The Pure Coach

Unfortunately for mavericks, they have a habit of generating contempt from people unable or unwilling to keep up.

Cover portrait by Mark Perkins

Anyone who knows cricket knows that Peter Moores was once christened the ‘coach of his generation’ by Paul Downton, then Managing Director of England Cricket, prior to appointing him for his second spell as Head Coach of the national team. No pressure then. His tenure ended in World Cup disappointment and, by retrospective consensus, an entirely unfair and disproportionate trial by media. Following an infamous misquote, Moores was labelled as a ‘data’ man: a coach by numbers. The irony. He’s anything but. Pete is as far away from a ‘coach by numbers’ as is possible. For him, coaching is an art, supported by science and like all great artists he uses any materials at his disposal to inspire and assist his work.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve known Pete, on and off, for well over a decade, including my time as Chair to the ECBs Fellowship of Elite Coaches. Pete was one of the founding members. During those years I got to know him for the driven, passionate and engaging man that he is.

He is the only coach to lead two separate sides to England’s County Championship title, including helping Lancashire secure that accolade for the first time in 77 years. That is a remarkable achievement. However, at International level he has developed an unfortunate reputation for preparing teams for greatness and then departing only for others to enjoy the fruits of his labours. That said, most of those who benefitted have had the good grace to give significant credit Pete for his part in their success: players and coaches alike.

From my perspective Pete is a what I’d call a ‘pure’ coach. The challenges of helping others improve; as players, as people and as teams, envelope him. As does the desire to constantly drive himself forward. His friendly demeanour and easy manner should not mislead. Few, in any sport, are so assiduous in pursuing improvement and ensuring no stone is left unturned, even if that means upsetting the applecart to find those stones. It’s the sign of a true maverick.

The Pure Coach

By Giles Mountford

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Unfortunately for mavericks, they have a habit of generating contempt from people unable or unwilling to keep up. These people tend to seek the refuge of all cowards: casting barbed aspersions from the safe-hold of  conventional wisdom.

The media feeding frenzy that followed his England departure would have seen a lesser individual crawl away to lick bitter wounds. Although Pete had a few weeks of quiet introspection he was soon back in the fray, building significant success with then struggling Nottinghamshire, including winning the T20 blast for their first time. Whenever you talk to Pete about coaching, he is brimming with energy and enthusiasm. It’s his default mode.

At 57, he cuts a youthful and perhaps it’s fair to say, leaner, meaner version of his previous self. Not many coaches, at least in cricket, take the knocks that Pete has and come back swinging; again and again. Nonetheless, despite multiple phoenix impersonations that have seen repeated domestic success and praise lavished on him from some of the world’s best cricketers, it’s not his career – for all its fascinating twists and turns but rather his coaching philosophy that intrigues me. It’s his unique insight on the role of the coach and what it a takes to help an individual and a team fulfil, or even redefine, their potential.

Photo by Nottinghamshire CCC

Photo by Nottinghamshire CCC

Photo by Aksh yadav

Yes, we play football; does it make us better cricketers? No. But if it connects us, it might make us a better team.

Coaching: Art or Science?

First up let’s put the ‘data’ tag to rest once and for all. Pete has the advantage of several years perspective and although his humour has returned it’s evidently a topic that still has the capacity to frustrate him. He’s not alone in his sentiment, at least amongst other coaches, that over-reliance on data can stifle coaching,

“Analysis by its nature is as good as that which you take away from it: a brilliant coach takes a big block of information, removes the irrelevant stuff and keeps the important things. Otherwise, the useful information is lost in all the other stuff and it becomes useless. If in doubt don’t use it at all. And if it ever kills a player’s instinct then it’s not worth it”.

The governing bodies of sport inevitably lean towards ‘science’ (and by default scientists), comfortable with data but nervous and misunderstanding of the ‘art’ side of coaching.

In my experience the bravest and most effective coaches effectively blend the two: using science to inform, but never dominate, their ability to develop and release an individuals’ or teams’ potential.

Pete takes up the theme,

“You can have all the analysis in the world but the only thing that ultimately matters is: did they save, make or cost us runs? It can be done on feeling and it raises awareness of factors like speed off the mark, accuracy. You have to look a long time to find a gem in all the other stuff. In short, analysis needs refining. Without context it’s either ineffective, useless or, even worse, damaging”.

So, is coaching an art or a science?

As you can see in the following clip, Pete doesn’t hesitate with his answer to that question.

Play Video

Watch the full interview at the end of this article.

Building Greatness in Others

Photo by Mark Perkins

The trajectory of the conversation shifts, “What does it actually mean to be Head Coach?”.

“I think as a Head Coach you’ve got to be an all-rounder. When coaching you’re in the people business and you want people to get better. My number one priority is trying to help people build belief in themselves. I create opportunity for people to do that and let them feel it. You don’t want to be like the builder who says ‘ooooer I’m not sure about that – we’ll see what we can do.’ ”

Pete elaborates,

”Some builders will tell you they can do something but emphasise how difficult it is, so you can only do what needs doing it if you use them. In coaching terms this creates an over reliance on the coach – which is where I’d never want to be as it can dilute the independence of the performer”.

“And it’s not as if you’re out there bowling or batting for them…”

“Exactly. So if you do that in coaching it can be incredibly negative. If a bowler says ‘what do you think?’, and you say, ‘that’s not great but I can fix it’, all his belief goes. But you must also avoid creating bullshit belief by telling a player how great he is without enabling them to practice in certain ways so they can then feel it. You help people make connections that work for them. There’s no exact science to that”.

Photo by Mark Perkins

My number one priority is trying to help people build belief in themselves.

I ask Pete to expand and he obliges, “You can look at coaching in two ways; some think ‘I’ll give you all my information to try and make you a better player’ – I’ve never found that very attractive. The other way is to say, ‘I think all that brilliance is within you so I’ll come with you and help you get it out’. I’d like to think I’m that way around so the method they develop as a player starts to fit them”.

Play Video

Watch the full interview at the end of this article.

Coach the Person, Find The Good

“How do you go about bringing that brilliance out?”

“There are the foundation blocks that don’t go away – so helping a player find their rhythm is one of the massive parts. I go and watch a trial see these kids absolutely crapping themselves but they’re being judged technically. If you try and get them relaxed and do two or three sessions, you can see the real person and then judge if they’re any good or not. Pro sport is no different. How do you spot rhythm? It’s about relaxed efficiency. It’s who is enjoying it. Sometimes you look around and people aren’t having a good time and then maybe you’re doing something wrong”.

He continues, warming to his theme,

“Sometimes as a coach you focus too much on the technical and that’s not right. Coaches by nature are carers with a critical eye, which is a bad combination. You’re spotting weaknesses but sometimes you’re missing the goal which is that they’re brilliant in their own way. When I was at Lancs, most the guys could name what they had to work on but not many could name what they were good at. It’s often not easy to say things like, ‘I can handle pressure really well’ ”.

You go in and out of form as a coach just as a player does.

Focusing on what we cannot do versus that which we can is a common malaise that often gets worse the older we are. I make a mental note to write a list of the things I’m good at. Pete continues,

“That’s why coaching for me is difficult to understand because everyone wants it to fit in a box. You live with a group of players and you get to know them in a certain way. At times you can help them get better and at times you can’t. It doesn’t always work in an exact scientific way. Coaches are good, bad, average and brilliant but we’ve created this idea that if we’ve all done the badge then we’re all really good. That would be mythical, you go in and out of form as a coach just as a player does”.

Creating a Team

Creating a Team

I wonder what Pete ‘on form’ is so I ask him, “What is you at your best?”. He chuckles,

“When there’s an enthusiasm to do it that takes away any negativity. DP (David Parsons), said to me at Warwickshire: ‘Mooresy you know you’re at your best when you are your natural child and when you’re having some fun’. Part of that fun tempers the desire to push and win. I’ve always had both but you try and get that balance right. Pushing too hard can be quite detrimental for players because it’s not sustainable – they have to do the pushing and you assist.

I recall watching the England Team, whilst filming in South Africa, take part in what I could best describe as an ‘enthusiastic’ kick-around. That said, they were certainly having fun. I put it to Pete, whose own team is keen on the occasional soccer match, “What about playing football as a part of warming up? That seems to split opinion”.

“We may be doing it because it’s good fun but that in turn might make you better because it just makes you feel better. Yes, we play football; does it make us better cricketers? No. But if it connects us, it might make us a better team”.

Improvement in any field very rarely occurs in a straight line. The critical elements are context and relevance combined with the ability of the coach to constantly revisit, appraise and where appropriate: experiment. Finding the correct blend of experimentation and tried and tested principles is an ever present challenge for the forward thinking coach. As is the balance between technique and expression in a player.

It’s evident the concept of ‘having fun’ is as misunderstood as the ‘what is coaching’ conundrum. Perhaps it’s a peculiarly British thing – struggling with the concept than ‘fun’ can deliver great results. Perhaps it’s embedded in the Protestant work ethic or Catholic guilt. I won’t go there now.  “In the context of the team dynamic, how do you support the individual?”.

“You try and support each individual the same, but at different times people need different things. The ‘whole’ is a different set of dynamics. Winning is a by-product of everything that’s been done. When looking at the whole of it you get cues. The longer you’ve coached teams the more you notice those cues – it might be seemingly stupid things like guys wearing the wrong kit. You take it all in and you tweak things. Sometimes teams just need to relax: go and have a meal together”.

Hearing Pete talk I’m not surprised that he’s achieved the success he has. He sees things differently than most,

“I enjoy watching teams and how they perform: they’ve got a heart that beats. You need it to beat at the right rate. Individually it’s different, you go through the names and think about where is each one in their own belief. I want 11 guys on the field that feel great about themselves. That can’t just be left to good luck. What you say isn’t always what they hear – it’s a longer-term thing. You need to see the best version of someone”.

Photo AFP

Make Dreams Reality

Seeing the best version of someone usually involves helping them see it too. It’s about painting pictures in the mind. Vivid enough to feel real. Realistic enough to make them want to reach out and touch it. Pete takes up the reins,

“The imagination takes them to the ‘end’ but then you’ve got to come back and work out how you’ll get there. Most sportsmen don’t like the words ‘goal setting’ but they do it. To make it effective it’s got to be much more real than it often is to many players. A coaches’ job is to make the connection for them and link it to performance”.

Play Video

Watch the full interview at the end of this article.

If it’s not getting you better what are we doing it for?

We seem to be getting to the crux here and I make the point to Pete who nods in agreement,

“The two things for me are: Does it make you better? And does it help to keep you on the park? That’s pro-sport. If it’s not getting you better what are we doing it for?”

That’s a big, potentially convoluted challenge for a coach dealing with expectations of fans, the media and the multiple characters in a team with their individual and collective challenges. I ask, “How do you do it?”. Pete breaks a wry smile,

“When I first started in coaching, I’d go home and my wife would say, ‘you may as well go back because you’re looking straight through me’. When you first start, you’re on a mission to collect everyone’s problems. Now I’ve learnt to give everything I’ve got but when I leave at the end of the working day, I turn it off. Now, if I see you’ve got a real challenge, I’ll help you, but you will have to overcome it if you want to go up a level. It’s your call”.

Work On Yourself: With Others

All too often I encounter coaches that, one way or another, fail to attend to their own development, so fixated are they with their wards. It can be a lonely existence. Pete is evidently not one of those coaches. He exudes a bright eyed energy and enthusiasm,

“Reflection is one of the best things. I speak to other people. I find that really helpful because you have to look and decide what it is that’s important.

If you say something out loud, you’re clarifying it. I always say if you’re doing a job and want to know if you’re doing any good at it, imagine tomorrow is your first day. What would you do? To start with I’d always take the challenge on as my own and I’d want to fix it: now I go to everyone else and see what they think”.

It’s not the course you learn from, it’s the door in your head that opens.

Pete unveils another aspect of his philosophy,

“People think you learn on a course. It’s not the course you learn from, it’s the door in your head that opens. You start thinking. You meet brilliant people and they open the door. I love that”.

There speaks a true maverick. Constantly curious, always exploring new ways, relishing the challenge of possibility.

He continues,

“The moulding of you as a coach comes from many things. Sometimes it’s the overseas players you work with who are top-flight performers. That keeps you fresh. They’re a great source of innovation. You can pass it on. It brings a different perspective. If you find something new, then live with it for three months and still remember it, then it must be good because it’s morphed into you. As a coach you need to remember that players are savvy. If you try to sell something you haven’t worked out yourself yet, they’ll know ”.

I think back to our time together on the Fellowship, “What about other coaches?”.

“The nice thing speaking to coaches is sometimes they tell you something you already know so you get a bit more confidence in what you’re doing”.

It seems we’ve come back round to the importance of understanding what you’re good at. I’m off to write my list. I suggest you do the same. If Pete thinks it’s a good idea, I’m not about to argue.

Watch the full interview

As a member of Team Dair, you can watch the full length interview with Peter Moores and Kevin Shine below.

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Watch the full interview

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