Inside the curious mind of Dave Alred, one of sport's great thinkers

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We talk to Dave Alred, mentor and coach to world-class sports stars, such as Jonny Wilkinson, and one of the key influences behind England’s Rugby World Cup win in 2003.

An indoor soccer centre in Middlesbrough was the unlikely birthplace of one sport’s most iconic routines – Jonny Wilkinson’s clasped-hands goal-kicking stance. But then again, Wilkinson and his mentor and coach Dave Alred were never afraid to be a little left-field.

Horse racing has the Dettori leaping dismount, in golf Bernard Langer’s under-the-chin putting technique became ‘a thing’ and football in the 80s wouldn’t have been the same without Bruce Grobbelaar’s wobbly-knee, penalty-saving routine.

However, Wilkinson’s ‘crouch’, ‘squat’, ‘prayer’ – whatever you want to call it – probably surpasses the lot in terms of its longevity in the minds of the sporting public.

“I can remember almost to the day when it started, it was after the Lions tour in 2001, which was a bit of a disappointing tour because we lost the last test,” recalled Alred, from his temporary home in Brisbane.

“There are always bits and pieces you look at, and wonder if you could have done this and that better, and at the time I was studying for my PhD (in ‘Performing under Pressure’) and came across some research into home runs in baseball.

“The research focused on what was the crucial bit of the home run. Was it the strength of the hitter? Was it the bat speed? Actually, when it came down to it, it was the centredness of the strike and the relationship of the centre of gravity on impact.

“We put in two days of work, working at an indoor soccer centre in Middlesbrough. It was somewhere we used to go down to if the weather was a bit iffy, and it had an artificial surface.

“Practising there meant wind and the ground conditions weren’t a factor, the only thing that affected the flight of the ball was the kick itself.

“Between us, we realised that if he led with his navel and the centre of gravity, which was two inches behind that, he’d need to create a conscious thought about where the centre of gravity was.

“His joined hands were directly in front of his navel, to give him a precise conscious location.”

A willing ally in Wilkinson

Much-mimicked, Wilkinson’s unique routine first came to prominence in sunnier climes far removed from industrial Teesside, at Rugby World Cup 2003 in Sydney, where Wilkinson’s kicking, off the floor and out of hand, was imperious under pressure.

Like any good coach, Alred continually evaluates how the sportspeople he works with can improve, and Wilkinson was no different, even doing ‘extras’ as he prepared to hang up his boots and call time on his stellar career at Toulon.

“Even in the last week, going into the last game of the Top 14 competition, we still did something that week for the very first time,” Alred revealed.

“We changed the sequence of what we did in terms of preparation so instead of doing the same number of reps all the time, we did 3-3-3-3 rather than 6-6, and we moved it around the pitch.

“Our journey together, luckily for me, was one of constant innovation,” he continued.

“We were the first ones to actually practice kicking under the crossbar. It’s going to sound really silly, but if you kick under the crossbar – kicking it low – then you are going to roll your quad and you’re going to be stronger than if you kick the ball just with your instep.

“I remember us warming up at the Aviva before playing Ireland and we had the ball seven to 10 metres from the posts. Jonny was kicking it under the crossbar repeatedly and people were looking and going, ‘bloody hell, he can’t even kick it from in front of the posts’.”

Net practice with a difference

Such attention to detail is a far cry from the amateur era when, in simplistic terms, there was nothing more scientific behind goal-kicking than simply digging your heel into the lush turf, twisting it back and forth a few times and then planting the ball down and giving it a lash. That is unless you were playing your rugby at Bath, the kings of the English club scene.

In the 1980s, the West Country outfit had taken a visionary approach to prepare their players both physically and mentally under the beady eye of Jack Rowell. Amongst the backroom staff was a curious-minded kicking coach, from an American Football background.

Dave Alred would go on to become one of the most respected performance gurus in world sport, not just rugby, working with top golfers such as Ryder Cup stars Luke Donald and Francesco Molinari, as well as Wilkinson et al.

Dejected by a lack of playing opportunities at Bristol, Bath and the Vikings, Alred decided to concentrate on coaching and reinvented himself as a great thinker and technician capable of getting the best out of the individuals he worked with, whatever ball they happened to be striking for a living – or, in the case of his first two proteges, Stuart Barnes and Jonathan Webb,  for domestic silverware and England caps.

“We all lived in Bristol and we started doing innovative things like practising kicking in the cricket nets at Bristol Grammar School,” he said.

“Then, on their way from Bristol to Bath, where they were both playing and I was coaching, they’d stop off at Bristol Down’s and kick into the football nets.

“Bath were killing teams because we had players, from nine to 15, that could kick. Jerry Guscott had a howitzer of a boot at 13, whereas normally it was only the stand-off that would kick.”

Oz calling

From there, Alred’s reputation spread and Rob Andrew would drive west on Sundays, down the M4 from London, to seek out his advice ahead of Rugby World Cup 1995.

In a way, it was a portent of what was to come in Australia eight years later, as Andrew, soon to be player-coach at Newcastle, ended the Wallabies’ reign as world champions.

Alred finds himself in Australia now, locked down in Brisbane, as he imparts his knowledge on the Queensland Reds.

There, in the guise of the 50-22 law, he has found another facet of the game to satisfy his experimental nature.

The spiral kick, one of rugby’s forgotten skills, a bit like the dive pass, has started to come back into fashion as a result.

“We use it when we can (spiral kick) and we always work on it,” he said.

“When it is wet, it skids; it flies faster through the air; it doesn’t sit up.

“It was wet and pretty mucky when we played the Rebels last week, and we had a mark inside our 22 and Jock Campbell, who is one of the young lads who’s been working really hard on his spirals, hit a 60-metre spiral. They didn’t catch it because they were worried that they were going to knock it on. So it turned them, and they eventually fielded it and kicked for touch. We had a net gain of 45 metres.”

With England during Sir Clive Woodward’s tenure as head coach, from 1997 to 2004, Alred introduced countless new ideas and then helped the players execute them.

The ‘forward pass’, as he likes to call the kick pass diagonally across the pitch, was one of his innovations, along with detailed work around the restart, an area where England were peerless for a time.

“Rather than just kick a bomb and everyone chase it down hoping for something to happen, we actually decided on the forward pass, the end-over-end punt,” he explained.

“At the time, I was looking at Aussie Rules a lot, and going over to training camps in Australia, with Richmond and the West Coast Eagles, where he ended up coaching during the teams pre-season preparations, and it developed from there.

“The lead pioneer was Ben Cohen. He became world-class at getting a high knee lift and getting himself in the air to catch those drop punts.”

Attitude and application

For Alred, the mental and technical aspects of the game go hand-in-hand, which is why many of the people working with him have come out of the ‘one shot, one opportunity’ scenario, he often speaks about, on the right side. Sinking a 20-foot putt in the final round of The Open or kicking the three points on the rugby field can be the difference between champions and nearly men.

“I don’t separate them. You need to have the mindset to produce the technical side. Posture is a big thing, especially for power and stability, but if you don’t have the right (command) posture, you’re never going to get the power. It is a loop that goes round and round.

“We know the brain doesn’t work under deletions, but when people come under pressure they try and avoid the mistake rather than totally focus on performing at their very best ”

A meeting with the founder of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), John Grinder, helped to shape Alred’s can-do philosophy on life and the narrative of his acclaimed book, “The Pressure Principle”.

“It sort of flicked a switch in me, that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it,” he said.

“The thing that makes the difference is attitude and application, not ability, that’s not the be-all and end-all that people think.

“Historically, there were probably more players with a phenomenal natural ability that would eclipse Wilkinson, but it’s application and attitude that are the crucial things.

“You can be the best in the world at what you do but you can always improve. I don’t know all the answers, but I want to keep looking.

“The biggest kick I get is when someone says to me, and they often say it, ‘wow, just think two years ago I’d have never dreamed I would be able to do this’.”

Read about Gordon Tietjens: The coach who drove New Zealand Sevens to new heights >>

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