Can The Stick Exist Alongside The Carrot?

Should a manager or sports coach ever criticise his/her players in public? This rhetorical question comes to mind on the back of comments made by United boss Jose Mourinho in the last couple of weeks. Mourinho was quite outspoken about certain players in the aftermath of recent defeats and the Portuguese manager’s attitude has sparked a debate over what is and isn’t appropriate for someone in his position. Further to my last blog, the Red Devils predictably bounced back (what a cringe-worthy and cliched phrase!) from their early season slump with an emphatic victory over last season’s champions Leicester City. The United boss was completely vindicated in his selections and tactics as the Old Trafford men slayed the Foxes with overwhelming ease. Were Mourinho’s previous statements justified on this basis? Certainly, whatever the United boss said to his players, it seemed to work a treat.

The answer depends on your perspective and level of tolerance. Conventional football wisdom decrees that you never criticise your players in public. According to this logic, the environs of the dressing room are sacrosanct and any harsh words uttered behind closed doors should remain eternally private. For example, Alex Ferguson had a strict policy of omerta in relation to his players and obsessively refrained from critiquing them in the public arena. Assuming that the former United boss was much more direct behind closed doors, overt public criticism was nevertheless a territory he never ventured into. However, his current successor is cut from a different cloth. Mourinho is notoriously bold, brash and outspoken. United’s manager has no qualms about speaking his mind and seems unconcerned whose feathers get ruffled in the process. While Mourinho would probably contest that he’s overtly, publicly critical of his players, there’s little doubt that the former Chelsea coach is more forthright in his views than many of his managerial peers and predecessors. So, which approach is correct?

It’s easy to maintain the traditional view that players should never be criticised in public. After all, it’s only logical that players respond better to praise than opprobrium. However, I think that public censure can sometimes be justified if it provokes and inspires the right response. It’s a rather counter-intuitive argument to make, but some individuals respond well to honest, forthright critique. As a motivational tool, constructive criticism can be extremely effective. Apart from anything else, it can induce a desire to prove the manger or coach wrong. Similarly, many players respond best to honest and accurate appraisals of their performance. While well-meaning platitudes are well and good, nothing beats an honest and candid assessment of players’ performance aspects that can be improved. It’s always helpful to have essential evaluation measured in a quantifiable way. The key word here is “constructive.”

I believe firmly that individuals are always motivated by praise and encouragement above anything else. This is true in any walk of life. Sport, business, the arts: you name it. I was never much of a rugby player, but I played a little in school and college. I was very enthusiastic, but lacked the coordination and skill to be much of a player. I remember one of my coaches being particularly harsh on some of us. This man had little inclination to encourage or spare any feelings in respect of our efforts. His philosophy was very much one of tough love. And this was supposed to be a fun experience?! Yes, a good (metaphorical) kick up the arse is needed sometimes, but surely there has to be a combination of carrot and stick employed? My abiding memory of this coach’s approach is how utterly self-defeating it was. Regardless of what he thought of our abilities, surely he realised that he would have got more out of us by praising every once in a while? To be fair, this approach wasn’t particularly uncommon. It’s how things were done in those days. A sort of faux drill sergeant mentality.  In my experience, it never worked very well. Professional sport is a much different world to social rugby of course, but the basic principle is the same. How best to motivate an individual? How tough should a coach be?

Sometimes unfiltered honesty is the best policy. Whatever one thinks of Mourinho’s exhortations, they seem to have worked pretty well. Moreover, the United manager’s record confirms that his methods usually succeed. When dealing with elite footballers, the last thing you want is a bunch of precious prima donnas who regard any sort of criticism as a form of personal judgement. After all, we’re talking about multi-millionaire superstars here. Surely, the least we can expect of them is an ability to withstand a little honest critique? The key is balance, in my view. Although it can be beneficial to put the cat among the pigeons sometimes, coaches must be careful not to erode the unity and purpose that underscores any team. Modern players are much more delicate flowers than their forerunners. It’s a fine line to tread. Jose Mourinho is infinitely more qualified to make these judgements than I am and I’m sure he’ll get the balance right.  Constructive criticism certainly has its place, but there’s no substitute for sincere encouragement. In sport, history tells us the best results are achieved by a careful juxtaposition of carrot and stick.


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