Silver-tongued greats deliver slick line in coaching claptrap

In the GAA, it’s known as the cult of the coach, pinning your hopes to a tracksuit

Andy Murray with coach Ivan Lendl in Melbourne for the Australian Open. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Andy Murray with coach Ivan Lendl in Melbourne for the Australian Open. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 06:00

There are plenty quirks in the education game but among the most risible must be teachers taking credit for bright pupils. Teaching the gifted is a piece of piss. Anyone can manage it; it’s what the gifted do – getting told something once and doing it.

The real educational test comes in pulling up those who don’t find things easy. Except there’s no arse-covering, National Council for Curriculum Assessment-friendly, form-shuffling glory in that: which in turn doesn’t disguise how teaching, coaching, instructing, whatever you want to call it, the actual real deal stuff of improvement, remains a hugely important talent not given to just anyone. If you’re tuning into the Australian Open though, you might be mistaken for believing it is.

The shots up to the stands in between points are always fun, and not just because of the totty. No one’s ever called Ivan Lendl totty. Lendl is usually labelled grim or austere, bringing to mind the famous old description of Lester Piggott having “a face like a well-kept grave”.

But appearances can be deceptive, disguising what’s really going on behind the mask. And since signing on as Andy Murray’s coach old stone face has become a Heisenberg of observation, able to manoeuvre his client around the court in a perfect tango of quantum movement between teacher and pupil.

To us hopeless amateurs Lendl simply sits in the stands, barely moving, chin in hand, chewing gum and looking as happy as a man who’s just had a dingo crap in his lap. To those within the tennis tent though, he is the cause, effect, definition. Microphone bods and scribblers unite in their awe at how Lendl has transformed Murray from major contender to major winner and ponder the how and what.

The entirely reasonable but mundane conclusion that Murray has fulfilled his potential under Lendl’s watch because he finally stumbled upon someone who might actually ’eff off if invited to do so by a rich, petulant but unfulfilled youngster, has become subsumed in a mountainous pile of pseudo-psychological bullshit.

In terms of technique, Lendl has added nothing. He can’t have. You don’t get to Murray’s level by not having the talent. What Lendl brings to the party is his reputation. When Murray talks to him he knows this is someone who’s been through the mill. That he’s also apparently a pretty hard nut, averse to platitudes and histrionics, can’t have hurt either. So Murray’s strops have stopped. He listens to the man.

And that’s not something to be underestimated. Clearly Lendl is someone of substance off court as well as on and if he says something to Murray, the younger man takes it on board. But it is Murray out on the court, doing the sweating, winning, and losing. Lendl’s input is by definition one of a slight tweak here, a suggestion there, and generally saying “paaaasitive” a lot.


Psychological edge
If that has helped Murray, then great. But what we see now is how on the back of that happy coincidence, much of the players box is going to be populated for the next fortnight by other ex-No 1’s from the 1980’s. Djokovic has hired Boris Becker to be his Lendl.

Even Federer felt the need to invest in his own wrinkly comfort blankey and signed up Stefan Edberg. Why? Has he forgotten that his absolute pomp in the middle of the last decade coincided with him coaching himself?

There will be any amount of jargon uttered over the next fortnight about experience, focus and input. But basically, Becker, Edberg, Chang, Ivanesivic & Co are there because Lendl is.

Becker is hardly likely to tell Djokovic anything of substance just because he was once a great player himself. And certainly not based on the mastery of bilingual cliche he displays every year at Wimbledon, where his own Bohrian speciality rarely strays far from the bleeding obvious: “two poinze from ze Wimmmelon diiidle.”



Evangelical cult of the coach
If a track-suited snuggler makes an athlete believe they know more than them about fundamental stuff they really should know already – and probably do – then there’s hardly much harm in indulging such wilful childishness if that athlete can afford it.

But this bovine trudge down a coaching “casan dearg” only emphasises how spurious the idea of much modern coaching really is. How so much of the spiel is really just a exercise in aping the other guy, spouting faux-profound claptrap to those eager to swallow it. And if you’re making a few quid out of that, where’s the percentage in stopping?

In the GAA, it’s known as the cult of the coach, pinning your hopes to a tracksuit. Except by now it’s gone beyond cult to oppressive establishment, a bleating belief in spoofing pied pipers masquerading as gurus, spreading the gospel of “belief” and “analysis” and “wanting it bad enough” and “systems” and “the 1 per cents”– all of it supposedly to allow the fulfilment of potential. But in reality, often just an excuse to exert control.

Alex Ferguson has admitted that his primary focus at Manchester United was control. No doubt his recently published biography is being pored over by coaching wannabes worldwide looking for the secret to his success. But how secret can a thorough knowledge of the game and an ability to motivate people actually be? That’s what it fundamentally boils down to: always has been, always will.

What’s important to remember is that control is about management, not about education. And the real poser in Australia may yet wind up revolving around which tennis copycat twigs the difference first and realises they’re not learning anything.

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