No More Mr Nice Guys, Please

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When I was young, the most depressing thing a girl could say about a boy was “ahhh, he’s really nice”. It was meant as a compliment but every red-blooded male took it as an insult. ‘Nice’ meant ‘inoffensive’ or ‘friend material’ – a shoulder to cry on when they’ve been dumped by someone they actually fancied. In many ways ‘nice’ meant ‘loser’.

Being sensitive, empathetic and considerate won you few friends, and even fewer girlfriends, at school. One’s social status was largely based on appearance, self-assurance and how good one was at sport. The blokes who looked ordinary, were a bit insecure, and couldn’t hit a cow’s posterior with a banjo during PE, were the only people who cared how ‘nice’ someone was. Being labelled a ‘good guy’ was the consolation prize nobody wanted in a competitive environment.

If you asked someone who wasn’t cool what they thought of the popular kids, the response would invariably be they’re ‘’arrogant’ and ‘aloof’. It was mostly jealousy speaking of course: the cocky characters would inevitably walk off with the pretty girls, get good marks and go on to have successful careers.

When all is said and done, one of the most valuable attributes a young man can have is confidence. So what if this occasionally crosses the line into arrogance? It’s human to have flaws. And it’s far better to be successful and happy, even if that means nonentities sniping at you from the side-lines, than let anxiety or bashfulness hold you back in life.

At this point, you may wonder what relevance the schoolyard has to professional sports. I mention it because I’ve often thought the bubble pro sportsmen inhabit is like being stuck at school: they exist within a tightknit group, navigate cliques, live in each others pockets and maybe even stab each other in the back. But the similarities don’t end there of course.

Most pro sportsmen have never had a real job, third parties organise everything for them, and their on-field antics involve sledging, play-acting, trying to get opponents in trouble, and strutting around like members of the T-Birds. Such behaviour in a civilized adult world would be treated with disdain.

Sportsmen usually get away with this behaviour because, ostensibly, winning is all that matters. Or is it? The sports I love, and the teams I follow, have recently been infiltrated by a spate of nice guys. So called ‘badies’ have been alienated and tossed overboard in a frenzy of self-righteousness. It’s almost like the unpopular crowd have stolen the football and sabotaged break time.

When setbacks have struck the teams I support, the bugle has sounded, scapegoats have been found, the egotistical vanquished, and a new moral order established. It’s as if someone has suddenly decided that ethical behaviour and winning are inextricably linked – even thought sporting history suggests the opposite is true.

Our country seems obsessed with sporting morality. When the Windies were the best cricket team in the world in the 1980s, many people forgot about the broader context – that these small islands, with limited resources, had risen up and beaten their colonial masters – and portrayed their fast bowlers as bullies.

Instead of admiring the West Indians fighting spirit and considerable skills, bitter Englishmen argued the Windies’ game revolved around violence and intimidation. England were losing, but at least we had the moral high-ground, eh. The Windies shrugged and walked into the distance laughing with the Frank Worrell trophy tucked under their arm.

It was a similar story when Steve Waugh’s Aussies were thrashing the pink panties off us in the 1990s. Many Englishmen became fixated with the Australians’ behaviour. We berated them for sledging, derided their unsporting nature and revelled in their supposed lack of charisma.

Waugh didn’t give two hoots if the poms liked his side or not. He just won the Ashes every time. The England teams he ground into the dirt were full of ineffectual nice guys like Hick and Ramprakash – players who probably had twice Waugh’s natural talent but less than half his determination and steel.

More recently, the England rugby and cricket sides have adopted a somewhat puritanical attitude to morality. After the excesses of the England squad at the 2011 rugby World Cup – dwarf tossing anyone? – the RFU sacked Martin Johnson and replaced him with a coach whose main attribute was being a nice and having a close relationship with emerging players.

Stuart Lancaster vowed to clean up the England team, instil discipline and improve their image. In the weeks before the World Cup, supposed malignant influences like Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi were excluded on disciplinary and moral grounds. The culture couldn’t accommodate loose cannons. If they couldn’t be trusted off the pitch, apparently they couldn’t be trusted on it. We all know how that one worked out. It turns out that bags of integrity and a halo isn’t a substitute for talent, experience and a bit of attitude after all.

The obvious equivalent in cricket was the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, an abrasive and notoriously egotistical player according to his critics. It didn’t matter that KP was his team’s all time leading run scorer, worked hard and mentored young players; a new MD and an outgoing coach decided it was England’s poor team culture, rather than Mitchell Johnson, who had won the Ashes for Australia.

The exclusion of Pietersen was sudden and reeked of scapegoating. The board suddenly decided, despite the absence of a smoking gun, that the nefarious player had been a swelling tumour that now, all of a sudden, had to be removed – even though they’d lived with his quirks for the last seven years and he’d been part of many successful teams.

Once again the moral argument – that the new team culture could not accommodate a prolific, immensely talented but difficult personality – overshadowed the practical one: that talent wins matches rather than players’ prowess at holding hands and singing team songs.

The ECB underlined its moral purge by reappointing the whiter-than-white Peter Moores as coach. The ‘hard-working’ and ‘honest’ Moores had oodles of ‘integrity’ (and was liked by all and sundry) but once again niceness was prioritised over qualities that actually mattered.

It’s not just us Brits that get sidetracked by moral issues though. Just over a year ago the San Francisco 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL and many people’s favourites to win the Super Bowl. There was just one problem: a handful of their players had been in trouble with the law.

Meanwhile, their larger-than-life, and incredibly successful head coach Jim Harbaugh, used to get a bit animated in games. When things didn’t go the 49ers way, Harbaugh would jump up and down like a school kid having a tantrum: he often frothed at the mount while screaming at officials. It wasn’t a good look.

During the 2014-15 season the 49ers owner Jed York, a wealthy thirty-something with no life experience who had inherited the team from his uncle, started to find Harbaugh’s antics a little wearing. He also found his head-coach abrasive and difficult to work with – not that York should have been involved with the management of the team anyway.

A whispering campaign soon began against Harbaugh and news leaked (even thought leaking is morally dubious) that the coach would be fired at the end of the season – even if the 49ers won the Super Bowl. The 49ers roster, clearly unsettled by all the rumours, finished the year with a disappointing won eight and lost eight record. Harbaugh immediately left for Michigan. Several players followed him out the door by retiring unexpectedly and prematurely. Actions speak louder than words I suppose.

After interviewing a number of high profile external candidates, York ultimately decided to replace Harbaugh with a position coach who was already an employee. That’s like replacing Sir Alex Ferguson with one of Mike Phelan’s assistants. The decision was absolutely crazy on paper, but York had his reasons: the new head coach, who goes by the name of Jim Tomsula, was a good guy who got on well with the players. The ensuing harmony was supposed to propel the 49ers to perpetual success. York didn’t care that Tomsula was just a regular Joe with no experience; he just wanted someone “nice” that wouldn’t rock the boat.

At the press conference announcing Tomsula’s appointment, York justified the decision to sack one of the most successful head coaches in 49ers history by saying: “winning isn’t the only thing that matters; winning with class is what matters”. One assumes this will be etched into York’s tombstone one day.

Of course, what York hadn’t considered is that actually winning is a prerequisite to winning with class. Thus far the likable Tomsula, the coach the players love, has 2-6 losing record; his team is imploding and ranks dead last in the NFL in nearly every statistic that matters. Meanwhile Harbaugh is back to winning ways at Michigan. Nobody is surprised.

The bottom line is that ethics in sport are essentially irrelevant. The cliché ‘nice guys come last’ is a cliché because it’s true. There are exceptions, of course, but generally winners in top-level sport are either obsessive, stubborn, arrogant … or all three. And if they’re nice guys deep down, it’s often necessary to hide their better nature.

The best coach in NFL history, Bill Walsh, cared deeply about his players. But business was business; there was no room for sentiment in his quest for perfection. He was ruthlessly efficient. He didn’t wait for the team’s best players to decline; he traded or released them a year before he expected them to start regressing.

Although Walsh’s strategy was somewhat harsh on a human level – it damaged personal relationships and created bitterness amongst former players – Walsh knew exactly what was needed to win: tough love and mental toughness. If you didn’t like it, it was tough luck.

Ask yourself this: how many of the top managers in any sport are known as being ‘nice guys’ and how many are known for being ‘ruthless’ and pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour? The likes of Mourinho, Ferguson and Harbaugh all have a hard edge and do (or did) whatever it takes to win. They’re often rude to the media, in trouble with the authorities, and create a siege mentality to motive their players. They don’t suffer fools lightly and don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of them.

Top managers are usually no-nonsense individuals. They believe it’s better to be respected, or even feared, than liked. No matter how much players like a coach, they’re not going to respect him unless he can make hard decisions and lead the team to victories.

At the end of the day winning takes winners, and winners like coaches who can help them to win. They couldn’t care less how ‘nice’ a coach is. They crave leaders they can trust, not a favourite uncle, when battle commences out on the pitch.

Calling a coach ‘nice’ is no compliment at all. When boards, chairmen and owners forget this, they’re displaying a catastrophic lack of judgement. They’re making a schoolboy error.

James Morgan

24 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that this post doesn’t go too far in the other direction – claiming that nastiness, and a desire to win at all costs, are in themselves virtues.

    It’s a common fallacy in sport: the Australian public and press who put the success of Border’s team down to his bullshit attempts to play the hardman rather than his bowlers, the England tennis hierarchy who decided to support a number of other prospects above Henman because he cried a bit as a twelve-year-old, the management career of Roy Keane.

    The truth is that the nicest people can be successful in sport. The error is assuming that a certain temperament is preferable, rather than the temperament you choose. You just have to incorporate everyone who has shown by their actions that they are more likely to make you win than their replacements would be.

    If Hobbs could put up with having to call some of the incompetent scumbags that he played with “Mr” while they called him Jack, then modern players and administrators can put up with Pietersen’s ego, Jihn Terry’s moral turpitude, or George Ford’s irredeemable niceness, all of which seem to have been frowned upon in the recent past.

    • Nice players can be successful for sure. Look at Jonny Wilkinson. But can nice coaches produce champion teams on a consistent basis? I have my doubts. That’s what I’m getting at.

      • I think you’re confusing matters when you talk about “nice.”

        Was it “nice” of Moores to carry on a grudge against KP?
        Or would a “nice guy” tried to have make peace and bring him back in?

    • Nastiness is the wrong idea; ruthless pragmatism is more like it.

      And that can include being ‘nice’ from time to time.

        • It goes further than that. The nice/nasty continuum is pretty well irrelevant to success.

          What’s rather more important is the competent/incompetent one.

    • Ideally yes. But that’s not the question being asked though. How many champion teams, and champion managers / head coaches, are known for being nice? And how many are known for being ruthless, aggressive and efficient? It’s an interesting one. I can’t think of a single top class manager who is a nice affable bloke.

  2. Northern Light on

    Can’t be true. I have no redeeming features whatsoever but I’ve yet to scale the pinnacle of sports management success.

  3. OK I’m going to disagree. I’m speaking as a successful business manager not a sports manager so you can colour it as you wish.

    For me, niceness or nastiness doesn’t enter into it. Prime requirements are:

    1. Being able to make decisions. Not many can
    2. Listening
    3. Understanding your people and what they need to do their job (and providing it)
    4. Being able to recognise when you are wrong and correct it

    Fergie and Mourinho are cheque book managers and no basis for judgement here. Anyone, given a billion pounds, should be fairly confident of assembling a winning team. Both those guys have bought a few dummies too and had problems.

    Always thought that KP’s issues were a case of letting problems drift on and not sorting them out, i.e. Managing

    • Fair enough Benny. Another conversation might be ‘how similar are business and sport’? Point taken about Ferguson etc and cheque books, but I feel that cuddly coaches are less effective in international sport and NFL too, where money isn’t an issue.

  4. What a fascinating piece James, really gave me food for thought (brilliant new website too btw). Strangely enough, I had just been thinking about this topic before I came on, as I’d just read George Dobell’s excellent article on Moeen over at cricinfo. It really paints the picture of a humble, thoroughly decent gentleman. Now I realise that cricket matches aren’t won solely by character, and actually he bowled averagely and score no runs all tour… but I still came away thinking I’m kind of proud that he represents my country at cricket.

    As you pointed out with your example of Jonny Wilkinson, players seem to be able to become champions and still come across as classy individuals (Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Federer, Djokavic, Lineker, maybe even Strauss, etc). So it’s strange that this doesn’t translate to coaching / managing. I do wonder if it is too simplistic to go looking for a “nice, affable bloke” in that position. With the stressful, highly pressurised environment of creating and sustaining a successful side in top-level sport, niceness and affability aren’t going to be the most obvious characteristics on show, regardless of what the individual is like. From the outside, we are much more likely to see their drive, ambition and intensity. And even then, the last two Kiwi coaches who won the World Cup (Henry and Hansen) always came across as decent enough blokes. Mind you, it’s probably easier to be ‘nice’ when you are in charge of a team that good!

    I agree with Benny’s parallel with corporate management, surely it’s about being good at what you do by making good decisions? Sure, some of them are going to be tough but I’m not sure why making a hard call for the good of your team is an indication of your niceness, or lack thereof. I know those judgment calls can often be described as ‘ruthless,’ but actually, all they need to be is ‘right.’ Ironically, the actions of Downton and Flower in axing KP was ruthless. It was also bloody stupid and absolutely the wrong decision. I think Moores (and maybe Lancaster) failed due to his limited ability, rather than his character.

  5. A nice guy nerd loser writes:

    It’s the Wisden Trophy, not the Frank Worrell Tropjy.

    I do think the situation is more nuanced, at school and in sport.

    However, I’m more impressed by your ability to resist mentioning Alastair Cook when railing against this cult of niceness and decency!

  6. I think you only have to look at the recent Aus-NZ test match to see what happens to nice guys. At one point NZ across two innings had taken 4 wickets and had close to 800 runs scored off them at 4.7 an over.

    Of course I believe the All Blacks have a no dickheads policy and have done alright, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them nice.

    The Australian cricket team seems to have a just a few dickheads policy and have also done alright in general except when they are fighting with the coach.

    Overall I think you are conflating a few different things. One is a desire to build a cohesive team environment and the other is the external attitude of that team. No team does well fighting internally, or if not well bonded with a common purpose. The external persona does not have to be nice on the field though to achieve victory.

  7. I might write a bit more about this later if I have time but I’ll just jot down a quick note now as I only have two minutes. I know where you’re going (sort of) but I think you’ve conflated a few things and so the point isn’t exactly clear (or prove, perhaps).

    When you say ‘nice’ I think perhaps you mean soft or weak in some instances. Other times, ‘niceness’ seems to equate to ethical or moral. There are, of course, very nice people who aren’t particularly ethical and not very nice people who are. There are nice blokes who are also tough and determined, and there are arseholes who are weak and easily manipulated.

    There’s also a difference between being a player and being a coach (and few people have been great at both) – great players are nearly always self-absorbed, to an extent, and extremely confident of their own abilities. Even the very affable ones, like Federer, are clinical verging on ruthless. Believing themselves to be great and thinking of themselves above virtually anything else is perhaps a prerequisite to be great at sport. That hunger and ruthlessness is the difference between being good and being the best. Coaches, on the other hand, have to manage the competing needs of others and their success only comes vicariously through promoting the success of others.

    I think the problem with the Moores/Lancaster school of management wasn’t that they were nice, it was that they seemed to think that creating a culture would lead to success, whereas it’s being successful which creates the culture. Both, as well, seemed to lack good judgement. That seemed to cost them a lot more than being nice.

    The legendary coach Wayne Bennett certainly doesn’t offer much to the press, but he seems to be a very nice bloke. One of the things his players say about him often is that he is a father figure. He’s proved incredibly good at taking emotionally troubled players and getting them back to their best. He never rants and raves. In fact, it’s hard to tell if he’s breathing during games. The players like him that much that they follow him from club to club as he moves job.

    On a sidenote, I think we can all think of some football managers who are aggressive, shouty twats, not even liked by their own family, but are also perennially unsuccessful.

  8. From the first few paragraphs i take it your school was full of arseholes James. Nice guys don’t get good marks, really?
    It’s also possible to be anxious, successful (whatever you mean by that?), and happy.
    You seem to still believe all the school shit like you’re still stuck on the playground. Bit of a weird post really.

    As others have mentioned, people in sports, like in life, will have different personalities and morals. And levels of talent. And determination, decision making and drive. Surely the last 4 of these are more important to succeeding in your chosen field than the first 2.
    Sacking KP because of his personality was wrong, because he has the ability.

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