Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Coaching

Sorry things have been so quiet over here of late. Did you catch the Lance Armstrong piece I have over at Norman Einstein's? (I recently read We Might As Well Win, and I think I should have put more responsibility on Johan Bruyneel's shoulders.)

In watching the Australian Open/Celtics ongoing slide/Olympics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the various vectors of coaching and the effects they have on the sports they (at least try to) direct.1 It’s one of the more subtle dimensions of competition, but also one which has an enormous effect and which can be rather fluid in its boundaries.
1: Bill Simmons says (of Zach Randolph) in his NBA draft value article that aging "headcases" sometimes mature enough for them to harnass their talent. There's truth to that, but I always wonder how much of a player being labeled "uncoachable" has to do with specific player/coach relationships not working out and a player therefore getting labeled.

In comparisons of teams/athletes/sports, a lot of consideration is given to physiology, strategy and all of the various puzzle pieces that are extant on the field of play, but coaching, one of the most important parts of competitive success, can’t necessarily be directly observed. Every athlete/team has good and bad habits in varying proportion and approaches a match/game with a strategy that aims to maximize its strengths and hide its weaknesses. What I’m interested in here is the interplay of athlete in the middle of a match and coach(es) who can shift his2 performance/priorities/approach. Much of a coach’s value is the behind-the-scenes groundwork we never see, other than whitewashed training footage.
2: As per usual, I'm using male pronouns not because of any hostility/blindness to female athletes, but because of the (unfortunate) preponderance of males in high-level athletics.

It’s useful to break the effects of coaching into two discrete realms3, perfection of technique and strategy. For all sorts of reasons, some of which are fatigue, mental weakness, imperfect self-perception and biomechanical error, technique tends to fall off some times. The coach has the benefit of perspective, watching the match from outside the playing field and skull of the athlete(s) and seeing everything rather than seeing some and feeling some.
3: Though discrete, there is often blurring between the two realms. That blurring is real and meaningful, but the interplay of technique and strategy is another post for another day.

Sports take different tacks here. In some, it’s not realistic for a coach to talk to the athlete during a competition. There’s no effective way to give feedback to a luger or downhill skier mid-run, or to tell a figure skater to tighten up his or her technique. I can't imagine how you could possibly coach a 100 meter sprinter mid-race. Some event coaching is limited to helping get an athlete’s head right before competing and doing a postmortem afterwards. Even in longer events, where there is a strategy of effort and degradation of technique matters a lot, coaching doesn’t tend to be an option. Marathon racers have to gauge themselves based on their time and perceived effort; cross-country skiers do much the same.

In some sports, this is the bulk of coaching. If you’re competing against the clock or trying to earn a score from judges, you don’t need to concern yourself with what anyone else is doing. You run as fast as you can, you skate your best routine (or whatever), everyone else does the same and you collectively let the format sort you out. A lot of distance races have strategy insofar as drafting and pacing are concerned, but not beyond that. Strategy as a discrete element ramps up in importance with the introduction of a) teammates and b) non-time considerations (i.e. points).

Typically, there are set times when a coach gets the luxury of his team’s full interest. Timeouts in basketball and football, between periods in hockey, when your team is batting in baseball (plus the occasional visit to the mound). Halftimes generally. Each sport decides just how often the team’s brain should be able to pause the action and try to actively steer things. This can evolve over time, either through adjustment of how many timeouts a team gets, or, more often, through the regulation of a new vector for communication, for instance how in the NFL only one player on the field is allowed to have a radio in his helmet.4
4: A side-effect of the growth and specialization of sports is the sad death of the player-manager. There will never be another player put in a position like Pete Rose or Bill Russell (I would love to be wrong about this) or even the role quarterbacks played in the early NFL. This isn't to say that today's athletes couldn't (Peyton Manning almost does already, and you know Kobe would love the chance to try.) but they would never be given the chance.

Two sports at the extremes of this are tennis and cycling. In tennis, despite the very real shifting strategic concerns of a head-to-head (or doubles) match, the coach must sit in the stands, forbidden to communicate with his charge. In cycling, the directeur sportif operates as the brain of the team in his car, connected via radio to every member of his team for every second of the race. Despite the relative oddity of its ascetic separation, tennis is arguably the richer for its setup; cycle racing, on the other hand, is appreciably cheapened by the strategic loss caused by constant communication.

In tennis, the rules outlaw coaching midmatch. In practice, this seems to mean, at least in the majors I watch, that it’s tolerated for the player to look to the coach if they want for guidance on whether to challenge a call5 but otherwise is on his or her own. Tennis matches can last for hours, with vastly different styles of play and fitness levels dictating shifts in strategy during matches. Eliminating any coaching that can’t be conveyed via covert hand signals puts a premium on both the mental toughness necessary to think strategy after four hours of exertion and the strategic bent of mind needed to judge your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses well enough to exploit them.
5: It's amazing how ho-hum the challenge system in the majors has become. Imagine if baseball did something similar with batters and pitchers challenging calls via Pitch F/X. Umpires would be apopletic, but it would be fun to watch someone like Mark Bellhorn never strike out looking.

These things don’t matter without the physical tools to play at the highest level, but the converse is also true. Without the right mind, consistent dominance is just as impossible as it would be if you had a second-tier game. I don’t know the game well enough to rattle off a litany of names, but I’m quite sure there are plenty of could-have-beens who didn’t have what it took upstairs. Roger Federer, he of the transcendent game and GOAT conversations, took some time to develop mentally.

Pro cycling is a semi-controlled arms race. Any potential advantage in equipment is quickly copied and dispersed throughout the peloton. Carbon frames spread over like wildfire, aerodynamics have ruled time trialing ever since LeMond cross-pollinated them from triathlons, and the trend of radioing up every cyclist that Johan Bruyneel’s Postal Service team started is now so embedded in the sport that no team would dream of doing without. Thanks to the wonders of satellite television, the DS always knows the big picture, and therefore spends his race driving the team car, watching the race unfold on a dashboard screen and telling his pawns when to attack, back off, push the pace, take water/food to other teammates and whatever else he deems necessary. Where previously a racer had to figure out his goals based on the morning strategy session and what he had personally seen, supplemented by the occasional chat with his DS through a car window, now the team has a race-long conversation and ever-shifting set of tasks and goals.

The upshot of this is that mistakes happen more seldom. Barring a renegade teammate, a team’s lead rider can ride with the confidence that he’ll get all the support his mates can give him and that if he gets beaten, it will be because he was outridden, not because he unknowingly let a break or a rival get too far ahead of him.

But implicit in this is the notion that teams and riders should have perfect knowledge of the race situation, that the winner should always be the strongest man of the day. This makes the rider more robotic, an instrument of his master who goes when he’s told. This article by Michael Barry outlines the tactical shortcomings this engenders in the peloton. If someone else plays the part of your brain during a race, you don’t ever need to fully rely on your own. There’s a bit of bitter irony in the fact that it was Bruyneel, a man who made a career with a brain that was better than his legs, who devalued the racer’s brain. (Or maybe not; it did allow his teams to rely on his brain rather than the lesser tacticians they had in their kit.)

The UCI has toyed with the idea of outlawing radios. They tried to do it for a stage in the Tour de France this year, but the riders balked, and the UCI blinked first. They are bringing in bans at lower levels of the sport, presumably aiming to slowly phase it in from the ground up, rather than yoke around the riders at the top of the sport, a strategy that will only work slowly, but which will presumably bring less of a fight. Racing without radios opens up the field, makes anyone a potential threat. Whereas now a breakaway will get reeled in if it gets enough time on the field to threaten the leader, without radios it’ll be harder to keep track. Even if the directeurs in their cars know that the peloton has to make a move, they have to be next to a rider to get him to act on that. The races will become more organic and therefore unpredictable.

Ours is an age of technology and analysis. Elite athletes have targeted training programs that dictate how hard to exercise for how long, dieticians telling them how much of what to eat, and sleep therapists monitoring their shuteye. Because of the tools the digital age has developed and the money in play, we know how to get the more out of athletes than was hitherto possible.6 At the same time, because of the disparate realms of knowledge necessary to master all of this, more training than ever before is out of the athlete’s hands. Eddie Merckx’s training advice was to “ride lots”; Lance Armstrong had his F-One team spend over a million dollars on a more aerodynamic bike, and don’t kid yourself that he was light years ahead of his competitors. The risk, in my eyes, is that strategy seeps away from athletes the same way that training has.
6: Note: this article is pointedly not addressing the issue of PEDs.

It’s easy to think of an elite athlete or team of athletes as the sum total of their muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, as miracles of genetics and biomechanics. They are certainly that, but we need to be careful not to construct our sports in such ways as to essentialize them into only that role. Sports should do as much as they can to hang their results on the brains and bodies of their participants. There are obvious exceptions in things like football, where each participant has a narrow role and the coach’s explicit job is to conduct the team, but in general I want competitors to have to strategize their way to victory, to maximize their advantage, not just execute. I want my athletes to be craftsmen, not factory workers.

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