March 30, 2014

Wanted: mentors, not coaches

Elite sportsmen today don't lack motivation, nor do they need to be whipped into shape. What they need from their coaches is tact, judgement and clear speaking

Imagine you are about to make a putt to win the Masters. The gallery is packed, millions are watching on TV, there is an eerie silence as the Georgia sun sets. You stand over a nasty ten-footer, the moment of truth. And then, at the peak of concentration, you see your coach jumping up and down, beating his chest, shouting at you, "Just don't miss! Put it in the hole! Show some guts! Don't back down now! Make bloody sure you don't bottle this one! What kind of man are you?"

Now imagine you are the first violinist, about to make your debut at the Royal Opera House. Just before the first chord, with the curtain about to rise, the conductor turns to you and whispers, "If you make a mistake today, any mistake at all, I'll stab you in the eye with my baton. Now let's play Don Giovanni with freedom and expressiveness!"

And how would you treat a surgeon about to conduct a life-saving operation on your wife or child? Would you threaten, bully and intimidate the doctor? Or would you try to avoid adding further anxiety to an already fraught situation? In all these three situations it is widely accepted that no sane coach, mentor or observer would seek to add to the anxiety or effort of the protagonist. It is taken as a given that the golfer, surgeon or musician is already trying hard enough - perhaps too hard.

And yet in most sporting contexts, the default position of coaches - and pundits who judge coaches in the media - is to assume that the problem afflicting a team or an individual player is usually caused by a lack of effort. If only players cared more, tried harder, felt disappointment more deeply. That sentiment, so widespread in sport, gives rise to the knee-jerk response: give them all a good bollocking; expect there will be plenty of strong words in the dressing room after that shot; wouldn't want to be standing near the manager at half-time.

We will soon look back on that view of how to improve professional athletes as comically old-fashioned, a cul-de-sac in the evolution of elite sport. After all, epic levels of discipline and commitment are non-negotiable if you want to survive as a professional sportsman today. The era of flabby, lazy athletes coasting through their careers while focusing more intently on hard living and nightclubs is pretty much over. Today's professional athletes are generally exceptionally disciplined, committed and determined. Given the scrutiny they face and the scientific testing of their bodies, there is no alternative. As a consequence, the "edge" - as gamblers describe the tiny opportunities for strategic advantage - will not reside in bullying and shouting at players but in honing their skills and freeing up their talents.

In most sporting contexts, the default position of coaches - and pundits who judge coaches in the media - is to assume that the problem afflicting a team or an individual player is usually caused by a lack of effort: if only players cared more, tried harder, felt disappointment more deeply

It is time to re-classify elite sport and stop seeing sportsmen as a rabble of unmotivated wastrels in search of a sergeant-major to whip them into shape. Athletes in highly skilled sports, in fact, have more in common with surgeons and violinists. They need mentors, wise advisors, trusted confidants. Consider the art of batsmanship. What kind of discipline is it? It requires touch, feel, finesse, trust, freedom, poise and balance. On a spectrum (with skill at one end and brute force at the other) batsmanship has more in common with playing a musical instrument than it does with punching someone in the face.

There is surprisingly little consensus about how to help elite performers to get better. Musicians, once they have reached the top, tend not to have full-time professional coaches. They rely instead on trusted mentors, people who might spot a tiny difference or lack of form. They refer to these mentors as their "outside ears", as top musicians admit that what they hear in their own heads can be different from the "real" music that reaches the audience. The mentor, though not in a position of authority over the artist, is able to see and hear with objective clarity. The relationship is based on trust not power.

Something similar - though it is called "coaching" - happens in many individual sports. In golf and tennis, the coach works for the athlete, not vice versa. This is not only a reflection of economic forces. When Roger Federer hired Stefan Edberg, he did not want the Swede to shout at him, "Try harder, Rog!" That would be useless, indeed counter-productive. Federer sought a new dimension to his net play, and Edberg, as the greatest volleyer of his generation, was asked to supply his unique perspective. The foundation of the relationship was knowledge and mutual respect.

In team sports, there is obviously a complication. The coach is usually the selector, collective tactician, and effectively in charge of hiring and firing. That changes the coach-player relationship. But not entirely. Over the long term, the best way for a coach to win the support of his players is to convince them that he can help them to play better. Appealing to their rational self-interest is the most reliable way of getting athletes on side.

The problem, of course, is that helping players score more runs and take more wickets is a rare and difficult skill. It requires astute observation, tact, judgement, and a talent for clear exposition and metaphor. Good coaches are able to articulate the same point in many different ways - until, finally, one phrase or description clicks for the athlete. A great coach, then, has more in common with a teacher than a conventional boss or employee. Ultimately, his contribution is expressed through the sum total of the improvements he makes to his players.

I never met a sportsman who preferred failure to success, nor one who didn't suffer pain at disappointment. Rare is the modern sportsman who is indifferent about the chance to get better. In today's ultra-professional and highly disciplined era, the starting point for all coaches should be the presumption: these people want to get better, how can I help them?

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Neil on April 1, 2014, 11:25 GMT

    Enjoyed the article but the 3 references made are all individual sports/pursuits. Yes batsman, bowlers and wicketkeepers need their mentors, and I think most of them do. Think of Bruce French for Matt Prior and Graham Gooch for Alistair Cook.

    A team coach has other responsibilities such as planning tactics, team training, setting out a team philosophy, and attempting to create a winning mentality. I don't think darren lehman has necessarily helped Australia's players with their techniques, but he has created an environment where they have been able to thrive and play an agressive brand of cricket.

  • ian on April 1, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    And the best and most influential mentor for a group of players working together is the captain. IMO, it's difficult to over emphasise the influence of the captain. His inspirational qualities will not just come from his own performances, but his ability to get each player to believe in himself; to convince each player that his best is yet to come and to keep his team players at ease with each other. Openness, honesty, tact; empathy & supportiveness; courage, belief in yourself; a matching belief in every member of your team; willingness to learn; a degree of humility; passionate when required, yet dispassionate (objective) in making big decisions... The captain that has all of these qualties must add up to the perfect mentor. In an imperfect world, most of them would more than suffice. Probably Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud came as close as it is ever likely to get. Top captains make top mentors. Am I being too simplistic?

  • Will on March 31, 2014, 20:44 GMT

    As insightful and articulate as ever.

    One thing though, coaches need mentors too!

    Oh and another thing, the problem, in English cricket at least, is structural and needs to be addressed at board level. Until we get people at the top who are interested in the cricket and not the filthy lucre, this pattern will repeat itself again and again. Start by taking the sponsors name off the shirt and let the England team drive Mondeo's and not Mazarati's.

  • Steve on March 31, 2014, 16:06 GMT

    Liked this, in some way answering your previous article, ' can the coach be king ', my post to which pretty much agreed with everything you say here! One thing though, why does the coach have to be a selector? It creates a power relationship that forces players to take not so much advice as instructions, taking too much of the players' freedom to accept or reject away. I don't believe either captain or coach should do more than advise the selectors on their opinions and experience of players. In this way, if a player is resistant to coaching advice or captaincy instructions, the selectors will know, but the player will feel more free to offer contrary opinion, which I believe is important to team effort. I also believe players should be free to pay for their own individual coach if he feels better served, so long as the head coach is kept informed. Players performance is more important than coaches ' egos, and one size never fits all, e.g. Cook loves Gooch, do the rest?

  • David on March 31, 2014, 12:52 GMT

    I agree with this, although in the 1970s and 80s you could still get ahead by shouting at players and getting them to work harder, as fitness work wasn't taken half as seriously then - a lot of this explains the near miraculous achievements of Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen. But it is obvious that the more mentor-like coaches whom Smith lists have been more successful in recent times, even if hard fitness work is now a given. Duncan Fletcher was a good mentor to the players he rated. Andy Flower started that way, with a more open-mind, building good relationships with his captain and senior players, but somehow lost it towards the end and turned into Peter Moores. When he said at the end of the recent Ashes that he hadn't worked England hard enough, I knew it was time for him to step down. To be a good mentor you need intuition, empathy, unorthodoxy, an ability to think outside the box, allied to a huge data bank of technical knowledge.

  • S on March 31, 2014, 12:24 GMT

    Excellent piece, as usual. Mentors - Terry Jenner for Warne and John Wright/Gary Kirsten for the Indian batting trio (Sachin, Dravid and Laxman) comes to mind. While mentors may be good for super elites what about average elites?

  • Mithilesh on March 31, 2014, 9:42 GMT

    Ed Smith's writing on sports is always a reminder of why English sports is so bogged down by its own narcissistic intellectualism. It can produce some momentary sparks but never a fire to warm the hearts of fans. And yes it does produce a lot of fire and brimstone in prose. Not only the doctor-patient analogy was exaggerated it was in bad taste. I think editors at cricinfo should exercise their judgement on their in-house writers as they do for the guests who comment on this space. It is really disappointing.

  • xxxxx on March 31, 2014, 8:04 GMT

    An interesting article. Does this mean you support Warne's definition of "coach", Ed? I agree with much of the article and like the "teacher" analogy. Of course an effective teacher needs to be part motivator as well to get the most out of his charges even if this does not normally entail the traditional ranting and abuse.

    The vital ingredient that is missing, especially for a team sport like cricket, is any mention of leadership. Being able to set clear goals, explain exactly how they are to be achieved and getting all players to buy into and stay committed to these is key. Losing the exceptional talents along the way because they think differently and are too much work is a recipe for mediocrity.

    I am kind of proud this last sentence was written without any mention of KP. (Oh, bugger!)

  • sam on March 31, 2014, 7:42 GMT

    Though all the cr. should go to the Aussie players for being the most successful team in world recently and growing to be its most strongest,potent in world bit of praise and cr. for coach Boof is not out of place imo. Fact is has more than earned and the results prove it. The boys and coach have'nt had time for a party together after SA tour. Sure 1st thing after getting off from flight ,their thoughts will be for a big bash. Big 3 chears for team Aus. Cheers for the best coach in the world sport ,Boof too!

  • Dummy4 on March 31, 2014, 7:07 GMT

    Mentor, Yes this is what every team needs. In fact that reminds so much of Imran Khan not only captaining a side but also taking the whole team along as a true Mentor. Ask any of the players who played under him, they have so much respect for him. He galvanized them, taught them how to fight and win, put a spirit of aggression in them. Obviously there was no coach at that time like they have in the modern era. It was him who led the team to win in crucial series wins. Gave a great fight to the mighty West Indies and finally Won the World Cup.

    Mentoring at its best. By the way Wasim Akram still has his picture on the twitter account mentioning him as his "Mentor".