It is unusual for one change of management to have such a dramatic effect. Yet Andy Murray’s appointment of Ivan Lendl as his coach only 18 months ago propelled him with dramatic speed into winning an Olympic gold medal, the US Open, and finally Wimbledon.
Lendl, a major championship winner who himself had to overcome a tendency earlier in his playing career to choke at the big events, altered something in the psyche of his charge. Murray has rapidly matured from being the self-critical “drama queen” (in the former words of Virginia Wade) to a competitor of extraordinary tenacity and resilience.
Murray’s switch of coach did not lead to a big change in his playing style, or his training regime, which was already arduous. Instead, it boosted his confidence in himself, and his belief that he could overcome the weight of history to emulate Fred Perry’s 1936 Wimbledon win.
It further reinforces the crucial role in modern sports of coaches and managers, not only to teach their charges the right skills but to imbue in them enough self-belief to demolish the psychological barriers in their way. The right coach helps them to become better versions of themselves.
Lendl’s coaching of Murray has in common with other top sports managers that he didn’t appear to do anything dramatic or transformative. Instead, he helped Murray to learn from his errors rather than retreating into self-disgust, and to keep on improving.
“He’s made me learn more from the losses that I’ve had than maybe I did in the past,” Murray said after his win. “I think he’s always been very honest with me. He’s always told me exactly what he thought . . . If I work hard, he’s happy. If I don’t, he’s disappointed, and he’ll tell me.”
It doesn’t sound like rocket science, but the idea of making steady, marginal gains is also central to the style of Sir Dave Brailsford, the performance director of the British cycling team at the 2012 London Olympics. He has turned attention to detail into a leadership philosophy.
Sir Dave’s career embodies the professionalism that has spread through sports management in the past three decades – he studied sports science and psychology in the late 1980s before gaining a masters in business administration, and learns from corporate strategy.
As manager of Team Sky he helped Sir Bradley Wiggins secure a first British victory in the Tour de France last year and Chris Froome, his lead rider in this year’s race, holds the yellow jersey.
Sports has become big business in its own right, thanks to a stronger emphasis on managing franchises and brands for global success. Managers and coaches have shifted from instinct and tradition to using performance data far more precisely for recruitment and team selection.
Tennis coaches face a particular challenge that team coaches don’t – they are employed by the individual star rather than a club. They lack the power of selection, and cannot drop an underperforming star, as Warren Gatland, the British and Irish Lions rugby manager, did with Brian O’Driscoll before the Lions beat Australia in their series.
As a result, tennis coaches tend to be subservient to the player who is paying their wages, and can have difficulty challenging them. As Murray phrased it: “The player is sometimes the one in charge. I think coaches are not always that comfortable doing that.”
Lendl overcame it, helped by his credibility as a former major champion and by his soberly determined personality. Murray’s mother Judy, herself a tennis coach, playfully referred to Lendl as “Count Dracula” on Twitter and his impassive features could be seen in Murray’s corner at every match.
Under his gaze, Murray stopped getting demoralised when momentum went against him. The final was notable for the number of reverses of fortune, although it lasted only three sets. Yet Murray overcame his problems, even in the final game when he lost three championship points to Novak Djokovic.
“I think I persevered. That’s really been it, the story of my career,” Murray said. “I had a lot of tough losses, but the one thing I would say is I think every year I improved a little bit. They weren’t major improvements, massive changes, but every year my ranking was going in the right direction.”
If you keep improving steadily, and you aren’t distracted by setbacks, you’re bound to win eventually. Once Lendl taught Murray that, it happened fast.
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