Ranieri's masterclass & Leicester City's perfect storm
What a season it’s been. What. A. Season.
I couldn’t be more delighted for Leicester City FC. I love not just what they’ve done, but the way they’ve gone about doing it. As far as I’m concerned, their achievement in winning the English Premier League is unsurpassed, certainly in British sport, and possibly in any sport, ever. To beat odds of 5000-1 and win in the circumstances that they have is a truly outstanding achievement, and a triumph that will inspire people for generations. I’ve loved every minute of it.
I’ve watched Leicester develop through this season with close interest, and read a fair bit about them on the way. I’m really interested in why this has happened, on both a personal and professional level. It’s obviously more than just chance, and whilst any team in any sport requires at least a sliver of luck in order to get to the top, in my view Leicester’s success has very much been engineered. How? Whilst much has been written in the press over the past few weeks, here I’ll attempt to pick out what I have seen as the key ‘game changers’: a combination of factors have come together in the right place at the right time and created a sporting ‘Perfect Storm’.
Taking strength from adversity
The first thing worth mentioning is the team spirit that seems to scream out from this group of athletes, and there is a lesson in this for any team, not just in sport. I actually think that the seeds of this were sewn under previous manager Nigel Pearson at the end of last season. I remember watching when Leicester seemed to be relegation certainties while Pearson was in charge. He was under severe pressure, there were strange press conferences, on and off pitch problems, and very negative headlines surrounding Leicester: it looked as if Pearson was having a bit of a meltdown. However, something within this seemed to galvanise the team round the manager, and Leicester went on to produce a string of wins and thus survived relegation. Difficult circumstances can often work in positive ways for teams - something interesting happens psychologically to a group when they go through unpleasant experiences together. I can think of several examples, some of them personal, where adversity has created really tight team bonds and great team spirit. I think the difficulties of last season was where Leicester’s journey to the top began.
Pearson was sacked in the season’s wake, and of course in steps Claudio Ranieri to the breach. Not exactly an appointment that, at the time, sets the heather on fire. On the surface of it, it was hard to see it any differently - Ranieri hadn’t really done very much before! However, he is an effusive and hugely engaging personality – that much is plain to see. And what he clearly did, was to engage with the existing team spirit, eco-system and culture within the club, and seek to work with it rather than to drastically change it (as new managers often seem to feel the need to do). As it turns out, this was a masterstroke.
A cohesive & collaborative backroom team
Which brings me to the backroom support team at Leicester, another fundamental part of the success of this club. I loved reading this recent BBC article. What surprised me when I read it was the familiarity of the support team set up – in essence it is a replication of exactly the type of core services that we supply into the variety of sports we’re involved in through the institute of sport here in Scotland. High performance experts working in a cohesive way around elite athletes, with, importantly, strong collaborative links into the coaching team. I have some experience in professional football, and this level of engagement between performance and science is not always evident. Indeed, I’ve written before about the problems a breakdown in relationships between support team and coaching team can cause within a sport, with Chelsea and Jose Mourinho being the obvious example from football this year. Leicester have been the opposite: a fine example of best practice.
Favourable conditions & team spirit
It is worth mentioning external variables. Although I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the job Leicester have delivered on the park, conditions have been favourable for them. Man City in decline, Chelsea all over the place, Man Utd and Liverpool in transition, with Arsenal seeming to revel in perpetual underachievement, have all cleared the way for new challengers to the throne to push through. Spurs are really the only other team that have stepped up to the plate, and perhaps their inexperience in closing out a title challenge has also been of benefit to Leicester.
However, whilst such variables may have helped, it has still taken something special to capitalise on them. The Leicester team have done that with aplomb. Whilst excellent tactics and fine footballing talent have been the obvious mechanics of that success, as I mentioned earlier it is the way that this team has worked together that has really caught the eye. Effective team spirit at its absolute finest has lifted a group of modestly talented (and relatively inexpensive!) footballers with a few standout individuals among them from average to exceptional. On and off the field, the level of group cohesion looks to have been world class. What a great demonstration of effective team working.
Ranieri & expectation management
Which leads me onto a final point – Claudio Ranieri, and the way he has been the glue that has bound everything together. His role and leadership cannot be understated – without him, this simply would not have happened.
Of all the qualities that Ranieri has brought to the party, the one area that I would pick out has been the way he has managed expectations of both squad and fans alike. This has been an absolute masterclass. When left unchecked, expectations can be really damaging in sport. It’s an area I talk about a lot with the athletes I meet. In a nutshell, expectations are unavoidable, but create unhelpful and unnecessary tension and stress. However, rather than add into this tension and stress, Ranieri has always been one step ahead in everything we have heard him say and seen him do. He has consistently been focused on day-by-day goals, and the processes not the outcomes. There are literally dozens of examples of him doing this in the way he has engaged with the press, the whole time with humour and humility, and I can imagine him having been exactly the same in the dressing room. At no point has he seemed stressed or gotten carried away. As the club psychologist points out, there are two such professionals at Leicester City FC, him and Ranieri.
Leicester’s season really has been the sporting story of a generation. However, Perfect Storm conditions probably only come round once in a lifetime, so when I ask myself what next years Premier League season has in store, I can’t see a repeat scenario playing out again. However, me and just about everyone else have been wrong about Leicester this year, so maybe, just maybe…..
Yours in psychology,