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.


Calm Down, It’s Only September!

While I was engrossed in the excitement of the All-Ireland football final, the news came through that Man United had slumped to their third consecutive loss. The soccer giants lost 3-1 to Watford at Vicarage Road today, a chastening defeat that prompted the usual hysteria and over-reaction among many fans and pundits. Disappointment at your team losing is perfectly understandable of course and distress at defeat is hardly a new phenomenon. A bizarre trend is emerging, though. We are living in a curious age where instant reaction is demanded in these moments and our responses are becoming ludicrously disproportionate, devoid of any semblance of balance or common sense.

The honeymoon is over. While fans were somewhat divided over the vexed appointment of Jose Mourinho, it’s fair to say the overwhelming majority were prepared to give the controversial Portuguese manager a chance. And it all started so promisingly. A decent preseason, one that heralded a smattering of marquee signatures, was followed by a good start to the league. Typical of the new manager, the performances were functional rather than overly spectacular, but the results were coming and there seemed to be intent to play attacking football. I saw the first home game against Southampton and I must say I was very impressed with the United performance. The hosts were organised and efficient, and new signing Paul Pogba looked every inch the superstar in midfield. Certainly his inflated price tag didn’t look excessive that evening.

Granted, things haven’t gone too well since. Last week’s deflating loss in the Manchester derby was followed up by Europa League disappointment in Rotterdam. Today’s reverse against Watford has therefore topped off a rather horrendous week from a United viewpoint. And I get the fact that these losses aren’t mere statistics. There’s a context to all of this. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all the matches, but I understand that the performances as much as the results have caused concern. The City performance, in particular, was a profound reality check. The final score hardly did justice to the extent of City’s pervasive dominance. I tuned out before the end, but the Premier League favourites were mesmerising in the Manchester derby. City were fantastic, exhibiting a blistering pace that was combined with pin-point accuracy. Make no mistake, this was as emphatic a 2-1 victory as you’ll ever see. If City had taken their chances in the first half, it could have been really embarrassing for Mourinho. United have seen it all before with a Pep Guardiola team, of course. That bloody carousel! Today’s defeat punctured the Mourinho bubble further. A 3-1 loss to Watford. A reverse of this nature was always going to spell the end of the honeymoon.

Disappointment I understand. But I don’t get the hysteria. A cursory look at some of the post-game reaction unearthed the usual internet hyperbole and overreaction. Football commentary has become so tabloid. Everything’s a crisis. I’ve seen several comments on Twitter today, that openly question Mourinho’s tenure. United’s boss is getting slated by elements on the internet and social media. Unfavourable comparisons are even being made with immediate predecessors Louis Van Gaal and the unfortunate David Moyes. Moyes, in particular, proved fatally vulnerable to similar levels of impatience when he was shown the door with indecent haste ten months into a six-year contract. Mourinho will certainly be given more time, but he must find such commentary extremely perplexing. Let’s not lose our heads here. We’re only five games into the league season. There’s plenty of football to be played.

I’m not Mourinho’s biggest fan, but his record tells you there’s absolutely no need to panic. The man’s a perpetual winner, who invariably gets the job done in the end. What we’re seeing here isn’t based on calm and rational analysis. It’s hysteria and an extreme form of hysteria at that. We live in a world that demands instant success. Everything has to be expeditious and immediate. These days, we don’t wait to make our judgements. We offer them instantaneously and without mercy. Patience is viewed almost as an old-fashioned concept. In the modern era, football supporters demand immediate success and expect their teams to win every game. Expectations are less realistic than ever. Fans baulk at the idea of giving a manager time to make his mark.

If a match is lost, then the manager is in trouble. Lose a couple of games and it’s magnified into a full-blown crisis. Crisis? The word has lost all meaning in the modern vernacular. Wars and famines are crises. Losing a few football matches constitutes a blip, a transient setback from which great managers like Mourinho inevitably recover. These modern trends have eroded our sanity and sense. We’ve lost the power of perspective. Social media hasn’t helped in this regard. The demand for instant judgement and rapid reaction is insatiable. It’s a relentless, self-serving monster. But we’re all in trouble when fans are getting perturbed by the loss of a couple of early season games. Sport is an emotive business and it’s easy to get caught up in the madness. Anyone getting too hot and bothered really need to take a step back, though. Calm down dears, it’s only September!

P.S. For those who missed it, Dublin and Mayo served up a cracker at Croke Park today. The game ended as a draw, but the result was in doubt until virtually the last kick of the contest. Whenever the Dubs threatened to pull away, Mayo came back and the Connacht men showed great heart to tie up a game that seemed lost. It’s hard to resist the thought that today was Mayo’s best chance for the Sam. They were, by common consent, the better team and would surely have won were it not for the costly concession of two own-goals. One hopes they have enough in the tank to go again. The replay promises to be unmissable viewing!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Aleksandr Osipov (José Mourinho) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

File:José Mourinho in Kyiv, October 2015.jpg