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Opinion I The relentless search for better

  • Sports coaches have evolved from everyday academic teachers with whistles
  • Modern coaching is synonymous with finding perfection at all costs, often in very little time

Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly; Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee; and Björn Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin. Photo: Alamy, Getty images
Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly; Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee; and Björn Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin. Photo: Alamy, Getty images

In the late 1980s, a legendary coach had a few of us astonished when he insisted the great footballer was a product of physics. This was a fine mind, we thought, and awaited eagerly the unfurling of the relationship between Curie and Pelé, Einstein and Maradona. Alas, he meant physique. A minor matter of pronunciation.

I was ready to believe him, though, because coaches have fascinated me since I was a teenager. At 18, on a hilltop, is when I first realized they could do something profound: they could find something in us we were not even sure we had.

In the old days in school, coaches were your everyday academic teachers who put on a nylon-stringed necklace with a whistle attached and turned into mediocre Mourinhos. Then, in 1980, in Lawrence School, Sanawar, a young athletics coach named Chauhan arrived. He trained us hard, three times a day, introduced us to techniques we were unfamiliar with, made us fractionally faster and allowed us to consider a powerful idea for the first time: My God, we have potential (well, a little at least).

This is what athletes want, don’t they, someone to unlock talent, someone with an idea, a tactic, a drill, a speech. In Rope Burns, written by the wonderful F.X. Toole, Mac, the trainer, tells his boxer: “Fighting bulls, right. Braver than a mama bear. They’ll charge a train if they get separated from their group. But brave ain’t enough when the train wins, right? And tough ain’t enough when you start taking so many shots that sooner or later you start to lose. Or your body quits, says that’s it, ain’t going for no more pain. It’s skill, and legs and speed and brains that get you through."

Coaches are unshakeable missionaries who often wander into foreign lands, cannot speak a language, must untangle a culture and then win. Just enough succeed to make the absurd a possibility. They are driven, conceited, scholarly, partial, and differ from us in one powerful way: They see differently. They X-ray sport and see through people, their eyes identifying shoulders that haven’t turned enough and toes that aren’t pointed. We see the painting, they see brush-strokes. A shooting coach and I once sat together and watched his pupil. I saw nothing but stillness, he saw body stability, gun stability, recoil control, emotional control.

Yet, even coaches discover not just how to look but where to look from. In his book Leading, Alex Ferguson describes a moment when Archie Knox, his assistant coach at Aberdeen, tells him he shouldn’t be conducting training but watching from the sidelines. Eventually, Ferguson does, standing back, looking at small things, a player’s demeanour and the length of the grass, and educating himself.

But two things intrigue me about coaching: The first is, why do so many amateur athletes forgo expertise? We battle on in our ignorance. We are happy to offer Dominic Thiem free advice on fixing his serve, but rarely think to mend ours. We have golf swings that defy technique and 40-year-old bowling actions that are bio-mechanically hilarious, but we shrug. We’ve oddly turned our back on better.

But I’m inspired by my 60-year-old brother, a bald, ascetic show-off made of regularly polished muscle, who has decided he wants to row 100 km in a day on a machine. So he has employed a coach and has been further revitalized. “Belief", he told me with a grin. The other day, after a long time, he did a handstand. He is seeing life from another angle now.

The other peculiarity is the frequent sackings. We’ve always known that a coach is initially given free drinks in the same town he will soon be drummed out of. Still, dismissals have become a disease. People are currently besotted with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who probably still needs to carry his ID to bars at 46, and yet you worry for the Norwegian. Because football managers are caught in a second-guessing soap opera where every firing is three consecutive losses, two bullying pundits and a player mutiny away. The mad need to win in football is breeding stupidity.

In the old days, coaches stayed longer—Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee (21 years) , Liverpool FC and Bill Shankly (15 years), Björn Borg and Lennart Bergelin (all 11 Grand Slam titles). Now this relationship comes attached with a modern desperation, an urgent need to find the perfect fit, and an immature overreaction to losing. Players, officials and fans crave immediate results and perhaps listen to too many voices.

As Raemon Sluiter, the perceptive tennis coach of current World No.8 Kiki Bertens told me last year: “Before, the attention was much smaller. There was no social media, players were travelling with two or three people instead of seven or eight, which is very nice if all seven or eight are on the same page.

“But there’s also much more influence from every side, a lot of voices. There are managers in tennis, like in football, who might have good contact with this or that coach. So there’s much that can change. If a big player loses two-three times and is vulnerable, she is going to be vulnerable for everything he or she hears. Then it’s going to be easy to use another coach."

And, of course, coaching now comes with choice, with an army of evangelists and technicians and Svengalis to choose from, all with a theory, a tactic and a promise. It helps if you can afford the fee but if you can’t, don’t panic. Ask your dad to learn the game, get your mom to teach you. The search for better, as the majestic Williams sisters will tell you, sometimes begins and ends at home.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.

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