Cover by Mark Perkins

The problem with Dave is that he polarises opinion.

Why You Need to
Start Thinking
Differently

Why You Need to
Start Thinking
Differently

by Giles Mountford

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Advocates of Dr. Dave Alred MBE believe he is one of the best coaches working on the planet today. He’s helped develop world beaters in rugby, cricket, golf and beyond, often challenging conventional methods in elite sport.

He has worked with multiple world class athletes, including Jonny Wilkinson, Francesco Molinari and Beauden Barrett, unlocking their potential with his No LimitsTM Formula – to be the best they possibly can.

Although he doesn’t deliberately court controversy Dave divides opinion in the sporting world. I once spoke with a well respected and very senior international coach who said, “the problem with Dave is that he polarises opinion”. My response was something along the lines of, “he’s bound to. That’s what Mavericks do”.

In many ways Dave is the Mavericks’ Maverick. I’d suggest it’s difficult to break new ground, in any walk of life, without polarising opinion.

If you don’t believe me, believe science.  

In 1847 Dr. Ignes Semmelweis had the audacity to suggest that paediatricians wash their hands in his attempts to identify a means of reducing mortality rates in his maternity clinic.

Ignaz Semmelweis. Credit: Wikipedia

Despite those mortality rates falling from 7% to below 1%, the practice was roundly ridiculed by many within the medical profession (insulted by the suggestion that they may be part of the problem rather than the solution), to the extent that hand washing was rejected by the majority of clinicians resulting in untold numbers of avoidable deaths. 

It was only 20 years after Semmelweis’ untimely passing at the age of 47 that Louis Pasteur’s research into germs converted people to the necessity of hygiene and washing of hands.

The Semmelweis reflex is now an acknowledged metaphor for a certain type of human behaviour – the type of knee jerk response that rejects new knowledge purely because it challenges the status quo of long held beliefs, practices and conventions.  I don’t know if Dave is aware of the Semmelweis reflex by name, but I strongly suspect that he’s experienced the sensation of being subject to the  whims of people suffering from it. Perhaps that’s something all Mavericks come to expect.

Dave Alred may not be subject to the full force of the Semmelweis Reflex but there is no doubt many within the sporting establishment seek, at best, to marginalise his work. My take? Dave doesn’t fit comfortably into systems or organisational structures: those, often well-intentioned, frameworks that can ultimately only stifle creativity and invention. And because his uncompromising approach makes many people within those organisations uncomfortable, they often shy from his challenges. This isn’t to say that everything Dave Alred says is right but there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that more organisations should be taking his approach to performance improvement seriously. He coined the phrase ‘the ugly zone’ and if you’re not prepared to go there, he’s not prepared to hang around for long in your comfort zone. As he says, “Those who say I’m obsessed don’t understand the meaning of the word commitment”.

Photo credit: Dave Alred

Because his uncompromising approach makes many people uncomfortable, they often shy from his challenges.

I sat down with him for a socially distanced chat to discuss what brought about these coaching philosophies: philosophies that have helped garner so much success but have also left him out in the cold from some organisations.

G: At what point did you become interested in the self-betterment of people? Were there certain things people did that made you refuse to accept there was such thing as a plateau and that you can continue to improve day on day?

D: I think it was an amalgamation of a lot of things. I was working with Rob Andrew at Newcastle Falcons and Jonny Wilkinson was somebody that I was seeing in his school holidays in Bristol, preparing him for his move to Newcastle after his A Levels. 

When I started working with Jonny, the aim was to try and get him to be as good as Rob. But soon, I felt like that was limiting him.

Around the same time, I had spoken to someone who had an injury and they said, “I just can’t wait to get back to playing”. And I said, “hang on, you don’t want to do all this rehab work and have all this time to get better, to just be the same as you were six months ago. Why don’t you commit yourself to be better than what you were before?” With Jonny and Rob, I learnt that Jonny was a different type of person.

Rather than looking at the standard of Rob as a destination, it just became something we were mindful of, but we wanted to aim further than that.

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Photo Credit: Dave Alred/Getty

G: You started to spot these things and how to change things around. How did you go about doing that?

D: I remember working at the ECB (England Cricket Board), and I set up a practice: the batsman had to repeatedly hit a drive off a bowling machine to a cone. That was quite straightforward, so eventually I was going to signal to different cones and make them run, but they couldn’t do it. I widened the cones, and they still couldn’t do it.

I could feel that they were going, ‘this is stupid’ and I remember turning around and saying,

“OK, if you were a batsman that could do this, how good would you be?” They thought for a minute,

“Well you’d be one of the best in the world”.

So why the f*** aren’t you trying to do it? They had limited themselves subconsciously, “we’re county players” is what they said. I just thought you can’t work like this. And that was the birth of No Limits.

Luckily, Kevin Shine (Fast Bowling coach) really took this on and embraced it because he could see where it was going. I was still coaching rugby at this point and when Jonny was in Toulon, we really started on this, ‘we need to be better than this’ philosophy. So we tried to make each practice incrementally a little more difficult, a little bit more challenging.

Those who say I’m obsessed don’t understand the meaning of the word commitment.

Photo credit: Dave Alred

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G: Starting from 10 is the mechanic but there are other key factors that enable you to move from 10, onwards. Talk me through what those core elements are that come together and create the No Limits philosophy as a whole.

D: Wherever you are now, you can get better. When somebody says, ‘you can get better because you’re four out of 10, but I can’t get any better, because I’m nine out of 10’, that’s completely wrong. You know what your 10 is. That’s where we start. Now it’s up to me to look at where you are in terms of your capabilities, and then start challenging you’. Golfers, kickers and all individuals know if they’re better than they were before. In other words, it’s a process that they go through. They can compare that to times when they’re not hitting the ball well. The self-esteem part and ‘wow, this is good, I’m feeling good about myself’ is really important.

Photo credit: Dave Alred

Play Video

Sadly, it doesn’t always work out so well for mavericks. Poor old Semmelweis was ultimately lured into a ‘lunatic asylum’ by other physicians where he was beaten by guards and died two weeks later, ironically from a blood infection most likely due to an open wound caused by the beating. After his death mortality rates in his maternity clinic leapt six-fold yet his work was all but forgotten until Pasteur’s breakthrough.

So, the next time you dismiss something or someone out of hand because their ideas seem strange or don’t fit with what you’ve been taught all your life, take a breath and challenge your own beliefs and understanding. They may be onto something. And it’ll only take you the time it takes to wash your hands.

Wherever you are now, you can get better.

MADE YOU THINK?

Lift your own game with the No Limits Performance Programme

The No Limits Performance Programme is a beautifully handcrafted and specifically designed performance journal along with 90 minutes of online tutorial and coaching films. Developed by Dave Alred MBE and Giles Mountford, founder of Dair, the online films show you how to get the most out of the programme and also how to tackle key challenges from goal setting to coping with setbacks.

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