Mark Reason: Why coaching is the death of professional sports
Mark Reason is a senior sports columnist for Stuff.
OPINION: There are times when you say to yourself that it might be a very good idea to gather all the sports coaches in the world on the deck of a large ocean liner and then abandon them in the depths of the Pacific. You could then shout lots of conflicting advice at them and see if any of them manage to swim to shore.
This somewhat naughty idea struck me while watching the All Blacks on Saturday. The players were clearly much better off having spent the week coming up with a lot of their own ideas rather than being micromanaged by Ian Foster and a huge group of coaches. It wouldn’t surprise me if the All Blacks even had a guy who specializes in moves when the wind is from the south and can tell a hawk from a handsaw.
But luckily all Geeks and Feeks had been locked down for the week and so players were free to play. How good it was to see Aaron Smith just take off from a ruck and move forward because that was where the space was. An Irishman might say that was where the space was because Scott Barrett pushed Josh van der Flier to the ground and held him there illegally. But tiddly fiddly tiddlywinks we say to that.
The All Blacks have started their preparations for the second Test against Ireland at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
How good it was to see Beauden Barrett see the space behind and put the chip in for Quinn Tupaea to score. There were probably two other ways the All Blacks could have taken advantage of this position because Jamison Gibson-Park had been caught foolishly trying to run off his line. This horrible miscalculation resulted in the halfback and the No. 12 being caught in the ruck. Beaudy quickly took advantage of this.
How good it was to see Ardie Savea drifting off and stepping past Garry Ringrose, who had an unlucky game, to break through Ireland’s highly trained defence. Savea then used her pace and power to push away from the rest of the green wreckage.
He was then asked, not without reason, if the third man receiver was something the All Blacks had been working on. It was a reference to the number of times Aaron Smith directly hit third receiver, including when Jordie Barrett broke in for his try.
A small cheer went up in this house when Savea answered; “Actually, it was just off the cuff. I’m just trying to see space and call out where space is and Nuggs just hit me there.
Something of the same happened in the match between Australia and England. England’s unfortunate failure to beat a 14-man squad was partly due to their growing paralysis by analysis. When Eddie Jones coaches a team for the first time, his energy and new ideas have a positive effect. But time is its enemy and eventually players get tired of all the micromanagement. And this proves again.
For 75 minutes, England tried to play with two front fives against Australia, with Owen Farrell moving inside at the ten position and Marcus Smith coming out at the back. There was a lot of theory here, but not a lot of practice. Most of the time, Smith ended up pushing his back line to the side as he jumped from foot to foot.
But when the match was over after Peter Samu’s glorious sidestep led to him scoring the try that put Australia three points ahead, England just played what was ahead. she. They handed the ball to new kid on the block Henry Arundell, who got past the Australian defence. Two tries in five minutes after an improvised game. What could have been.
It reminded me of the story of Wayne Smith when he first played with John Kirwan and wondered how to help the newbie and what responsibility to give him. After Kirwan’s first touch, Smith and his second five realized that all they had to do was find a way to get Kirwan’s ball and let him continue.
Sometimes getting in on it is a good way to go. Would Australia’s top five Noah Lolesio, who had such a miserable time against the All Blacks last year, have had such a great game against England if he hadn’t found out that he was going to play five minutes before kick-off when Quade Cooper came out. Freed from much of the training intensity in the preparation, he was now able to carry on.
As Captain Michael Hooper said afterwards; “You can do all these pieces and they go out the window. You can’t plan that one. Thank goodness for that.
The same thing happened with English cricket. Under Chris Silverwood, there was more paralysis by analysis. There were plans upon plans upon plans. Under Brendon McCullum, the players have just come together and Jonny Bairstow is a reborn batsman.
Now, I’m not dumb enough to suggest that the coaches are a total threat, but I think the game would be better with far fewer of them. We want to see players playing and making their own decisions, not coming up with a rehearsed storyline. Please spare us the capsule unless we are spotting dolphins in the middle of the ocean.
The hardest part of being a good coach is walking away from the players. When Rieko Ioane was starting against the Lions, Wayne Smith asked him a question at half-time about the positioning of the other wing. That’s all Smith said. He then left it to Ioane to provide her own answer and think about it.
One of the great joys of watching Nick Kyrgios play tennis is that we have no idea what can happen. He can touch the stars or dig into the gutter of humanity. But part of that uncertainty comes from the fact that he doesn’t have a coach.
When I started watching rugby there was only one coach on tour. So when the Lions arrived in New Zealand in 1971, much of the scrum coaching was provided by brilliant Irish prop Ray McLoughlin. After the tour, my father composed a book called “The Lions Speak”. It became a coaching manual, much loved by Graham Henry, but largely written by the players and not by men in small rooms.
Fortunately, there was no defense coach at the time. One of the biggest damages done to the spectacle of rugby union was the introduction of men like Shaun Edwards from rugby league. Now a defense coach with France, Edwards is one of the best in the field. But his job is to minimize our entertainment. His job is to strangle the life of the opposition. A good day is when the opponent does not score. How silly in the world of professional sports where the name of the game is entertainment.
So all you coaches out there. A beautiful cruise around the world is in preparation. Now, if you could just walk along the catwalk…