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Rebels...with a cause

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Article from Coaching Edge Autumn 2014: Knight Rider

The class clown or cheeky chappie is the life and soul of the party, but it’s not always a laughing matter when it comes to integrating a rebel, an individual, a ‘maverick’ into a sporting environment, as Crispin Andrews discovered.

If anyone ever meets Kevin Pietersen, ask him whether he listens predominantly with his left ear.

According to a 2011 London School of Economics (LSE) study on mavericks in the workplace, left ear listeners tend to favour the right hemisphere of the brain. Right brain thinkers are creative problem solvers. But, the study says, mavericks also tend to be a bit neurotic. Keep them calm, thinking positively, free from anxiety and feeling good about themselves and they’ll be confident enough to unleash their full potential.

It’s the same in a sports team. Anywhere, in fact, where people come together to simultaneously achieve individual and group objectives. Maverick means ‘independently minded’. The word is understood to derive from 19th century Texas rancher Samuel Maverick who didn’t brand his cattle, as did all his fellow ranchers. Back then, if anyone found an unbranded cow wandering around, they called it a maverick.

An independently minded cattle rancher, and an animal that didn’t want to run with the herd. No wonder maverick has become a dirty word in many circles.

There’s often an inherent mistrust of people who don’t want to run with the pack. Most often they’re called loner, outsider, big time Charlie.

They could just as easily be called unique, confident, strong-willed or innovator. Such is the maverick’s curse.

Problem is, within a team environment, mavericks will be surrounded by individuals who require structure and conformity to give their best. By their very nature, mavericks and conformists tend to rub each other up the wrong way. ‘Why do I have to do it like that?’ says the maverick. ‘Why does he insist on doing it like that?’ says the conformist.

It’s up to a coach to find a way of integrating the two personality types. When a coach can’t, it’s often the maverick who is jettisoned. Easier to lose one talented individual than a whole team of less talented conformists.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the Football Association chose Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson to manage the national team. Safe pairs of hands, rather than the more outspoken Brian Clough. Greenwood and Robson preferred to build their teams around the dependable Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson.

This often meant no place for the talented, but ‘mercurial’… ‘enigmatic’… or ‘maverick’…Glenn Hoddle.

Hoddle, too inconsistent for his national managers, won only 53 England caps. Often he was played out of position. Michel Platini famously said that Hoddle would have played 150 internationals had he been born French.

But even the French didn’t know what to do with their own maverick, Eric Cantona.

Luckily they had a less temperamental replacement, with even more talent, Zinedine Zidane.

Former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith understands the value of the maverick player.

Before his promotion to the top job, Smith was assistant to Steve Coppell at the club and coached Ian Wright, just before Wright moved to Arsenal. ‘You have to make allowances for maverick players,’ Smith says. ‘Every team needs players like Wright to win games.’ Smith explains that a maverick player is, more often than not, a creative player, a forward, although Bruce Grobbelaar, Edgar Davids and Paul Breitner might disagree.

‘The maverick will want to do things their way, because they’ll need a certain type of service to make the most of their creative talents,’ he says. ‘They’ll want to work on things in training, that others don’t want, or need, to do.’

Smith says that football players understand the need for mavericks. It often takes a skillfull, unpredictable individual to unlock a well-drilled defence. It’s the same with American football, ice hockey, basketball. Dallas even calls its basketball team the Mavericks.

Other sports have less tolerance for their gifted, but free-spirited, stars. Would George Best have got away with his party lifestyle had he been a cricketer?

Would Usain Bolt be allowed to strut around, like he does, if he played rugby? Playing the ‘big man’ is more acceptable in some sporting cultures, than others. LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo could never be accused of being humble, yet Kevin Pietersen and Danny Cipriani, with far less public profile, have both been called show-offs.

Whether a maverick player ends up enhancing their team, or conflicting with individuals within it, can depend on the culture set by the coach.

There’s likely to be less conflict if a coach sees the team as a collection of individuals each contributing their own unique talents towards a collective end. More conflict, if the coach prefers a homogenous group carrying out a structured game plan.

Smith says coaches need to be flexible, but that doesn’t mean abandoning the non-negotiables. ‘Time-keeping and punctuality have to be the same for everyone,’ he says. ‘Fitness too. You can’t have a Paul Gascoigne situation, where the most talented player isn’t as fit as the rest. Players also have to play for the team, not themselves.’

Diego Maradona and Geoff Boycott might disagree. Boycott might argue, and often did, that what is good for the team’s best player is good for the team, even if certain individuals don’t like it. Maradona might reasonably claim that he could do more, overweight and underfit, than the fittest and healthiest replacement.

Does this mean everyone should be allowed a smoke, drink and a curry the night before a big game? Or to sit in the dressing room sulking if they don’t get any runs?

Certain mavericks might think that ‘lesser mortals’ should accept the ‘water carrier’ role.

It’s important that a sports team doesn’t march to the tune of an individual’s ego; but workplace mavericks expert Chris Jackson does believe that it’s important that a maverick player feels valued by their team.

‘They need to be involved in team decision making, feel that they have a voice, that they’re being listened to,’ Jackson says. He adds that this is not because mavericks are necessarily bossy or domineering types, but more because the creative individual is often an insecure individual.

It’s Smith’s experience that the maverick player will want more of a say than most in how the team plays. ‘If the maverick scores a couple of goals, the team will more likely win,’ Smith says. ‘The maverick thinks he knows his own game, and what he needs to maximise his chances of scoring, so wants the team to play to his strengths.’

Jackson adds that mavericks need to feel listened to, that they have a voice within the group. ‘If they feel part of what a coach is trying to achieve, and valued by the coach and the team, they will motivate themselves to perform,’ he says. ‘You can’t just tell a maverick what to do, or come over all schoolmasterish, they’ll hate that. Instead, act as a guide who helps the maverick player contribute ideas, come up with their own solutions to problems.

Get them to discuss things informally with other players, throw ideas around, and come up with suggestions they then put to you.’ Former Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie,

Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s current coach, says that open and honest communication is the key to integrating maverick players into a team structure. ‘Make every player feel part of what you’re trying to achieve,’ he says. ‘You have to make sure that everyone knows what’s expected of them. If a player is not clear about something they have to know they can talk to us. It’s up to the coach and team management to create an environment where people feel comfortable in coming forward without being judged.’

Jackson thinks that coaches should set aside one-on-one time for their maverick player.

‘Meet for a drink,’ he says. ‘Encourage feedback. Take time to explain to them what you’re trying to achieve for the group and how the team needs them. But also how the team, and the other individuals within it, also have needs. Help them understand that their responsibility to the team goes beyond what they do on the field.’

This is crucial when conflicts arise, and it’s here that Jackson says that coaches will need all their patience. ‘Creative people will also make mistakes,’ he says. ‘The coach needs to be tolerant of this and make sure other team members understand. If there’s a problem within the team with something the maverick player is doing, explain to the player why, and which mutually agreed team ideal this goes against. If you just tell them off, you won’t get the best out of them. Once there’s mutual trust, a lot of these problems tend to disappear.’

Mavericks can be brilliant, win games, trophies for the team, and awards for their coach. But within a team environment, particularly if overstructured and formal, the individualist can easily become a rebel, and eventually a disruptive influence. A maverick, then, needs careful handling, but there is something slightly ironic in all this.

The first maverick, Samuel Maverick, wasn’t stubbornly independent at all when it came to cattle ranching. More interested in politics, landowning and legal matters, he just couldn’t be bothered to brand his cattle. Ranching to him was a trivial sideshow. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story. Samuel had a ranch but didn’t do things the accepted way of the crowd, therefore, he must be of stubbornly independent disposition. Assumption replaces communication, perception is driven by misperception.

The first maverick wasn’t even a maverick. No wonder so many subsequent mavericks feel misunderstood.

The Coach’s Edge

  • Open and honest communication is the key to integrating maverick players into a team structure.
  • They need to be involved in team decision making, feel that they have a voice, that they’re being listened to.
  • If they feel part of what a coach is trying to achieve, and valued by the coach and the team, they will motivate themselves to perform.

Do you have any tips for integrating a 'maverick' into a sporting environment? Share them with your fellow coaches by leaving a comment below.

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