How “Us Against The World” Helps Athletes But Not Society

Have you ever noticed how some of the most controversial and divisive leaders are often the most effective? It’s not necessarily their goals that make them the Marmite of Humanity, it’s the method they go about it. Sir William Wallace of Braveheart (amazing film, historically a little stretched to say the least) found himself at the head of the Scottish army and fought the English with a 1-0-1 record, with defeat being handed to him by sloppy defending and an own goal in one of the original and most costly match rigging scandals in history. He made friends and enemies on his own side. As a Stevenage F.C. supporter we had a great deal of debate among the fan-base regarding Graham Westley, all three times he was at the club. Even after he won us promotion, left, and came back again there was still debate over whether we wanted him at the club. He led us to more silverware in just a few years than we could ever have dreamed of, and still the fan-base is divided. Finally, the King of Marmite, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is in my mind the greatest manager of all time.

The list could be endless, good and bad. Stalin, Churchill, Hitler, Thatcher, Jesus, Lincoln, Obama, Trump and many others. They all share one thing – high levels of loyalty or opposition. Think about anyone who has been single minded in an objective and try to find a universal opinion about them. There are even people who hate Mother Teresa, yes, I used the word hate. They are out there. But what is it that inspires people to fight harder for one person than they would another? Why are some leaders able to command loyalty while others are not? The answer is simple, and it is something that any coach at any level can implement. Create core values, create a brand, and stick to it, no matter what.

First we’ll look at creating a brand. Sir Alex would play on the fact that he would gain advantages, and “Fergie-time” was not least of the mind-games he would play. In an interview on the BBC show Clare Balding Meets…, Ferguson had this to say:

“It gets across to the opponents and the referee, which is a little trick. The thing about the last 10-15 minutes of a game, particularly at Old Trafford, you’ve got 65,000 people there. 

“At half-time I always stress: don’t panic, be patient, wait. In the last 15 minutes you can do what you like. I’m a gambler, shove bodies up front, take the gamble … it didn’t always work but a lot of times it did.
 
“If you’re in that dressing room after the game and we’ve scored in the last minute, the electricity is unbelievable, they’re jumping on top of each other, hand-clapping, it’s a fantastic place to be. 

“Most important thing is that those fans are walking out of the stadium desperate to get down to the pub to talk about, desperate to get home to tell their wife and their kids what happened at Old Trafford in the last minute of the game. And that’s my job, to get them home happy.”

He knew what he was doing – Fergie-time was part of the game day experience when playing at Old Trafford, it became part of the brand. If you go back to the 90s and 00s when United were dominant there are many words, phrases, and events that can be associated with the club that build the brand:

Fergie’s Fledglings. “You’ll not win anything with kids” says Alan Hansen. The response? A metaphorical “Hold my Scotch and watch this!” Those kids went on to dominate for years to come.

Cantona’s kung-fu kick. Fergie stood behind his player against a hostile media and fans from every area of the game. Publicly Fergie would always back his player. How many times did a United player commit a foul only for Ferguson to tell reporters “I didn’t see it!”? On the other hand, when van Persie had a ball kicked at him it was Ferguson who said “He [van Persie] could have been killed.” Brian Clough had this to say about Ferguson “But Alex is still too thin-skinned, too ready to defend his players against outsiders.” I would suggest that Sir Alex wasn’t being thin skinned, he was building a Them vs. Us mentality in the team.

The hairdryer. As brutally defensive as he was in public, behind the dressing room doors, stories are told of Ferguson shouting at players, holding nothing back.

Rio Ferdinand has this to say on his former manager:

“We played Benfica away and I think we got beat. We didn’t play well and he was shouting at me and I thought I was one of the best players on the day. So I was going back at him. And the problem is, which I failed to learn quickly, is that the more you shout at him, the louder he gets, and the more aggressive he gets, and the closer he gets to you.”*

But also has this to say:

“He was a master of psychology, knew how to get the best out of every player and created an unstoppable winning mentality. He gave people the confidence to try things and didn’t mind if you made mistakes if you were trying the right things.”*

Ryan Giggs also recalls an early hairdryer treatment:

“I remember him having a go at me at half-time and I had the sort of attitude that ‘right, I’ll show him’. And I played well in the second-half, so then he quickly knew how I would respond to him losing his temper. That followed me for the next 20 years, so it was a big mistake early on.”*

The core value of the team is “Them vs. Us”. You don’t let garbage from the outside bring in an infection, and what happens in the team stays in the team. And this is where character is shown. Ferguson stuck to this, he made difficult decisions, and he stayed the course.

When David Beckham became a Spice Boy, it would seem a rift developed. Beckham now had two masters and could not serve them both equally. Beckham states that Ferguson had been like a father to him, even after having a boot kicked at his head by the latter. The respect was so strong, and yet Beckham had allowed an outside influence into the unit and it had taken his eye away. It was time for Beckham to leave. Roy Keane, the man who had been the recipient of so much grace, and so many sins overlooked found himself on the outside when he dared criticise his team-mates in public. This is not done. Ferguson would not allow infection into his group. He was going to protect the brand and maintain values at all costs. The idea of “Them vs. Us” cannot be maintained when even a little bit of “Them” infiltrates, or the “Us” becomes weak. Under Ferguson, and people like him, you are in or you are out, and if you take a step outside you’ll find a helping hand to keep you moving in that direction.

Ferguson was resolute. He could only envision victory. He encouraged creativity and ideas, he hated sub-standard performance. He demanded loyalty. If you read interviews by players under Graham Westley it was a similar demanding environment. It is the same mentality that allows soldiers to go into the war-zone, “We’re in this together, committed to the same cause, and I trust the people around me.” One person wavering in their commitment and it destroys the confidence of the group. When this is the leader it is even more detrimental. In his autobiography, Rio Ferdinand has this to say of Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes:

“He tried to impose a vision but never seemed to be completely clear what that vision should be. Unintentionally, he created a negative vibe where, with [Alex Ferguson], it had always been positive. It was always how to stop the other side. Moyes set us up not to lose. We’d been accustomed to playing to win.”

Ferguson created success on three pillars that, with patience and dedication can be the bedrock of any club, even my beloved Stevenage F.C.

1 – He created a culture of high confidence in which the players would play for each other, they would never criticise each other, and they knew their leader had their back. No matter what, he had their back – with one caveat…

2 – You break the unspoken rules and you are dead to the group. He created a world in which the players believed they would only win if they were determined and single-minded. You always put the team first.

3 – No one was going to help them, it was them against the world. He created a brand that would get in the minds of those on the outside, creating an image that others would come to fear.

In a wider view of society, the “Them vs. Us” mentality is why we have extremists. They keep the outside out, and the inside protected. They fight harder for something that offers identity and certainty. In the wider world, it forces people into a division. It does the same in sport, with managers like Ferguson and Westley having very few people on the fence about them. In sport it is an amazing culture to build, and in possibly the only way I would dare disagree with Brian Clough (even in death he scares me), I believe it takes a very tough skin to be effective. It takes teams like Stevenage F.C. from being almost relegated from the Conference in 2004 to being in League One seven years later.

And to go on record – I love Marmite, believe Ferguson to be the greatest manager in the history of the game, and love Westley’s approach to the game.

* – Sir Alex Ferguson: Secrets of Success, BBC
Picture of Sir Alex Ferguson credit Manchester United
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Categories: Goals, Mental Toughness, Performance, Social Identity, Sport

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