Friday, August 19, 2011

The Cold Hard Eye of a Coach

The Seahawk’s coach Pete Carroll, he of perpetual optimism and glorious surfer zen, loves Lofa Tatupu. He recruited him at USC and coached him to an all American status. He inherited him as a five-year starter and the heart and mind of the Seattle Seahawks defense last year.           Pete Carroll  cut Loftoto last week.

He cut him cold and clean and cauterized the wound with bigger, faster, stronger rookies. Pete may love him, but love has nothing to do with coaching a professional team. Tatupu carried a salary that hurt the cap and had been slowed by nagging injuries the last two years. I once suggested that John Wooden  demonstrated that love of game and love of players informed his actions, including his disciplining. But Wooden coached college where coaches can afford to love their players and help them grow as human beings—they cannot really cut them for one thing, have a larger pool than pros, and they recruit and woo them and feel a deeper obligation.

But even at college a coach can have affection and even respect for a player and never play them.

At the core, college or professional, a coach must possess a cold clear third eye to assess the skill, talent and accomplishment of their players. This assessment remains their fundamental job and governs the heart of their relations to players.

I remember asking one of our football coaches what he looked for when he first viewed a young player, and he answered with no hesitation “body size and type.” Pure and simple, nothing else really mattered if the players did not have the basic physical shape, strength and speed to endure the rigors and grow into the skills required of elite competition.

Let’s go back and remember what we ask of coaches. We ask coaches to  WIN. 
What do we ask of coaches? We ask coaches to   WIN. 

All coaches, even the best and most committed to education and growth, know this. Owners and colleges fire coaches who do not win, no matter how many athletes graduate or how much athletes contribute to their community. If a coach does not win, the coach is fired.

A coach knows that they compete in a physical world. The body and skill/talent array are the foundations upon which everything else depends.

So a coach must analyze each player and group of players in a very straightforward way:
  • Body: does a player possess the strength, health, and durability appropriate to task and achievement in the coach’s system.
  • Skill Set: can an athlete  develop the high quality and split second physical, intellectual and judgment skills needed to bring disciplined strength and focused intelligence to bear under the heat of competition.
  • Mental Makeup—Work Ethic, Focus and Teachability: does an athlete have the discipline and focus to show up with body and mind focused and to work constantly during off-season and practice to perfect the skill set, the body and the judgment needed to compete against elite opponents.
  • FIT: not often discussed, but will the athlete’s mix of the above match the style of play and the particular strengths and mind set needed by players in this coach’s system.
Talent matters but only if connected to the rest. A fragile talented player is no help. A talented player without the ability to translate it to the skill under pressure is no help. A talented player who is unstable or does not work hard is no real help. Character issues including moral rectitude beyond the mental makeup issues matter only on the margin. High character guys who cannot produce are no help. In the end talent and character are secondary or even tertiary characteristics.

    Now the coach must constantly assess players each game, each practice and each day. Competitive dynamics never stop evolving and what works one day, may fail the next. The coach must attend to this in each player.

    The coach must watch the body unremittingly because the dings and attrition of play,  practice and injuries mount up and undermine effectiveness, durability and reliability. In Tatufo’s case slowly accumulated injuries and wear and tear eroded his resilience on the thinnest of margins.

    The competition is so fierce and the margin of gain so fine in games, that coaches cannot afford slippage in performance over the season even by elite players.

    They evaluate each player against the player’s own skill and potential, but most importantly coaches assess each athlete against any available replacements in the minor leagues, secondary markets or taxi squad. The baseball statistic WAR (wins over replacement) captures the statistical fungibility of players. If a coach can replace a player with a  better player or if a player declines and now is less than a potential replacement, a coach will replace them. A coach has to replace them given the coach’s obligation to WIN and their obligation to other team members to field the highest caliber and most effective players.

    Not only is a coach always comparing a player to him or herself and to immediate replacements, the coach must compare the player to the competition. Competitors always are evolving and developing new plays, new systems and combinations. Every competitor is continuously bringing in new and more talented or younger and quicker or stronger players.

    The coach has to keep each player in a constant matrix of cold-eyed calculation.
    • Their own body and capacity and skill level.
    • Their own skill and reliability relative to immediate replacements.
    • Their own skills relative to the evolution of the competition.

    When I think of a coach's eye I am reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger's vision in the movie the Terminator. The computer assisted vision brought down a screen that measured and assessed data on speed, size, weight, effectiveness relative to opponent. The coach’s calculations lead to judgments of the player; there is no room for sentiment or love in deciding whether to play an athlete. Every player knows that they are watched and judged with cold precision every day, every hour, every minute, every play. Every player knows that loved or not, they can be benched or cut. That is the deal. In his own way Bill Belichcik exemplifies the ideal. Belichick loves the game, but he does not love players; they fit, succeed or fail, and he disposes of them with clean brutal efficiency, just like the Terminator.

    A coach knows that no one is indispensable.
    No one is indispensable, including the coach.

    For folks who must compete every day in their lives at their jobs and succeed or watch their job disappear, Coaching provides an XRAY view of the core of their own life.

    1 comment:

    1. I think that those kind of decisions need more time to make and they have to analyze every possibility to make the right choice.