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The Coach or the Players?

Manchester United seem intent on become record holders. I think it's safe to say they are one more loss away from taking Felix Baumgartner's record for the longest free-fall in history. And whilst I do greatly enjoy watching someone with an ego the size of a Real Madrid wages bill being publicly humiliated on a weekly basis, it did spark up a question I haven't thought of since 2004.

I was in Darwin on a cricket exchange, and Australia was playing a test series against Sri Lanka. One night after training, we were leaving the ground with a few beverages under our belt and we saw Shane Warne, John Buchanan and Andrew Symonds wandering around our training facility. Warnie had a sneaky dart in his mouth, which he duly apologised for, and they seemed in quite a hurry, so we left them to their own devices. Later that night someone mentioned that Warne never got along with Buchanan, and he also had provoked the ire of a number of other players. I wondered aloud 'why in the world do a group of grown men who are the best in the world at their sport need a coach?'

Why indeed?

It was the first time it had ever occurred to me. I had grown up under the watchful eye of some of the best. Kevin Wilson at Bankstown Bomber AFL club. Greg Beaven at Bankstown Cricket Club. Countless others who had shaped and moulded me as a person and a sportsman, who played far more important roles in my formative years than any teacher ever managed. Coaches were essential, but I figured once I got to a certain age they were no longer needed. They were there to teach and impart skill. What could John Buchanan tell Warnie?

What, indeed, could David Moyes tell his group of title winners? Nothing apparently. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson was absolutely masterful, and the true extent of his genius was hidden until his absence made it blindingly obvious. Similalry with the Australian cricket team. Mickey Arthur was a dreadful appointment, and his approach was outwardly rejected by those he sought to guide. As soon as Mr Lehman takes over, we are back on top of the world! Coaches, it seems, play an absolutely integral role in every sport, regardless of its nature.

Consider the marathon runner. Daily pounding the pavement, icing aches, mentally preparing for races. Who oversees their training? Who tells them how often to run, how far, what to eat, when to taper, what events to enter, how much water to drink? Sure, a runner could spend the time researching all of this himself, but in the time it takes him to gain all that knowledge he's lost 2 months of conditioning because he was sat in front of google all day and not running. The coach for an individual athlete becomes a lifeline to the sane world. Athletes live in absurd conditions, pushing their bodies to the absolute limit, pushing through pain barriers. They need someone next to them telling which pain to push through and which to sit out. They become their confidante, their personal psychologist, mentally preparing them with advice and optimism, and rational thought.

The role of the coach in an individual sport is considerably limited when you compare it to that of someone like Louis Van Gaal, Darren Lehman, Ewen McKenzie or Geoff Toovey. Factor in an entire squad of individuals, all with vastly different needs and personalities, different playing styles and requirements. Of course, nutritionists, psychologists, medical personnel take over the day to day running of these athletes, but the coach is the overlord, he or she sets the rules, outlines the strategy, must be fully aware of all things that may impact upon the performance of a huge array of individuals.

All of a sudden it looks pretty tough doesn't it? I always questioned why managers are the first to face the axe when a team is performing poorly. You hear it every year, in fact we are even hearing murmurs Guy Mckenna may lose his job, despite the Gold Coast Suns having their best year on record. Every season is littered with broken contracts. Andre Villas Boas, Mick Potter, Brenton Sanderson, Steve Price, David Moyes. Alan Pardew is on his last legs. Why are these individuals singled out, when it's the blokes on the park who are losing matches, not the coaches?

Just look at Manchester United. Without a dramatic personnel upheaval, they went from champions to barely staying in touch with the top half of the table in 43 games. As soon as the story about Mick Potter and Robbie Farrah came out, the Tigers starting losing games in landslides. The players never changed. But their relationship with the main man did. How did David Moyes manage to get Everton to such a level when his charges were clearly out-priced by others in the league? How did Darren Lehman turn a team of broken down has-beens in to the number one side in the world?

The job of the modern coach is so complicated, no one approach will work, and if one coach has success with one side, it's no guarantee of success elsewhere (Wayne Bennett ahem). They must oversee tactics, they must massage the ego's of the players, some which are so giant (Mr. Balotelli?) that it's more a case of rolling out the red carpet and letting them act whatever way they want. They must ensure that every member of staff is working ethically and legally (Sorry James Hird you let your club down and should never coach again). The plethora of things they need to calibrate must be why Geoff Toovey is the angriest man in the world. He works so hard to control everything he can, and then when a referee looks at his cross-eyed it sets him off on a rampage. When they manage to implement a system that works, it's magical. When things go wrong, inevitably it is the man in charge who bears the brunt, and rightfully so.

It turns out coaches are essential after all. Someone let Micky Arthur know Georges River have a coaches assistant position available. It's unpaid, but it's a start..

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