Clive Woodward: From World Cup to T-CUP

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Thinking Correctly Under Pressure is Sir Clive Woodward's mantra and it is one of many winning ideas he's developed during a multisport career and is now passing on to Britain's Olympic hopefuls

Sir Clive Woodward did not get where he is today – sitting in a conference room at the British Olympic Association's central London headquarters, talking bullishly about his job as the BOA's deputy chef de mission and director of sport – by dwelling on might-have-beens.

He is, indeed, famously and relentlessly forward-looking. England's success at the 2003 Rugby World Cup owed a great deal to Woodward's vision of the future in the wake of the 1999 tournament. And now he is applying the same discipline to this summer's Olympic Games. All the same, it is intriguing to think that if the 2012 Games had gone to Paris rather than London, Woodward might now be managing one of the two football clubs that offered to make him the gaffer during his brief tenure, six years ago, as performance director at Southampton FC.

It was at Southampton that he came into the orbit of one Harry Redknapp, but more later of Harry-for-England. More, too, of English rugby union, and of his own future. There is much to talk to Woodward about, but his time is precious, which is why this interview has taken several months to nail down, and we must focus on the Olympics, which after all occupies practically his every waking thought.

Guiding those thoughts is his favourite mantra, T-CUP, which stands for "Thinking Correctly Under Pressure". I have interviewed him twice before, both times about rugby, but T-CUP loomed large then too, as it probably would if Woodward were talking about gardening, or pottery. He is a mantra-driven, buzzword-happy kind of guy, and while T-CUP might not be everyone's cup of tea, the 56-year-old has a World Cup, and a knighthood, to show for it.

Effectively, it means contingency planning: preparing to the nth degree, so that the athlete can maintain his or her focus no matter what the distractions. Woodward is fond of pointing out that everyone in Team GB will be experiencing their first Olympics on home soil, and 70 per cent of them their first Olympic Games, period.

"And," he adds, "the number of athletes who succeed in their first Games is nowhere near as high as the number who succeed in their second. So we have created over 20 short videos, with contributions from people like Ed Moses and Michael Johnson as well as our own experienced athletes, to help them understand what it is like, moving into an Olympic environment. I heard Andy Murray on the radio the other day, talking about how much he enjoyed Beijing, but also how utterly underprepared he was. That was my first Games as well. You think you're experienced in terms of going to World Cups, but the Olympics are completely different. We have to try and make sure we take all the distractions away, and that's the T-CUP thing. The more you've thought about everything in advance, the more you can sail through them when they happen."

It feels churlish to find fault with any of this, but isn't it true that nothing, no amount of videos or talks, can really replicate the atmosphere of the Games? "Yes and no. There are all those horrible words in sport – to freeze, to choke, to bottle it – and they apply to everything from taking penalties to going to the Olympic Village and being blown away by the whole thing. If you've thought it through beforehand, and I mean properly – sitting in classrooms, discussing it – then the chances are that you will make the right decisions."

There will be around 550 British athletes competing in the Games, with about 450 coaching staff, and inevitably some will buy into this strategy more than others. But Woodward, and his team of 31 people, can at least wave a rather impressive precedent. "At my first World Cup, in 1999, looking back, nobody said to me, 'You need to think about this, this and this'. I was flying by the seat of my pants. But by 2003, we were not only the No 1-ranked team in the world, we were also experienced in World Cups. And we came across nothing, nothing, that we weren't prepared for. This is what I'm trying to get across to 26 Olympic sports."

He is clearly relishing the challenge. "Yes, it's a big operation, and obviously not as straightforward as running a rugby team. You have to try to do it without crossing into their territory, but on some of the videos, people like Ben Ainslie, Rebecca Adlington, make it clear that the way athletes operate can affect other people, plus and minus. Little things, like coming in late and making a noise in the village, has affected people in the past. I don't want to name names, but I saw it myself a couple of times in Bejing. But on the plus side, when you've finished competing, whether you've won or lost, to stay on and support the others ... there's nothing more powerful than to look into the stands and see other athletes from other sports."

Conversely, it's not hard to see how a doping scandal, for example, if only involving a single athlete, could damage morale across the board. I tell Woodward that when I interviewed Lord Coe last year, his nightmare-scenario contingency planning even extended to an Icelandic volcano sending an ash cloud over Britain just before the Games. So, presumably Woodward's own planning covers the slightly more likely scenario of a British athlete failing a dope test?

"Yes, though I hope more than anything that it doesn't happen. But yes, if there's a positive test we have to be prepared: how to handle it, where does that athlete go, how do we handle the media? It's all in place, because again, if we handle it wrongly it could affect others."

He keeps telling his BOA colleagues that if they are going to handle all these things properly, they also need to be in shape themselves. "It's going to be a huge month, there won't be much sleep, so we all need to be in peak condition, physically. I did that with the rugby guys. I was very big on that."

In citing his rugby-coaching experiences, Woodward has so far failed to refer to the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand, at which some of his management methods were widely criticised. So, has he learnt from his cock-ups as well as his manifest triumphs?

The ghost of a smile. "That New Zealand team was one of the best sides I've ever seen, and they were 100 per cent fit. Our talisman players – Dallaglio, O'Driscoll, Wilkinson – were not fit. And I've learnt that when you've got a fully fit team, you tend to become a better coach. Would I have done much different? No. But I took far too big a coaching team. I tried to do it on a grand scale. So looking back, I would have focused more on the Test team. Splitting the midweek team from the Saturday team is something I wouldn't do again. But, off the pitch it was a very happy trip. There wasn't a single incident. And we've seen what can happen when you get that side of things wrong."

This is a not so veiled reference to England's disastrous World Cup campaign last year, a veritable orgy of T-CUP smashing. Woodward is already on record as saying that it was the bungee-jumping more than the dwarf-tossing that made him wince from afar, hardly something that Ainslie or Adlington might do just before an Olympics, and emphatically not something he would have permitted himself. So, is there any chance that he might yet be installed as the grand panjandrum of English rugby, a prospect still guaranteed to set off indoor fireworks at the RFU?

"I haven't thought about it," he says, with less conviction than anything he has said all morning. He acknowledges my scepticism, and adds: "I've already said that I was interested in talking to them about a job after 2012, and that hasn't changed, but I'm happy doing what I'm doing here, and I'm already thinking a little bit about Rio."

Rugby sevens will feature in the 2016 Games in Rio, and Woodward concedes slight disappointment that it's not on this summer's agenda. "But more than anything, it's brilliant to get it in, and I think it will change rugby. I think, when they look back at the history of rugby, getting it back as an Olympic sport will be seen as a massive step forward. Because even as a coach you can't always work out what's going on with 15s, but sevens is very simple."

Predictably enough, Woodward rejects the notion that the Olympic Games should really only embrace sports in which the pinnacle of achievement is an Olympic gold medal, which would exclude, if not rugby sevens, then certainly golf, also being reintroduced in 2016, and tennis. He tells his favourite story about the 2008 Games, that at 2am he fancied a Big Mac and waited at the counter in the giant McDonald's in the Olympic Village.

"And stood right next to me was Rafa Nadal. He didn't know who I was, but I said, 'Did you win?' And he said, 'Yeah, it was a long match, I just got back.' I said, 'What are you doing here?' And he said, 'I've been sent out for food.' Well, McDonald's missed the best photo-op ever, because he walked out with about 10 bags, and that's great for sport, allowing people like him, and Federer, and Lionel Messi, to step down and join the Olympic ranks. I love to think that the rugby players will experience that."

Not to mention David Beckham, if he joins Team GB. Football is one of the sports for which Woodward is taking particular responsibility at the Games, allowing him to tap back into his adventure at Southampton which, he says with a hint of displeasure, is often perceived, wrongly, as a failure. "I loved it," he says. "In a way it was no different to what I'm doing now, working behind the scenes, and I was going to go and manage one of the two clubs I'd had offers from, two leagues lower than Southampton, when I got a call out of the blue from [BOA chairman] Colin Moynihan, explaining this role. It was a big call."

Who knows whether Woodward would have prospered as a football manager? I suspect that Redknapp, reportedly less than thrilled to have a rugby man foisted upon him by Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe in 2005, might take a negative view. But on the question of whether Redknapp should manage England, Woodward is unequivocal.

"It's a bit like Brian Clough: he's the outstanding candidate and he should have the opportunity. I watched him working, and he's got this way with players. He generates huge respect from them, and in my experience that's more than half the battle. I disagree passionately when people say the England job is impossible. It's not impossible."

Nonetheless, it was beyond Fabio Capello, whose decision to resign Woodward fully understood. When scandal broke over the head of England's rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio in 1999, the RFU let Woodward make the decisions. He thinks the Football Association was wrong not even to consult Capello, regarding John Terry's captaincy. "He had to be involved at least in the initial discussions... I know how I would have felt as the England rugby coach."

And so, finally, to the temporary incumbent of that job, Stuart Lancaster, whose win-loss ratio is currently even better than Woodward's was. Does Woodward think the job should be his? "It's early days. He has a great opportunity, and I bet he's pinching himself. They'll have a strong list of candidates but I'm sure he'll be on it. I wish him well."

As we all do Sir Clive Woodward. May he weather all storms with his T-CUP.

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