Coaching is a game in itself

In team sports, great sides, or eras, or dynasties are rarely built without coaches, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Jose Mourinho will roam the globe and eventually unpack his philosophy in a new dressing room, and train unfamiliar men to move seamlessly to his tactical music, which is not pretty but effective. On the first day of his new job, whenever it comes, Mourinho will smile but realise his future probably has only one guarantee. That he will be sacked one day. Let go. Leave by mutual consent. It is not a bad thing. It proves that in football, there are always second chances, for clubs and managers.

Often wisdom eventually turns stale, ideas sounds repetitive, the same voice fails to penetrate, use-by dates arrive (though Alex Ferguson, two decades and going at Manchester United, is clearly an exception to most rules). Sometimes it’s not even that, but the fickleness of the owner. Coaches sometimes must not just win, but win in a manner that owners want. Perhaps Roman Abramovich just wanted a prettier team.

Owners have a passion for a sport which leads them to invest in a team, though the cool factor can never be underplayed (in a conversation between millionaires about accumulating Ferraris, it must be nice to chuck in “Yeah, I bought Chelsea this week.”) But because they are often clever, perceptive men at business, many owners might presume if they watch their team every week they know what’s best for it. This sudden expert is a dangerous beast. Coaches don’t have to like owners, or always obey them, but they have to at least listen to the men who pay the bills.

In India, the owners in cricket, so to speak, are the board, and they can be tiresome, not so much a support as a distraction. Prospective coaches will eye the line-up of politicians on the stage at the Twenty20 team’s home-coming celebrations in Mumbai and rethink their applications. Some political nous is required in the Indian game to survive, and to succeed, and Greg Chappell for instance did not possess it. John Wright did.

Coaches, Mourinho included, are often labelled “arrogant”, so certain do they sound about their philosophies, appearing like frozen-faced visionaries who are deaf to criticism. But perhaps this is their armour in a world where they are constantly second guessed.

With the mushrooming of television channels, the filling up of press boxes, the arrival of the professional commentator (a former player paid to be opinionated at least and controversial preferably), the advent of blogs, it is easy for a coach to feel insecure, or persecuted. It is somewhat terrifying that six titles in three years from Mourinho was insufficient, but perhaps all returns are viewed only in the context of the millions the owner invests.

Mourinho was not a personal favourite for, at Chelsea, he compressed talent rather than let it express itself, though on the sidelines his theatrical style was suited to football. He disappeared as coaches often do without seemingly substantive reason. Sometimes even winning is not good enough. In 1998, M. M. Kaushik, who won India its first hockey gold at the Asian Games in 32 years, was reportedly rewarded with such a kick in the pants that he titled his autobiography ‘Golden Boot’. But then hockey coaches in India have constantly failed to find common ground with the owner, K. P. S. Gill, who is certain he knows what is best for the Indian game. Failure has not altered his mind.

Good coaches are intriguing to talk to because they are in the business of teaching, and thus learning, often embarking on inventive journeys. Coaches will learn from anything, anyone, yogis, faith healers, Sioux lore, Chinese philosophers, generals, Edward de Bono, Henry Kissinger. Sometimes the best coach is your worst opponent. Garry Kasparov, when first chasing the world chess championship, played a five-month 48-game no-result match with the reigning champion Anatoly Karpov, before the contest was halted. Kasparov won the rematch and would write later: “The world champion had been my personal trainer for five gruelling months.”

Some coaches holler and rant, using outdated machismo language like “Don’t play like a girl”; in Glory Road, a U.S. basketball coach ironically uses this line on a girl’s team. Other coaches start gently, making subtle moves. John Wright’s first act as Indian coach was to remove the tea tables from the practice nets.

A coach is expected to play the role of interpreter of moods, babysitter, modernist, mentor, architect, dictator, strategist, seer, historian. Some will see this description as over-wrought and over-stated. India, after all, won its recent Test tour in England, and the World Twenty20 (where, admittedly, tutoring is less vital) without that post still occupied.

But in team sports, great sides, or eras, or dynasties are rarely built without coaches. Like United and Ferguson. Chicago Bulls and Phil Jackson. Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi. Pat Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers. Bill Shankly and Liverpool.

Chelsea will eventually require someone other than Avram Grant. So will Indian cricket. Strategy must be drawn, teamwork instilled, captains protected. Individual sports, like tennis, and golf (whose tutors are mostly technical), in a way, travel different paths.

Federer aside it is fascinating how many women’s players, for instance, are tutored by their parents. Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli’s father is a doctor; Hingis’ mother had no coaching background; French Open finalist Anna Ivanova had no coach at all in the summer. Even the Williams, while gaining technical advice as young girls from ‘proper’ coaches, have been directed by their parents. Of course Mourinho does not have a future in tennis coaching because he is allergic to sitting still.