Friday, July 19, 2013

Why Do Star Players Seldom Make Great Coaches

I chose the 3 above simply as an example of exceptional players that are more familiar to me and that they also did not fare well in the position of head coach. There are certainly more that could have been shown there and there are also exceptions to this idea—Dick LeBeau and Mike Ditka are also Hall of Famers who were good coaches as their team records would support.

So Wayne Gretzky, Mike Singletary and Larry Robinson are all Hall of Famers as well. Why did they not do so well as coaches in their sports? I think if you look at the list below of what an ESPN poll revealed as to their choices for top coaches of all time, you will get a sense of what is required to excel at the position of a head or assistant head coach in professional and college sports.

Now if you look through that list and all the honourable mentions, you will easily recognize all of them as leaders in their sport even if you are not an avid follower of one or more of those sports. And I am hard pressed to see any on that list that would have made the Hall of Fame in their sport as a player in their day. I’m sure there may be one or two but just like Messrs’ LeBeau and Ditka, they are most definitely the exception to the rule.

So why did the likes of Messrs’ Gretzky, Singletary and Robinson not fare as well as head coaches.

Were they not masters of their playing position in their sport? You bet your sweet pitutti they were. Wayne Gretzky redefined the playing position of centre by the way he totally controlled the ice in the offensive zone and from behind the net no less.

Did they not have a high level of intensity when they played? That wasn’t it. Images of Mike Singletary entrenched in his defensive stance just before the impending snap of the ball say that he did. Those eyes said it all. Look out suckers I’m coming after all of you.

Were they uncoachable players? I don’t think Scotty Bowman would say that of Larry Robinson because Larry was a master of his position of defenseman and Bowman would not hesitate to put him out on the power play, penalty killing or a regular shift. I think Scotty would have liked to have the ability to clone some of those players he had in the teams of the mid-1970 era in Montreal. There was a different feeling in that room than any other professional hockey dressing room of the time.

So why do players such as these stars and so many others not make it in the coaching ranks like those in the ESPN list? What makes them lash out in a fit of rage in a manner that you never saw on the playing surface or field when they were in their game uniform? Did Larry Robinson ever turn to Ken Dryden and tell him how to play net just like he is here telling legendary Martin Brodeur how he should position himself between the pipes? Marty is showing that he doesn’t need the coach to tell him what he did wrong, he is well aware of what he may have done wrong recently.

The images of the three former players used here are not intended to show that they are of bad character. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were always respected by their teammates and like most star players were either a team captain or alternate captain at the very least. The images reflect the level of frustration that a winner now feels when winning isn’t coming as easily as it did when they played and they don’t know how to fix it.

Is it the team that the coach has to work with here a major contributor? Look at what Mike Singletary left for Jim Harbaugh to take over and lo and behold the San Francisco 49ers are immediately in the playoffs and lose one of the best Super Bowl games ever by a field goal in the following season.

So what is it then? I think it has everything to do with the fact that a star player has a great deal of difficulty explaining how he played at such a high level and that he also falls into the trap that everyone should play at that same level all of the time. That is one pretty tall order for any team to endure. So the coach ends up “losing the room” which is the kiss of death for any sports team. Mutual respect is everything and Singletary broke that code when he went on his well-publicized rant that was simply referred to as “The Rant”.

Did they fail? My answer is not really because they also did plant a seed for their coaching replacements to field a much improved team as records generally support for the three subject members that I chose here.

I think the fault lies where it usually does and that is with ownership and management. As much as I respect Lou Lamoriello as a person, I think he pushed Larry into a position he did not want and it almost ruined Larry. The move was filled with good intentions; the result was not so good.

If you owned an NHL franchise would you want Ken Dryden, Vladislav Tretiak or Tim Thomas to be your goalie coach? It may look good on the surface but I think that they would all be hard-pressed to explain their styles to up and coming puck stoppers.

For all coaches, I would want the following:
1.       You must be an excellent student of the game and be able to understand all the inner workings of that game.
2.       You must be able to analyse the playing strengths and weaknesses of your team and that of the opposition and to relay that information in such a way that all of your players fully understand how to implement your teachings and methods of defence of the opposition.
3.       You must be able to have your players play as a single unit and not as several individuals on the appropriate playing surface.
4.       You must earn the respect of every player on your team and in turn they must show you that proper respect that you have worked so hard at earning.
5.       You and no member of your team shall “throw another member of the team under the bus”. Any issues are to be discussed in a professional manner in the dressing room between coaches and players and every detail never leaves the confines of that room.

Would any owner listen to my ideas? That will never happen. I only knew a few of the individuals in this story through my time as a sporting goods representative that visited many rinks, playing fields and dressing rooms and saw the game from a perspective that only an almost invisible viewer would have. An equipment supplier was respected but was not an integral part of the team and was also not a threat to anyone’s individual ego.

Owners will continue to buy the most visible coach for purposes of selling tickets but the wise ones will look for a long term winner and they possess most or all of the skills listed above.
I don’t think I would ever want to coach though. The hours suck, job security isn't all that good and the travel would suck the life out of the most seasoned sales rep.

To Messrs Gretzky, Singletary and Robinson and all the other players and coaches mentioned here, I still have the greatest respect for what you brought to all the games that I have had the pleasure of watching. You showed that entertainment can be a sport played well by a group of individuals that could bind into a well-oiled machine called a team and that is the memory I will keep.

Owners and CEO’s seem to think that they control just about any situation if they put the pieces of their choice into a puzzle called sport or business because they are much the same thing. But trying to put a square peg into a round hole no matter how hard you try to beat the b’Jesus out of it seldom works. Maybe you should let some of your folks that actually run the team pick the team and all of its components. You need to concentrate on building your castles just like you did way back in the day when they were made out of sand and other stuff. You are a little out of your league now. 

Leave the game to the professionals.

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