Ashley Giles on mindset skills: from locker room to boardroom

Cricket legend Ashley Giles talks about how mindset skills have helped him throughout his career as he’s transitioned from player to coach to the boardroom. Ashley played at Warwickshire County Cricket Club throughout his career, and when he retired in 2007, became the club’s director of cricket. He went on to became England’s limited overs Head Coach in 2012 taking charge of the Twenty20 and One Day International teams.

Following many successful coaching and management roles, Ashley was appointed as Chief Executive of Worcestershire County Cricket Club earlier this year.

How did you first discover Red2Blue? 

Martin and I met through a mutual friend, and as soon as he started talking about Red2Blue, I was hooked. I remember thinking, this is a great tool – I want to know more! Soon after that, I took the accreditation to become a certified Red2Blue coach. I took on a new role here at Worcestershire County Cricket Club recently, so I’ve not been able to use it much as a coach myself, but I’m very keen to introduce it to the business. 

What is it that you like about the tool?

The beautiful simplicity of the idea – the fact that it’s not overly complicated. It makes perfect sense and is applicable across such a broad number of areas. It’s the fact that you can use it with teams at the elite end of sport right through to kids at school, and everyone in between. It can help people whatever their role, both in a professional sense and in daily life – the day-to-day application is so important too.

Tell us about some of the toughest moments throughout your own career.

2004 was a particularly tough moment in my professional cricket career. I lost focus on what was important and what my role in the team was. I was reading and listening to the wrong things rather than concentrating on my role and my value in the team.

It was a chance meeting with our sports psychologist at the time that started to turn things around. Many of the concepts that he used are very similar to Red2Blue – where your attention goes, your focus follows. He helped me to understand that we all have negative thoughts that can drag us down but accepting them is the key. Once you acknowledge the negative thoughts, you can deal with them, and ask yourself, where do I want to put my focus?

For me, it was about focusing on my value in the team; my role in the team. Every time I was batting or every time I was bowling, I had to learn to focus on the process, and that really made a difference. Without that period of reflection in 2004, I wouldn’t have got to 2005, a fabulous Ashes series that I feel very privileged to have played in. That, in itself, offered many challenges, and again, those Red2Blue-type concepts helped me get through it.

How do you cope with the stress of high-pressure events like the Ashes where everybody’s counting on you?

There are two parts to it – there’s the physical training, practising your role. In my case, being a spin bowler, batter and fielder. Whatever your role in the team, you practice those physical aspects as much as you can under pressure, so that when you get into the arena, you can deliver them automatically. 

The other side of it is equally important – that’s training the mind. When I go into battle, how am I thinking, what am I focused on? Because in those scenarios, there’s so much depending on you. Back then in 2005, when I hit the winning runs at Trent Bridge, there were eight and a half million people watching that moment on TV as well as 20,000 people in the ground and who knows how many people listening on the radio.

If you go into the event thinking about that, it’s going to destroy you. It’s about focusing on the moment, focusing on the process. What have I got to deliver? What’s happening right now? What are the opposition trying to do? Once you start getting into that, your body calms down and the nerves stop. You zone into a much smaller match than the one that’s actually happening, which could be quite daunting.

What happens when something goes wrong? How do you bring yourself back and not let that affect you for the rest of the match?

It’s the acceptance that we all make mistakes. Those things are going to happen, whether it’s a mistake that you’ve made or someone else has made. Sometimes in cricket, someone else has just been better than you. You can prepare as much as you want, but if someone has their day, maybe it’s just not going to happen.

For me – and for the teams I’ve worked with – it’s about looking at that, but not using it as a rod to hit yourself with. Instead, ask, what can we learn from this moment? What can we carry forward? And how can we do it better next time? And then try to leave it behind.

You can learn from both a loss and a victory. We tend to linger on the defeats, and emotionally, defeats can cost you a lot more. When you lose, you tend to look for solutions in every corner. And sometimes when you win, you don’t do that; you just ride that wave until you get hit by a storm. But you’re only as good as your next game, so don’t celebrate too hard. Ask yourself: what have we done incredibly well and how can we still be better?

What skills did you have to develop when you moved away from playing cricket professionally to coaching?

People have often asked me about the move from dressing room to boardroom or office. Every role I’ve had, from professional player to coach, to national selector, to cricket director, to international coach, to managing director and now CEO – they’re all very different roles with different responsibilities. However, there are some key things that link all of them. The biggest difference was going from being a player where you play a team game, so your responsibility is to help your teammates. But generally as a player, you’re your own CEO: your game is your business. You’re very focused on what you do, how you prepare, how you get better, because ultimately, if you don’t sort that out, you might not have a business next year or the year after.

What have been the biggest challenges as you’ve transitioned into leadership?

When you move into a leadership position, suddenly you go from worrying about yourself to worrying about everyone else. You’ve got all these people – at ECB I had about 100 people who ultimately reported into me – so you’ve got all these different people to worry about, as well as yourself. And everyone’s different; one size doesn’t fit all, so your people skills and your communication skills are so important.

I’m a big believer that people are your most important asset. You can’t do anything without people and particularly good people, so you have to you have to look after them. I’m a big fan of the Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’ model – it’s a fantastic book and he talks about People First, People First, People First. If you start with that, you’ve got a chance. With good raw material, you can pretty much do anything. With bad raw material, you’re in trouble.

How does that apply to players? You need a certain amount of talent to be a successful player, but what role does mindset play?

It’s huge. We often used to talk about this in the dressing room when new players would come in and have instant success. You still never really knew them until they’d experienced disappointment and a lean patch, because that’s when you see the real person under that high level of stress and strain. That’s when you see how they can handle it. To handle pressure well, you’ve got to have good mental skills; a good mindset. Working on the physical, technical and tactical elements of your game are important, but mindset is equally, if not more so.

None of these guys make it to the top unless they’ve got good mental skills. Often you see players perform better on the big stage because they’ve got strong mental skills – when things get hot, they run towards it. One of the benefits of Red2Blue is it helps you to develop those skills. You acknowledge that the feelings you’re experiencing under pressure are all normal, and that allows you to decide where you need to place your attention. And if you practice that and you learn those skills, it becomes second nature and you’ll run towards those situations. I love that – I think it’s great.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

I go back to the meeting with Steve Ball who was our psychologist back with England in 2004. His advice was “Focus on what you can control.” I think that really changed the course of my career. It’s not to say that after that point, I’ve not fallen off the wagon at times – under extreme stress, you can have difficult patches – but when it comes back to it, that’s what’s most important. Focus on what you can control; be present be in the moment.

 And what’s the one piece of advice that you always pass on to other people?

When I work with professionals, I certainly talk about focussing on what your process is, but from a management perspective, my advice is, get your people right. If you get the right people, you can do anything. If you get that wrong, you’re going to struggle.

I’m very keen on making sure the environment’s right and, as managers and coaches, we are responsible for giving people the best chance and the right environment to thrive. But I’m also a believer in the saying, “If you can’t change the person, change the person.”

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