some flowers, at the expense of the club of course! You’re trying to make sure problems don’t develop. By getting to know the wives and trying to keep them onside you can settle people down more because when you met the wives at the club functions they would sometimes tell you things about their husband that helped you get a better picture.

By the time of the England job, 1990, I’d been a manager for eighteen years. Walking out at Wembley, the arrogance I suppose was in me in terms of what I’d achieved, there was no fear at all. This is where I should be. This is what I’ve worked so hard for. I’m coming out and we’re going to win.

I tended to be more nervous on the England games than I was on club games because I didn’t have control. I felt it in my stomach, the feeling in the pit of your stomach that you weren’t really in control of this whereas at club level you felt in control and you needed to be in control. You’ve got to experience a tournament before you know what international management is all about. You’ve only got ten games a season when you usually have 50. They’re not your players, they’re somebody else’s players. They’re not your staff, they’re somebody else’s staff. At that time you had no day-to-day contact with any of them at all. Mobiles were only just coming in; some of them didn’t have mobile phones: how do you keep in touch with them?

There is a dislike of you by a small group of managers because you’ve been an opponent to them. So some managers don’t want you to succeed. I’d been brought up at Scunthorpe and Scunthorpe was my side, and my second team was England. If England played everything stopped, and I took that into my managership of England — how naïve … Every one of us England managers has come out of being very successful at club level, so you expect that to continue. I found that very difficult. What I found difficult was not being in total control of the situation. And you can’t be as the England manager.

I never believed in telling a player where his weaknesses were. I believed in training and practising their strengths and it’s amazing how much their weaknesses improved. If you’re going to come in and say look your left foot is rank, what are you going to get? Now you can do some work on that, you can go out and say we’ll do some basic things, we want to make you into a two-footed player, you’ll be a better player, but your right foot is excellent, your right foot is magnificent, if you could get your left foot to be fifty per cent of that you’ll be a fantastic player. Now all of a sudden your left foot can be fifty per cent weaker than your right because your manager’s just told you how magnificent your right foot is and all he really wants you to do is get it half as good as that and you’ll be fantastic.