Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Zola’s Management Style: The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

It soon became clear that in post-match interviews that Zola is not the sort of manager that criticized his team in public. At first I found this slightly irritating, especially when he insisted that his team had played well, when clearly this had not been the case. In recent weeks this approach has become much more acceptable as Zola post-match comments have mirrored reality.

It is true that most managers do not criticize individual players about their performances. Harry Redknapp’s comments about Darren Bent after the game against Portsmouth was considered to be fairly unusual and received a great deal of attention in the media. With 10 minutes left and the score at 1-1, Bent headed wide from six yards. Redknapp said: "You will never get a better chance to win a match than that. My missus could have scored that one. Bent did not only have part of the goal to aim for, but he had the entire net - and he put it wide. Unbelievable."

It is hard to believe that outburst like this actually improve the performance of a player. Nor did it help the confidence of Hull City players when Phil Brown conducted his half-time team talk against Manchester City on the pitch with the team railing 4-0. He defended himself against his critics by claiming: “It was the right thing to do. There is no doubt about it. I have got no regrets about it whatsoever. If it bruised one or two egos then so be it, although it wasn't intended to be that way... Hopefully, the mentality of the group will be stronger for the experience.” This defence of his “public humiliation” strategy is not helped by the fact that Hull City have not won a game since this incident took place.

Coaching football players is like any form of teaching. The main objective is to improve the performance of the individual. A lot of research has been carried out into discovering the most effective methods of educating young people. These methods fall into two main categories: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Or in football coaching terms, “putting your arm around a player” or “kicking him up the backside”. It is often claimed that good managers know the right-time to use either of these two strategies. However, the research suggests that it is positive reinforcement that is far and away the most effective way of improving the student’s performance.

Of course, all teachers lose their temper and resort to negative reinforcement. They will try to justify this by saying that the students benefit from this behaviour. This is what Harry Redknapp and Phil Brown did after their outbursts. However, in reality, the reason they acted in this way was because they lost control of their emotions. It was relieving frustrations rather than applying logic to solving a problem.

Zola clearly is a believer in positive reinforcement. He concentrates on praising rather than criticizing behaviour. Great teachers treat each student as an individual that they honestly care about. This is clearly Zola’s approach. In a recent interview Jack Collison claimed that the recent improvement in his performances on the pitch is a result of one-on-one tuition from Zola.

Interviews with other players such as Carlton Cole and Matthew Upson reveal that Zola spends a great deal of time building up player’s confidence.

It is no coincidence that everybody who has had any contact with Zola describes him as a “loveable” man. Zola has that fairly unique ability of making people feel good about themselves. That is because he praises rather than criticizes. In his everyday relationships he uses positive rather than negative reinforcement. So many people, especially those suffering from an inferiority complex, are more concerned with putting people down than raising them up.

Zola is not the first football coach/manager to use this approach. The greatest exponent in the use of positive reinforcement was Herbert Chapman. He used his extensive scouting network to identify young players with potential. Chapman would then watch them play and carry out an investigation into their personalities. When he was convinced that they had the necessary requirements he would go in and sign them.

In 1927 Eddie Hapgood was a 19 year-old playing for non-league Kettering Town. In his autobiography, Football Ambassador (1945), Hapgood describes meeting Chapman for the first time: “After a dozen games, Bill Collier, the Kettering manager, called me into his office and introduced me to a chubby man in tweeds, whose spectacles failed to hide the shrewd, appraising look from his blue eyes.”

After he had confirmed that he did not smoke or drink, Chapman signed him for Arsenal. The following day, Chapman told Hapgood he was going to make him the best left-back in England. Like Zola, Chapman and his trainer, Tom Whittaker, went in for one-to-one tuition. Gradually, they built up his confidence until he was the best left-back in the country, illustrated by the fact that he played 30 times for England.

Chapman told everyone he signed that he was going to make them the best player in that position in the country. He even told Whittaker, who was forced to give up the game because of a serious leg injury, that he was going to make him the best trainer in the world.

In May 1929 Chapman signed the 17 year old Cliff Bastin from Exeter City for £2,000. Bastin did not initially want to leave Devon but was persuaded by Chapman's manner: "There was an aura of greatness about Chapman. I was impressed with him straight away. He possessed a cheery self-confidence, which communicated itself to those around him. This power of inspiration and the remarkable gift of foresight, which never seemed to desert him, were his greatest attributes."

As Stephen Studd pointed out in Herbert Chapman: Football Emperor (1981): "He (Chapman) set great store by what he regarded as the dignity of the athlete, treating his players as human beings instead of mere paid servants, which was how most other players were regarded elsewhere."

Chapman also rarely made changes to the team. Even when individual players were in poor form he was reluctant to drop them. According to Chapman it was a matter of confidence and he saw it as his job to build up self-belief in his players. That is why he always criticised supporters if they barracked one of his players. "When they (team changes) are necessary I try to arrange that they cause as little disturbance as possible." Drastic changes only unsettled the players and if the side was not playing well, "the moderate course is always the best".

Jack Lambert was one of the players who was often barracked by the Highbury crowd. Chapman was furious and proposed that barrackers should be thrown out of the ground if they did not respond to an appeal for fairness over the loud-speaker. Lambert, very much like Carlton Cole, and only scored one goal in his first sixteen appearances. However, Chapman refused to lose confidence in him, despite only getting 4 goals in 22 games the following season.

Herbert Chapman gave Lambert another opportunity to show him what he could do by giving him a good run in the 1929-30 season. This time he did well and scored 18 goals in 20 appearances. After that, there was no stopping him and by the time he had left the club he had the excellent record of 109 league and cup goals in 159 appearances.

Chapman was not always successful in persuading the Highbury crowd to lay off his players. He later admitted that Arsenal crowd destroyed the confidence of one young player. The 20 year-old player told Chapman: "I'm no use to anyone in football and I had better get out. The crowd are always getting at me... I hope I shall never kick a ball again." Chapman eventually allowed the young man to leave the club "though it meant sacrificing a player who, I was convinced, had exceptional possibilities of development".

Chapman’s methods brought great success and his teams won the First Division championship six times with two different clubs before he died in 1934 at the early age of 56.

Let us hope that Zola’s methods also brings the same success as achieved by Herbert Chapman.


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