Nov. 26, 2020

Damian Hughes — Sit Down When You Punch

Damian Hughes — Sit Down When You Punch

Best-selling author (and now podcaster) Damian Hughes shares what it's like to be in the corner of a world boxing title fight. Also, what does it take to deliver a message that has maximum impact? How does storytelling help process complex information? He explains what tripwires are and how we can build it into our everyday lives. 

Bio

Professor Damian Hughes is an international speaker and best selling author who combines his practical and academic background within sport, organisational development and change psychology, to help organisations and teams to create a high performing culture. He combines his practical and academic background within sport, organisation and change psychology to work as a trusted adviser to the business, education and sporting elite, specialising in the creation of high performing cultures.

Episode Structure

  • 0:00 - Introductions 
  • 2:47 - What do you say to someone who's about to win a championship? 
  • 6:20 - What can you do to turn your struggles into something more? 
  • 8:56 - Tripwires and a Disney moment? 
  • 13:19 - What does storytelling have to do with the Ezra Zaid Project? 
  • 20:44 - Thank you's 
  • 21:22 - What's Damian up to now? 
  • 22:55 - Credits 

Book Recommendations

  1. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig 
  2. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

If you'd like to read one of Damian's books:

  1. The Winning Mindset
  2. How to Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson: The Business of Winning and Managing Success
  3. The Barcelona Way: How to Create a Winning Team

 

Contact / Social Media:

Damian Hughes: Instagram, Website
The High Performance Podcast: Instagram, Youtube, Spotify

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

Transcript

Note: The Ezra Zaid Project is proudly produced by a crack team of audiophiles and the best way to enjoy it is to listen to it. This allows for greater nuance and emphasis that sometimes may not translate as well to the written transcripts that are available to download for each episode. It would be best to cross check the corresponding audio, before quoting us in print.

 

EZRA

Hey folks. Ezra here. Hope you guys are doing well. And since we launched this podcast, the past couple of weeks have been quite something else for me and the team. And I'm grateful all the same to the ones who are back for more, but also to my new friends who've just discovered us and so bravely clicked ‘play’. So again, thank you. 

 

(music)

On the Ezra Zaid project, we present stories, moments and anecdotes of individuals navigating the prospect of discovery and adversity. On today's programme, Damien Hughes. 

 

Now, before we start the episode, some background. It was earlier this year, around when Covid was introduced to our lives. At this time, after years of job security, I found myself at the start of this new chapter. It was… a new challenge, I told myself. I kept saying it out loud; to give me a sense of self-assurance. On the inside, it was anything but. I dare you to mix any type of uncertainty, with a global pandemic -- it’s formidable.

 

That’s the backdrop of when I came across my next guest; Damian Hughes. I discover him as the co-host of what’s called the High Performance podcast. Like the name on the bottle, it offers a glimpse into the lives of high-achieving, successful individuals. And there was something about listening to people who had “made it” still talk and wonder about how they’re still trying to make it. While I had plenty to be proud of, of what one accomplishes in life, words like “high achieving” and “successful” still felt elusive. 

 

And so I pick up my Kindle to look Damian up; to get to know more about him. Prior to the podcasting venture, he’d written multiple best-selling business books and critically acclaimed sporting biographies. At Manchester Metropolitan University, he’s also the visiting Professor of Organisational Psychology and Change. But a while back he wrote The Winning Mindset, and that’s where we start the story.

 

DAMIAN

The story that I started ‘The Winning Mindset’ book was: I was in the corner for a world title fight. So, my dad trained the guy that was boxing for the WBC world super middleweight title and that's the most prestigious of all the... the sort the alphabet titles in the sport. And the context was the guy that I was working with was the challenger. It was a guy called Robin Reid and he was fighting the champion called Vincenzo Nardiello.

 

EZRA

Vicenzo Nardiello in 1996, he's a well respected champion. Damian, with his father as the coach. They were in the corner of the challenger, Robin Reid. And at this juncture, he's only three years into his professional boxing career. As the underdog, they would have to map out a game plan to beat Nardiello, the reigning champ on his home turf. 

 

DAMIAN

So the plan had been Ezra, that this guy Reid was going to keep moving. Don't stop, just keep moving. So you keep throwing punches, but you're always throwing punches on the move. So the guy we were working with, Robin Reid — the fight was going brilliantly. He was boxing exactly as the plan was going, and he was winning on points, and everything was going smoothly. And I remember thinking, ‘What would I say now if it was my responsibility to get in the corner and speak to him? What would I say?’

So I started running through my head, the range of options that I felt were available to me and I came up with things like I'd say, ‘keep going,’ or ‘you're doing really well’. Or maybe you'd caution him and say, ‘don't drop your hands’. So the round ended, my dad got in the corner and I'm holding the bucket so I could hear the conversation. And then my dad delivered five words.

He just said to him "Sit down when you punch."

And he left it for a few moments and Reid nodded, and he went, "Sit down when you punch," and he went, "Fine." He sends him back out and he knocks his opponent out. 

 

ANNOUNCER EXCERPT:

"He's not showing too much inclination to rise. And Cappuccino counts him out. And Robin Reid in Italy, away from home has caused a sensation. He's won this WBC, Super Middleweight Crown..."

 

DAMIAN

Now for anyone listening to this that's thinking, "Okay, what does that mean?" Now, 'Sit down when the punch' is.. it is a very simple phrase, but it is within boxing, it contains an awful lot of wisdom. ‘Sit down when you punch’ says stop moving and start standing still. So the idea is that when you sit down, you have to put both feet on the floor. And when you put both feet on the floor and throw a punch, there's more power contained within it. So that phrase of ‘sit down when you punch’ is an awful lot of wisdom contained in five words. Now, the reason I start with that story is because it was the courage that he had the ability and the confidence to be able to take 30 years worth of wisdom and not overcomplicate it, not going on a big monologue, but just deliver five words and then stand back and let the recipient digest it and then do something with it. So I remember that from 1996 thinking that is the difference a great coach can make.

 

(music)

 

EZRA

Damien's father would come to be known as the godfather of Manchester boxing. The British Cus D'Amato. That reputation would be harnessed over time, the time and energy he would dedicate to a small gym he formed in the 60s at the Collyhurst and Moston Boxing Club. 



DAMIAN

My father's still around. He is quite [inaudible dialogue] these days, but he's called Brian Hughes. And he'd grown up in postwar Manchester as an illegitimate child. And in that, in the Catholic neighborhood he grew up in, that was a real stigma. And, and so there was two things that sort of drove him very much. He'd gone into boxing when he was a young man himself. And it didn't have a father figure or a mentor looking out for him. And he got himself badly hurt. So it was put into environments that any responsible adult wouldn't had done for him but because he had no responsible adult there, he got badly hurt in terms of... when he was trying to box he was overmatched against people that were stronger, and more talented than him. And I think that was a significant moment in his life, because when he set up the boxing gym, because it was his passion, he was determined that no child would ever be abused in that environment that you would never be hurt or come to any harm in that thing. So he saw himself very much as being a father figure, the father figure that he never had within that environment.

 

My father was a boxing coach from well before I was even born. And like a lot of boxing clubs around the world, they often tend to be based in inner city areas, and with that, they can often be quite deprived. And that was certainly the case where I grew up, the boxing gym was in the area of North Manchester, that a few years ago was categorized as being the third poorest district in Europe. And they'll give you an idea of the kind of social issues that often befall places like that. But the boxing club was very much seen as a sanctuary for the outside world for a lot of people. So, whilst in that particular gym, my dad trained guys that went on to become world boxing champions, but the vast majority of people that came through those doors never set foot in a boxing ring. But they came in there almost as a sanctuary from some of the difficulties of the outside world. 

 

EZRA

What fascinated me the most about... in reading your book was the understanding of what tripwires are and I thought of how kindergarten teachers were probably the masters at tripwires. But maybe you can elaborate on that. 

 

DAMIAN

That assertion of kindergarten teachers is absolutely right, I think they are sort of ninjas at this. So if you explain what a tripwire is: the idea behind it is that we go through our day, often on autopilot. So we develop this concept in psychology known as heuristics. And what that means is, we develop mental models like rules of thumb that allow us to navigate our way through a day without actually stopping and thinking too deeply. So, for example, you always take the same journey to work, it's the same commute because to stop and think about doing something different, requires a mental investment that your brain goes, ‘I don't want to do that’. Now, when we want to do something different or we want to focus in the moment, we need to have a plan in place that stops us doing the same thing over and over again and forces us to think in a different way. But your brain will resist that. So the idea of a tripwire says is, when you're clear about what you want to do differently, you almost need to put in place a tripwire that snaps you out of autopilot, and forces you to very deliberately think about it. When you take the idea of a trip wire you say well, how do we build it into our normal lives? And the answer is: there are tripwire opportunities all around us.

So I'll give you a nice little anecdote. It was a friend of mine that was doing quite a demanding corporate job. The way he described it, I'll describe it to him. As he said, he’d travel home, he’d get into the door of the house. He said he’d already be on the phone and would be dealing with messages and things like that. And his children or his partner would be asking him questions. And then in his head he'd be thinking, ‘I've got to send an email before I can enjoy being at home, I've gotta just do this last piece of work, I've got to just finish this off.’ And he felt that he was almost becoming a pale shadow, a pale imitation of the father and the partner that he thought it was going to be. So he looked at tripwire opportunities. So I started by saying, "How do you want your children to think about you?" He had his answer to that. But he basically said "I want to be perceived as the best father in the world to my kids. So he said, "right, what do you need to do?" So, he came up with three tripwires on his journey home. So the first one was he said — the five minute rule was — when he got five minutes away from home, he would turn his phone off. Or he said, if he was on the phone, he would stop wherever he was, and finish the conversation. But you wouldn't go past that five minutes to home stage with the phone being on. So he said that forced him so that it wasn't going to be distracted when he arrived in the home: tripwire number one. He said the second tripwire was that he said, when he put the key in the lock to go through the door, that was the moment where he would ask himself, ‘what would the best father in the world do, when he walks through the door now?’ So it forced him to think about getting down to his kids level and being enthusiastic to see his kids. And then his third tripwire was that and this is a great phrase that he gave me. He said he would insist on having a Disney moment with whoever was in the house. So I said, ‘What does that mean?’ Well, he said, ‘Have you seen those Disney films where they (were almost) like the perfect family?’ He said, ‘so I would insist that when I come home, my Disney moment was: I would give a hug to whoever was in there. And I'd ask whoever was in the house to come down. And we'd have a group hug.’ And he said ‘and the brilliant thing was…’ he said, ‘after I’d done those three things: the five minute rule, the key in the lock and the Disney moment — he said ‘I could go back to being as miserable as I'd wanted, and nobody would recognize it. Because I'd set the tone up, I had my tripwires in place that everyone thought I was the best dad in the world.’ 

 

EZRA 

(laughs)

 

DAMIAN

Now, I'm using that as an example that this colleague of mine had shared to me years ago, so trip wires are all around us. And the idea behind it is it just breaks us out for autopilot, and forces us to very deliberately focus and concentrate on being the best version of who we can be at that particular moment.

 

(music)

 

EZRA

Talk to me a little bit about the importance and I guess the advantages and disadvantages of storytelling. So an example I would give you would be, I've been in many corporate meetings where there are CEOs and managing directors who are telling their zero to hero story about how that company was built. And it has this sort of element of mythmaking. And of course, there'll be a certain percentage of that organization that would say, ‘hey, I think we sort of can buy this’. A discerning individual might argue that might be slightly stretching it. But the impact is arguably quite effective. And... 

 

DAMIAN

Yeah... 

 

EZRA

Is there a distinction between that kind of storytelling with sort of the myth making process, I guess? 

 

DAMIAN  

Yeah, I think the purpose of a story is that you want to convey a certain impression, you want people to walk away with an idea behind it. So if it's, say, like a founder of an organization, and you're telling something about the origins, because from that you're trying to convey the idea of some of the values that you want them to be endemic within the culture. That makes sense if you're doing it because you want to show how you're the superhero that led it. But what you're doing then is creating an autocratic culture that depends on their benevolence and their continued support. So the first question of a story is, what's the purpose behind it? What are you trying to convey to somebody?

The mechanism of telling a story though, is the bit that, to me, is fascinating because telling a story is the most effective way of getting people to remember the point you wanted to make in the first place. So what we know is it taps into a concept known as the Kolmogorov complexity. And don't worry about the name. It's named after a Russian psychologist. But the Kolmogorov complexity says that if you tell a story, your brain opens up and receives it so much more. So you can take quite complex information and deliver in story form and people will remember a lot more information. So, where I wanted to do was capture a methodology of seeing these great storytellers at work, and going ‘what do they do?’

And then I was listening to a TED talk many years ago, when I heard a lady called Emma Coats share a methodology that I went, that's what these great storytellers do. Emma Coats had worked at Pixar, the animation studio, and she shared their methodology that what they do is any Pixar film is delivered using six sentences. And the reason they follow it is because they've researched it to know, it taps into every one of the fundamental aspects of great storytelling. Alright, so take a film like Finding Nemo, right? The pitch for Finding Nemo — so the very basic premise of Finding Nemo was — it was a father and son love story involving fish. That was it. That's how they pitched it internally. So there's a simple message for you. And then the structure of Finding Nemo says: 

 

 

  • Once upon a time, there was a widowed father and his disabled son that lived on a coral reef together." So we've established a narrative and the story starts. 
  • Every day, the father used to worry about his son's safety, and he used to urge him not to go to the edge of the reef because that was where trouble lay. 
  • One day, the son ignored his father because he was frustrated at him. And he went to the coral reef where he got captured by divers and taken to live in a fish tank outside of Sydney.
  • Because of that, the father had to confront his own deep dark fears and go out into the ocean in a desperate attempt to rescue his son. 
  • Because of that, his son eventually came to recognize that his dad wasn't a pain, he just loved him more than anything else in the ocean. 
  • Finally, father and son reunite within an enhanced relationship, to go back to the coral reef and live happily ever after. 

 

 

So if you think about your podcast, right, let's show how applicable this is, right. So let's, let's just make it up on the spot. So say, right, let me tell you a story about Ezra's podcast that launches later on this year, right? Everyday people travel to work and listen to podcasts on their commute, right? One day, they tune into Ezra's podcast that contains a wide range of guests that come up with very practical solutions. Because of that, they feel that they've learned something by listening to the podcast. And because of that, they recommend Ezra's podcast to other friends. And so finally, this podcast is the biggest one in the world. I've just made that up off the top of my head. But I followed the structure that Pixar used to be able to explain the purpose of what you're trying to do on this podcast that hopefully people will remember. 

 

EZRA

It's a fascinating thing, because as I've been developing sort of the work and the episodes and sort of structuring these six sentences, mirrors the challenges of actually creating a focus of, of what it is that we want to share with others. And so I've been having, you know, discussions with my team, and well, what the *bleep* is this podcast about? Yeah, and it is a very fascinating challenge to be committed and specific to what it is, whilst creating that narrative hook...

 

DAMIAN

100%.Yeah, yeah, I might be wrong here. But I sense it's about... 

 

EZRA

Go for it...

 

DAMIAN

But I think it's about, how do you educate? How do you share knowledge with people that help them within their own lives: whether you're, it's broad enough to say, as a parent, a partner, a child, a student, a business leader... you're just trying to get knowledge that says, "How can I help you with the everyday challenges of it," You know, that we spoke off air before about your drive is: you're creative, you're a creator, you're somebody that's out there, coming up with ideas. And by definition of that, some people won't like those ideas. So if you're worrying about what they'll say, before you set off on that creative journey, you'll end up diluting the ideas that you have in the first place, and it'll be a lesser version of what you can do.

So this has been an interesting feature that I've asked some of these high performers how they deal with it? What's been really fascinating is they have a core group of..., it's not that they don't listen, but they have a core group of people that that when they speak… they listen. But if it's anybody outside of that domain, they're a little bit more circumspect about whether they'll take it on board or not. And it's not that that's not arrogance or not wanting to improve. He's just said, ‘if I spend time trying to keep everybody happy, I'll be the first casualty of that.’

So, again, I'll say to you, some people might not like what you do with this podcast, and that's fine. But that tells us that at least you stand for something, and you can say well go find another podcast, but there'll be a lot more people that will engage with it because of who you are, and the passion and the integrity of your vision.

 

(music)

 

EZRA

Damian, that was amazing. 

 

DAMIAN

Was it alright?

 

EZRA

Thank you so much. I read that just because, you know, is that same sort of curiosity of like, do we have something here? I can tell you this one, I know we have something so...

 

DAMIAN

Aw well, that's really kind, but I meant what I said. And, honestly, take my lesson from it. If people hate it, that's good. Because it stands for something that we found more people that love it and, and ...

 

EZRA

Yeah..

 

DAMIAN 

… and they're the ones that you focus your energy and attention on.

 

EZRA

Well, it was the pep talk I didn’t know I needed. Hope you got something out of it too. Damian Hughes now lives in Manchester. Now, Damian has interviewed many sporting icons and he’s successfully turned them into critically acclaimed books of which you should check, as listed under the show notes.

But for sports fans and observers alike, I’ve put together an accompanying bonus episode, where we talk about among other things: Jose Mourinho’s approach to guided discoveries; and Damian shares some insight into the evolution of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Manchester United manager. All of that and more in another edition of Project Notes -- that’s available right now. 

 

At the time of recording, I asked him what books were on his bedside table. He shared two books, the first:

  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt 

 

For more details about this interview including resources, transcripts and recommendations, visit ezrazaid.com

 

The Ezra Zaid Project is made by me, Ezra Zaid. I host, produce and edit the show. 

 

I had help and support from:

  • Rahmah Pauzi
  • Chun Saw
  • Sabrina Yusof
  • Raissa Nadine
  • Melati Kamaruddin

 

This episode was mixed and mastered by Meelz. 

 

Music for this episode is provided by Blue Dot Sessions. 

 

Our social media is up and running: follow our handle -- @projectezrazaid for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. There’s also a weekly newsletter that you can sign up for at ezrazaid.com

 

See you in a bit. 

 

(music)