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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Taxi for the coach? Team sports could do with more mentors and fewer touchline tyrants

Ed Smith | January/February 2016

why do violinists have mentors, sportsmen have coaches and doctors (usually) have neither? That was the starting point for Atul Gawande’s examination of his career as an elite surgeon. A similar question inspired a series I made for bbc Radio 3 when I was a professional cricketer. It explored the parallels between athletes and classical musicians. I was struck by how much was shared: the art of concentration, the importance – and dangers – of nerves, the tension between instinct and self-awareness, the pursuit and limits of technical mastery, the balance between professional analysis and escape. Listening to musicians speak – if I swapped over the terminology of our respective disciplines – I heard back my own thoughts as a sportsman.

Yet there is a central difference in the cultural assumptions about how sportsmen and musicians improve. Within classical music, the presumption is that even the most brilliant performers rely on dispassionate and trusted mentors. They recognise that they don’t hear what the audience hears. So they need the help of distilled feedback from expert listeners. The soprano Renée Fleming refers to mentors as her “outside ears”.

In contrast, the default setting of professional sport (certainly team sport) is that the coach’s primary job is to discipline and instruct his players – an authority which rests on the ultimate sanction of deselecting them from the team. When sportsmen do rely on independent mentors outside the formal coaching staff – perhaps a father figure or childhood teacher – they often keep it to themselves, to avoid a potentially hostile reaction from the “official” coach.

Why does professional sport assume that one coach can and should connect – technically and emotionally – with every player, even in a large squad consisting of wildly different characters?

In some individual sports, especially golf and tennis, the coach is employed by the player. In team sports, however, it is still usually the athlete who is employed by the coach. These coaches are tasked with improving the technique and mindset of their players. Yet the same coaches must also choose to concentrate on certain players, and sometimes end careers. Most sports coaches experience blurred and conflicting responsibilities. They must be the private mentor and also the professional selector – sharing the journey one minute, coldly judging performance the next.

It is surprising this arrangement has survived so long. History has played a role. Right from the beginning, sport celebrated a cult of self-sacrifice. In the late 19th century, when organised sport became a defining characteristic of English public schools, sublimation of individuality was revered. “A boy who is working for a scholarship is working, not wholly, yet mainly, for himself,” argued Reverend J.E.C. Welldon, headmaster of Harrow. “But a boy who is playing in a match is playing not for himself, but for his house, or for his school. He is always ready to sacrifice himself for the success of his XI or his XV.”

“For the team” – the concept remains fundamental to the idea of sport. But in the age of professional sport, with so much money and glory at stake, that situation is surprisingly rare. Yes, it is true that cycling teams in the Tour de France still rely on the selfless toil of domestiques to serve the needs of star riders. At times, a football manager may insist on a creative player supressing his attacking instincts to serve a wider tactical need. But the vast majority of sportsmen serve the team best by simultaneously promoting their own interests. A defender making a heroic sliding tackle in soccer may be brave, but he is still expressly doing his job. There is no distinction between his aims and that of his team.

One of the best defenders in the history of modern football rarely made a tackle. Paolo Maldini (pictured), of A.C. Milan and Italy, was so technically proficient and intelligent in his positional play that he averaged only one tackle every 1.8 games. His high level of skill concealed rather than revealed his character.

Yet it remains a standard assumption inside sport – not just among coaches, but also among pundits who judge coaches – that the immediate solution to under-performance is a focusing on effort, usually administered by using anger as a tool. This explains why some phrases have become the patter of sport: “there will be plenty of strong words in the dressing room after that”; “wouldn’t want to be standing near the manager at half-time”; “they all need a jolly good bollocking.”

This is laughably out-of-date. The era of overweight and work-shy professional sportsmen coasting through their careers, more interested in booze and nightclubs than practice and self-improvement, is long gone. When there is GPS tracking and weekly body-fat tests, why pretend everyone still needs a sergeant-major to whip them into shape?

Yet sport still tends to frame performance in terms of character and effort, as though trying harder is always the solution. But motivation is rarely the problem. Professional sportsmen as often try too hard as too little.

Much of the emphasis on “character” and “effort” in team sport is a displacement activity. The best way to enhance a team is, nearly always, to raise the performance of the individual players. Skill is the ultimate currency. It is also, unfortunately, the hardest thing to improve.

To do so, players – and managers – should think about adopting the musicians’ model. Instead of having to dodge salvoes from angry coaches, professional sportsmen – just like soloists and sopranos – should seek out trusted “outside ears”.

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