When I met Rod Laver many years ago, I was curious about (among other things) the legendary Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman. Australia won the title 15 times in the 1950s and 60s, with Hopman as coach. What made him special?
The two-time Grand Slam winner’s response has always stayed with me. “Hopman showed us how to be the fittest,” said Laver. “Fitness meant more than strategy in a tight match. That was his strength, ensuring we were physically at our peak. So when he sat courtside and kept saying ‘hit for the lines’, it seemed he was a genius.”
I wasn’t sure if Laver was complimenting Hopman for his simple formula or criticising him for a lack of technical expertise. Coaches through the decades have either been emotional supports or technical guides — the great ones have combined both qualities. Which style works better depends largely on the individual.
In 1984 when P. T. Usha was the toast of Indian athletics, having narrowly missed a bronze at the Olympics, her coach was O. M. Nambiar, a father figure she felt comfortable with, and who was able to bring her to world standards. But at that stage she needed a more technically astute coach, a role above Nambiar’s pay grade. It took the hurdler Ed Moses to point out that the number of strides Usha took between hurdles needed to change. Often sportsmen need different kinds of coaches at different stages of their career.
At a very early age, it is enough if the coach inculcates a love for the sport in his wards. “Don’t worry about whether you spin the ball or where your shoulder should be when you play a drive,” Bishan Bedi tells his younger students, “Just enjoy the feel of it, the sensation of bowling and the joy of batting.” Too much technicality and overdone drills can turn a schoolboy away from the game. Bedi, a wonderful coach, also maintained a correspondence with his wards, got them to keep a diary and is a “guru” in the more rounded sense in which Indians use that word.
Nambiar clearly belonged to the Hopman school, keeping it simple, providing emotional support and not getting too involved with techniques and styles. I suspect Ramakant Achrekar, who passed away recently, and is best known as Sachin Tendulkar’s coach, belonged to the same school. Sachin never failed to acknowledge his debt to Achrekar, but it was an emotional, not a technical debt.
In the end, however, such hair-splitting does not matter. If the coach inspires trust and commands respect enough to raise a player’s game or take it to a plane even the player himself thinks he is not capable of reaching, he has done his job. Whether as a strong emotional support or as a sound technical advisor.
The former Australian player and hockey coach, Ric Charlesworth, once said: “The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled.” That is a wonderful take on the coach’s calling.
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