Allan Massie: Too much coaching can be damaging

Clive Woodward remarked recently that, in international rugby, by far the most important part of the coach's job was selection. Picture: Getty

Clive Woodward remarked recently that, in international rugby, by far the most important part of the coach's job was selection. Picture: Getty

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THERE is a story I’ve told in this column before, but make no apology for repeating.

Steven Fairbairn, an Australian, was the most famous and successful rowing coach in Cambridge between the two world wars. One day a young aspiring coach asked for permission to accompany him along the towpath in order to observe his methods and learn.

Afterwards the young man confessed himself a bit disappointed. “You don’t seem to say much,” he said. “That’s right,” Fairbairn replied. “But I stop a lot of bloody fools from saying anything.”

The point is clear. The best coaches don’t say too much. However, not all Australians are as laconic as Fairbairn. When Matt Williams coached the Scotland XV a few years ago, he reportedly talked so much that he regularly lost his players’ attention. Keep it simple is often the best advice for coaches as well as players.

Likewise, the best coaches recognise that they shouldn’t try to do too much or to impose change. At international level, attempts to change a player are sometimes futile, sometimes counter-productive.

In cricket, various England coaches have tinkered with bowlers’ actions to no good effect. James Anderson’s career recovered only when he chose to ignore the advice he had been given and reverted to his original natural action. There are numerous examples of golfers whose career went into decline when they started tinkering with their swing.

Luke Donald is a recent example. Ranked number one in the world three years ago, he is now out of the top 50, after remodelling his swing in an attempt to get greater length.

Clive Woodward remarked recently that, in international rugby, by far the most important part of the coach’s job was selection. If you got that right you would, other things being equal, win matches; if you got it wrong, you would lose. In comparison coaching was unimportant.

I don’t suppose that Steve Hansen, or indeed any of his predecessors as coach of the All Blacks, has ever actually had to coach skills. It must be more a matter of making sure that players understand the pattern and know how to fit into it. Of course it must be easier to coach New Zealand than to coach Scotland or England. Players grow up knowing how the All Blacks are expected to play. Even though the All Blacks style has changed over the years, it has done so by a sort of natural evolution.

Coaches in all sports have so many technical aids now that they can overburden the players with information.

By all accounts Peter Moores, the recently dismissed England cricket coach, is a very nice man who was popular with the players. But it also seems that he relied excessively on statistics.

This sort of thing can confuse a player. Too much information may be oppressive, clouding the mind.

Tom Graveney once spoke of going out to open for England against Australia at Sydney in partnership with his captain, Len Hutton. When Hutton said he was thinking about the direction of the wind, what Ray Lindwall would try in his first over, etc, Graveney was too shy to admit he wasn’t really thinking of any of that sort of stuff. Len was out fourth ball for six, Tom made a hundred.

In rugby, coaching in the adult game used to be frowned on. It was thought to smack of professionalism.

The Lions first had a designated coach – Carwyn James – in 1971. Before then, practice was organised by the captain. Modern players must find the idea of a team without a coach very strange. On the other hand, Ken Scotland, one of the brightest stars of the 1959 Lions in New Zealand, once suggested to me that simply because they had no coach, players of his generation had to think for themselves and take more responsibility.

This was doubtless the case, and worked well at club level and on a long Lions tour, but in what was then the Five Nations, the absence of a coach or manager made for inconsistent selection and, not surprisingly, a lack of organisation on the field.

It wasn’t unknown for half-backs to meet each other for the first time the afternoon before an international match.

Coaching is naturally now very professional with its own career structure, and it is also international. In the Six Nations last season, Ireland, Wales and Scotland all had New Zealand coaches, while Italy had a Frenchman.

Now we learn that Clive Woodward is on the shortlist of candidates to take over from Philippe St-André as coach of France after the World Cup. Interestingly Woodward’s pitch is that he would like to have France playing in the traditional French style rather than in the same way as everyone else. This may get him the job; it would be hard to put into practice.

There is a sameness about international rugby today, most teams trying to do the same thing, with some doing it better. This has probably been an unavoidable development.

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