Book Review: If Better Is Possible by John Buchanan

Given that the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 is in full swing, it is quite fitting for a review of a book written by a successful World Cup cricket coach.

John Buchanan’s book is a simple and matter-of-fact account of his years as the coach of the Australian Cricket Team.  It is a very easy book to read and it can be read in spits and spurts as the chapters act as separate narratives rather than a story that links and flows from start to end.

There are numerous practical pieces of advice based on his experience.  Each chapter picks an aspect of coaching and provides stories as well as the methodology he had in place behind the scenes.  The chapters end with a brief summary of the key messages.

It is a coach writing a book for coaches, but it is also a book that highlights the point that coaches also benefit from  being coached.

He talks about knowing himself, being clear on his methodology and vision, just as he encourages all of his charges to understand themselves and what works for them to enable consistent performance.  Buchanan reflects on himself and his own personal attributes in the same fashion that he encourages his players to reflect on themselves as individuals and as members of the Australian Cricket Team.

His underlying principles as a coach are relationships and continual improvement.  The three key principles that guides his work include:
1.    Know the whole person.
2.    Create an environment of personal growth where the coach becomes increasingly redundant.
3.    Never be satisfied.

When I read this it made me think of Tiger Woods in the prime of his career when he used to talk about his commitment to the Japanese principle of ‘kaizen’ (i.e., continual improvement).  The likes of companies such as Toyota also have acknowledged an unwavering commitment to this principle.

Buchanan repetitively emphasises the necessity of teamwork.

He acknowledges the services and support of the ‘team behind the team’; the variety of cricket coaches (fielding, batting, bowling) as well as psychologists, fitness trainers, massage therapists, managers, and the like.  It is also a fundamental part of his work that he makes everyone aware that the pursuit of success is a team venture.

He quotes successful coaches in other sports, such as Phil Jackson and his introductory seasons at the Chicago Bulls..“it was only after he had players realise that they would be more successful if they worked together – ‘We over I’ – that the Bulls really became a dominant force” (p. 27).  He also is unafraid to acknowledge lessons learnt from some of the greats within cricket that he coached, such as Shane Warne, Glen McGrath, and Justin Langer.  He cites Glen McGrath as the template of fast bowling and a player who is almost a coach’s dream.  When describing McGrath, he states, “He knows his game exceptionally well.  He knows how to prepare himself.  He knows when his action or his body does not quite feel right.  He knows instinctively in a match what is required of him and how he will use his skills to deliver the game plan” (p.341).

One of my favourite parts of the book was the 10-point plan that Andrew Symonds gave to Buchanan prior to the 2007 World Cup.
1.    Keep it simple.
2.    Know your players.
3.    Communication!
4.    Show no fear with your decision-making.
5.    Lead us.
6.    Push those who need to be pushed.
7.    Be accountable for everything you do!
8.    Yes, you do have to work out of your comfort zone.
9.    Jump your final hurdle no matter what!
10. And leave the funnies to others.

The fact that Buchanan included this list in his book demonstrates a respect for individual input to not only the team’s performance, but to his own performance as a coach.

It is blatantly obvious that Buchanan has a ‘no stones unturned’ approach to coaching.  In fact, I suspect that Buchanan is just that type of person that aims to excel in whatever he puts his mind to.  Buchanan embraces input from successful people from a variety of domains to ensure he is constantly providing the impetus for a successful culture.  In his descriptions of creating a culture of success he hammers home that there must be a constant desire to be better and a constant revisit to what success is so that everyone within the team is working in the same direction.

It was no surprise then to read Buchanan’s praise for Andy Bichel.  The well-known example of Andy Bichel’s record number of twelfth-man caps was provided to demonstrate the dedication to the team first, and individual second.  Bichel’s unrelenting pursuit to be the best twelfth man was admirable.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) were an obvious part of his arsenal during his tenure.  They were set and used to guide and monitor progress.  The KPIs were set by the entire team so that there was shared ownership by all parties that will be affected by the plan.  The monitoring of progress assisted the vital aspect of players’ performance that is learning over time exactly what they each need to do to give themselves the best chance of performing.

There were numerous examples provided of what individual players did to prepare themselves for games as well as the highs and lows of the lives of elite international cricket players.  With regards to team performance Buchanan talks about the regular mantras used within the Australian Cricket Team:
–       Play on skill not emotion
–       Control the controllables
–       Play in the moment

I am often heard saying, ‘life is all about choices’.. so it was reassuring to see that Buchanan is also a fan.  His summary on choices is concise and needs no further comment:
1.    Making a choice to chase something drives commitment.
2.    All choices have consequences – be prepared to accept them without regret.
3.    All choices provide the opportunity to learn more about ourselves.

Buchanan defines mental toughness as “the ability of the individual at a given moment to make the highest quality decision for himself and therefore for his team.  Furthermore, mental toughness is the ability to make such decisions consistently, time after time after time” (p. 123).  Steve Waugh’s description of mental toughness was also cited as, “the ability to give 100 per cent attention to the ball he is about to face, then do it next ball, and the next” (p. 123).

He thinks mentally tough athletes do very well is to compartmentalize aspects of their life.  “That is, there is a cricket compartment which is filled with sub-compartments such as batting, captaincy, scoreboard/state of game, fielding, bowling and so on.  Alongside the cricket compartment there are other compartments, such as family, friends, business interests, holidays and free time.  Each compartment then as many sub-compartments” (p. 124).  The concept of compartmentalization is discussed a few times throughout the book, particularly in regards to Shane Warne and his legendary status in international cricket and social media.  Interestingly, when you review the attributes of mentally tough athletes reported in the research, there are several attributes listed that support the notion of compartmentalisation (see Jones, Cannaughton, & Hanton, 2007).

In summary, John Buchanan strikes me, without having met the man, as a very principle-based man who aims to spread high principles amongst his team.  He appears to have a no nonsense approach that is balanced by his beliefs in working with the whole person and he puts the person first over their title or role in the team.  His dedication to family and the importance of family is evident throughout the book.  It could be said that Buchanan sounds like a person who is intrigued by people.  He understands choices, sacrifices, compromises, and consequences, and strongly encourages all those that work with him to do the same.

His perspective of coaching supports the notion of sinking your teeth into the world of working with people and all that comes with it ..

“Coaching is not a ‘how to’ manual; it is not about following a set of rules or directions; it’s all about people.  And people demand to be treated with great respect.  Each is an individual, each has their own world and tries to have that in harmony with everything and everybody around them.  They are constantly subject to the uncertainties and vagaries of life, which affect their decision, emotions, and needs.  The role of the coach is to listen to this diversity and interpret all the signals in order to product the best possible outcome for the person being coached” (p. 333-334).

Andrea Furst | Sport & Exercise Psychologist MAPS