April 15, 2014

You can't control talent, only channel it

Cricket runs the risk of going down the route of over-coaching, like in some other sports - which is not ideal in a game that is as much about art as about science

Will we increasingly see players prefer private guidance over their team's coaching system? © PA Photos

Bubba Watson won the Masters golf tournament on Sunday, taking his second green jacket in three years. While he isn't quite in the league of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, Watson is - as those two did before him - playing a game with which the rest of golf is unfamiliar; at least at the Augusta National. The distance he hits the ball (with a pink driver) and the extraordinary spins that he applies in order to shape his shots through the air, mean that he attacks the famous course entirely differently to everyone else. He has never had a coach, and what's more he's never had a lesson, which makes him rare among high-end golfers (and most hackers) - it is after all the sport that authored the phrase "paralysis by analysis".

Nicklaus himself was reflecting on this during a commentary stint, and he recalled his own coach, a man named Jack Grout, who would speak to him twice a year, usually in a couple of clipped sentences. "His whole philosophy," Nicklaus said, "was to enable me to correct my own mistakes on the golf course."

One of sport's great archetypes is the aged and taciturn coach, the kind of man who will watch silently for half an hour and then impart, often via a single and devastating sentence, a thought that changes not just how you play the game, but how you see it. When John Jacobs, a golf coach who has been working for 60 years and who is possibly the most influential instructor in the sport, sat down to write his first book, he said: "I remember that the first thing I wrote down on paper was, 'Golf is what the ball does.' That was my breakthrough as a teacher. I look at what the ball's doing, and then I ask, 'Why?'"

Jacobs had distilled his philosophy down to one thought: you can learn everything you need to know about a player's swing by watching what the ball does once it has been struck. It's fantastically obvious and wonderfully true, and it applies equally well to cricket. All that matters is that moment when bat meets ball. You could discover how to coach anything by talking to John Jacobs.

He came to mind this weekend not just during the Masters, but when I read Neil Burns' angry and telling excoriation of cricket coaching in England on this site (and a somewhat terrifying first-person account from Rupert Williams, the father of a county triallist subjected to some sort of intensive PE course reinforced with nonsensical slogans and punishment press-ups).

Burns' piece should be taken as a whole, but there were some key threads. One was: The "teach yourself about yourself" philosophy still speaks loudly to all who aspire to become top performers - or as Nicklaus' coach had it all of those years ago, "being able to correct your own mistakes". Then there was a wider notion of: "More art, less science" - or as Jacobs put it, "Golf is what the ball does."

Burns likens the expansion of sports science and the growth of the "support systems" around international teams, counties and franchises to the cult of the manager in football, a valid comparison. There is one worth drawing with golf too. David Leadbetter's success with Nick Faldo, and Butch Harmon's with Woods, led indirectly to the development of a mini-industry of swing gurus, mind coaches, short-game experts and other potential saviours, an ecosystem that feeds on itself, producing endless ways to reframe old knowledge in new language.

From there it is a short step to the cycling coach Dave Brailsford's school of "marginal gains", where everything from the quality of bikes to the togs on the cyclists' duvets are micro-managed. None of these things are intrinsically wrong, but they depend on an ever-increasing complexity to survive. And then along comes a Usain Bolt or a Bubba Watson or a Virender Sehwag and the goalposts move again…

Golf, like any other sport, has its manufactured players. Faldo's partnership with Leadbetter made legends of them both, and Woods has undergone three major swing overhauls (in truth as much to lessen the damage to his body as to change his method), the most important of those with Harmon. It's easy to see a future in which superstar freelance batsmen discard the wider team coaching systems and use similar relationships - indeed, they already exist: Kevin Pietersen and Graham Ford, Alastair Cook and Graham Gooch; even Sachin Tendulkar and his brother Ajit, with whom he'd discuss each innings (and according to Sachin, sometimes each shot…).

Ultimately, sports like golf and cricket are games of skill. They are as much about art as science. Talent will out, and it cannot be controlled, only channelled. Any idiot can get fit. Not many people can bowl like Murali. That may not be an entirely appetising lesson for the coaching industry but it's one that must be absorbed, as Neil Burns points out.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on April 16, 2014, 21:56 GMT

    Basic correct technique is quite important. There is a possibility to compensate for lack of it via natural talent but only up-to a certain extent. Right technique is not always what is in the text book though. If that were the case no game would have evolved. No one would be playing reverse sweep or paddles. No helicopter shot from Dhoni or Dil scoope. No doosra or top spinner. No need to change what works even if it is not in the text book. Over-coaching can muddle the mind though even if everything being told is right. A huge part of getting things right in a high pressure match is the mental clarity and confidence. Think too much about the mechanics and failure is certain.

  • Insightful2013 on April 15, 2014, 21:26 GMT

    I worked for over three years in the Carribean, mostly in Trinidad. Never saw coaches imparting any instructions on how to bat. Everything was learnt by their games played on the streets or beaches. They were all naturals re strokeplay etc. They lacked discipline and goals. A mere 30 or 50 was enough to garner enough praise and positive feedback, so that's all they aspired to. At Queen's Park club, the coaches instilled desires for larger scores, which was duly reflected. A Shiv Chanderpaul, Lara, Murali, Miandad all brilliant cricketers, essentially most of the under developed countries produces uncoached and brilliant exponents of the game. All that's required is goals! Isn't this a cricket forum, not sure what the golf references and coaching tips are all about? Really are two entirely different games with completely different mindsets. Hardly anything of golf can be applicable to cricket, even the coaching! Golf is about the individual's skill, cricket is about concentration!

  • dummy4fb on April 15, 2014, 19:11 GMT

    Overcoaching to me seems to be changing something because the textbook says its done a different way. If the human race had a textbook, many of us would break all rules so why not with our sport? the textbook should be a guide and then let the player's natural ability do it their way. Don't change something if it works, particularly if you're attempting to fix a weakness by removing that player's strength. The amount of England bowlers who's actions are picked over and tweaked to prevent injury and gain accuracy: NO!!! they bowl that way because that's what their bodies do. Leave them be and just channel what they're doing at the other end for crying out loud

  • TheCricketEmpireStrikesBack on April 15, 2014, 10:49 GMT

    Agree with the author and steve48. Some people need a blueprint and others just some help with fine tuning their attitude. Uber-talented individuals such as KP, Warne, Gower, Gilchrist, Viv Richards etc etc never require a blueprint and will be destroyed by over coaching.

    I despair when I see "not fitting in" being used as an excuse for excluding great talent. Geniuses are geniuses because they do it differently and don't fit the mould.

  • Westmorlandia on April 15, 2014, 10:42 GMT

    David Brailsford's methods work brilliantly for a sport like cycling, which is in many ways just mathematics - how much force a person can apply to the cycles for a given period of time, what angles to hold your body at, and so on.

    Cricket is about making decisions, again and again, at very high speed. Your brain will do this for you, but not consciously or deliberately, so you need to be prepared in a very different way. This is probably why micro-managing doesn't seem to work so well - it takes some of the responsibility and control away from the player. They can't be thinking "OK, I remember that I'm supposed to do X now" - they just need to do X. It needs to be part of them. That doesn't mean they can't think in advance and consciously decide what they need to do, but they have to understand it and feel it for themselves so that it becomes automatic on the pitch.

  • steve48 on April 15, 2014, 10:08 GMT

    Interesting, but easily countered in itself by the 'micro manager ' due to the article relying on examples of not just talent but genius to question the merit of intensive coaching. What is well highlighted however is the importance of a personal coach who has the player's ear. Gooch, then, may be essential for Cook, but this does not mean he can help KP, who listens more readily to Ford. I always thought Brearley as England captain worked best as coach/motivator to Botham and Willis; no technical stuff, but a great ENABLER. Obviously in a team sport their is an impracticability in personal coaches everywhere, but perhaps the head coach of an international side would be best served allowing players help from their own known, preferred coach when a player has one, and learn from HOW they interact with the player. One size does NOT fit all, of that I am convinced, as I think is Mr. Hotten

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