'Every time Johnny gets in the ugly zone, he always nails it on match day'
Johnny Sexton's kicking coach Dave Alred, who has also worked with the European Ryder Cup team, tells Ruaidhri O'Connor about dragging sportsmen out of their comfort zone and 'taking the handbrake off'
Published 01/10/2016 | 02:30
Last Friday night, the RDS welcomed the Johnny Sexton they know and love back to the Leinster jersey, and the Lions No 10 delivered by nailing all of his kicks at goal and adding a try for good measure.
The fans in the stadium had no idea that 48 hours previously, on the same turf, the Ireland star was going through the horrors of what his kicking coach Dave Alred terms 'the ugly zone'.
As he prepared to make his competitive return after undergoing shoulder surgery last June, Sexton needed to be put under duress to ensure he'd be able to perform when the bright lights were on and the watching public were gazing down.
It would have been easy to ease the 31-year-old back, to massage his ego to try and build his confidence ahead of his first game of the season.
But Alred believes that would be counter-productive and instead made life difficult. The rewards were there for all to see two days later.
"I was with Johnny on the Wednesday and he got really ugly, He really pushed himself," says Alred. "Every time he's gets in the ugly zone in practice, he has a day to consolidate and he always nails it on the match-day.
"You should not be comfortable. I know it's contrary to so many to so many people's thinking, but the uglier the session the more productive the performance down the track."
In his 2013 book Becoming a Lion, Sexton described Alred as a phenomenal coach and said "meeting him was a huge turning point" in his career.
Alred's most famous protege was Jonny Wilkinson, whom he coached as part of Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning England set-up in 2003, but he has worked across a wide spectrum of sports and business. He has had particular success in golf, helping Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington among others and also formed part of Colin Montgomerie's support staff at the 2010 Ryder Cup.
Over the coming days he will tune into events at Hazeltine with the perspective of a former insider who knows the protagonists well.
"I learnt so much in 2010, so it doesn't look quite so strange when I watch it because I sort of know what the feelings are and so on, the atmosphere," he explains.
"I sort of enjoy watching it, but I feel and empathise very much with the players and the coaches. I don't like to see anybody lose; I know there will always be somebody who loses but often I judge people on how they deal with themselves and others when things don't match their intention.
"We all lose in life one time or another and it's how we deal with that; there's a great saying: 'You never lose, you just learn' and that is so, so important."
The Ryder Cup pits individual sportsmen into the unfamiliar realms of the team game. It provides very different challenges to what the golfers ordinarily face, and Alred will watch closely to see how they respond to adversity.
"It's not unlike a goal-kicker who can have a perfect game, kick his six out of six and the team loses," says Alred, who will be speaking at Bord Gáis Energy's second national business conference 'Courage to Succeed' on Wednesday.
"Conversely, although I'd hate it to happen, the goal-kicker could have easy kicks and miss three out of six and they lose by three points . . . but a hooker could miss a throw at a crucial lineout and so it goes.
"I feel for those individuals and they know more than anyone themselves what impact that has, but I always feel that you can come back from it.
"You will learn a tremendous amount from failure or things that don't match your intention, but at the same time I'm also a believer that when you are successful that's the time to pile into people to demand improvement because they're mentally in a much better place."
Next month, Sexton will confront some demons when he meets New Zealand for the first time since his pivotal 2013 kick sailed wide of the posts at the Aviva Stadium, leaving the door ajar just enough for the world champions to sneak in.
The Ireland star has spoken openly about how his mind can race as he lines up a kick, but Alred says a focus on the routine can get a player through.
And he believes Sexton has already laid that particular ghost to rest.
"Sometimes you actually turn that to your advantage," he says. "You might be thinking, 'these people think I'm going to miss this; I'll bloody- well show them' and there's a bit of 'mean it' aggression. You nail it.
"I remember that season I worked with Johnny at Racing and we discussed that kick and, that weekend, he had an important kick in the game in exactly the same position and he absolutely killed it.
"We'd spent time doing random kicks and kept coming back to that spot and we just obliterated it."
As the two Tests against the All Blacks loom into view, Ireland fans can expect to hear plenty about the best team in the world's culture.
"It's the great Aristotle saying, which I use with all of the players I work with: 'Man who competes with fellow man is noble, but true nobility is man who competes with his previous self'. I am sure that's part of what the All Blacks are about," Alred asserts.
"It doesn't matter that they're No 1 in the world, they're still trying to improve on what they do.
"What they're doing with their fitness, the innovative things that they do with their skill-work and so on are quite revolutionary.
"They have disbanded the silos of managing a team. It's a very integrated, seamless environment, even though you have the experts involved.
"The problem that a lot of teams struggle with now is that the fitness guy does the fitness, defence does the defence and so on and it becomes a bit of a silo mentality.
"The All Blacks have got that continual improvement mantra, and they are backed by a national governing body who do everything possible to make sure that that's facilitated."
Everyone else is playing catch-up and the New Zealan model is held up as an example to all. Closing the gap and surpassing the world champions will take more than attempting to copy the All Blacks by reading James Kerr's book Legacy. Everyone must find their own way.
"The culture was created because of the way the All Blacks and New Zealanders think, it was a development from there," Alred explains.
"Legacy doesn't tell you much really, it doesn't give you the 'how-tos', it gives you: 'this is what we believe in'. "That to just suddenly look at a cake and copy the icing is not the way to go about it. You need to understand the ingredients that went into it, how it was baked, how long it was in the oven, what the components were, how it was mixed. The icing is just the icing."
Positive or productive thinking is a key theme for Alred, who sees too many coaches fall into the trap of being overly negative with their teams and focusing on the things their players or teams cannot do or praising them without explaining what they'd done to deserve it.
"Oh gosh, yes, I did a coaching language audit just a couple of weeks ago on how many deletions, how many 'well dones' without a reason why, it was frightening," he reflects.
"When I showed the coach the sheet, he just thought it's just a habit and people don't realise how destructive bad language can be and on the flip-side how effective good language can be.
"With coaching courses, managing courses. . . the power of language is so important. It's about trying to manage the brain so that it's comfortable in that ugly zone - that's where great learning takes place."
His own approach, which he lays out in his new book The Pressure Principle, is one of patiently getting to know a player before putting their game under pressure to see how he or she responds and improves.
"Frighteningly for the player, I first of all work out what's good and make a big song and dance about what is good and then I add in bits and pieces," he explains.
"It's a bit like tacking a yacht, I don't want to be running on to the rocks before I make a massive change - and I don't even like the word change, I'd rather use the word grow.
"They will change by virtue of getting better. I'm not going to change them, I'm not going to say 'the way you're kicking at the moment is all wrong, this is what you need to do, etc, etc'. That is not how I operate."
The response to instruction and being taken out of the comfort zone can be telling.
"I see common traits in the people who have been successful, but I also come across people who will say 'I don't really need this'," Alred says.
"As soon as somebody does that, sadly I know they will never realise their potential. And I include in that guys who play international rugby.
"I've been involved with people who have fudged getting in the ugly zone for whatever reason and often I don't know them well enough to unpick the real reason for leaving the handbrake on."
Dave Alred is represented in Ireland by Paul Moloney of PLM Sports Consultancy