Matt Williams: No easy way to earn your spurs as a top coach

The coaching fable of master coach and ‘Grasshopper’ conveys a universal truth

Top coaches learn plenty from those who have preceded them before going on to forge their own distinctive coaching philosophy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Top coaches learn plenty from those who have preceded them before going on to forge their own distinctive coaching philosophy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

This ancient coaching fable tells the tale of a master coach and his young ambitious assistant coach, who he affectionately refers to as “Grasshopper”.

In the solitude of the coaches’ office, the master coach holds his favourite practice whistle in the palm of his open, outstretched hand and tells Grasshopper that he will be ready to become a head coach when his strategic thinking can snatch the whistle from the Master before his fist closes upon it.

Time after time Grasshopper fails to grab the whistle. He is either too slow or the old bugger is too fast.

After each failure the master coach looks deeply into Grasshopper’s eyes and says, “The world is my oyster”.

This situation goes on for weeks, months and seasons. All the while Grasshopper’s frustration grows. If he hears the old bastard say: “The world is my oyster” one more time he feels he will explode.

One evening in deep contemplation, Grasshopper stumbles on the possibility that this ridiculous whistle-snatching carry on is simply the cagey old master coach trying to teach him a lesson.

So he looked up the full quote from William Shakespeare.

“The world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open”.

I can do anything I want to do and go anywhere I want to go – the world is my oyster!

With bowel-cramping clarity Grasshopper realised that the master coach has been trying to tell him that the world was HIS oyster!

Coach Grasshopper was infuriated with himself. The old git’s strategy had deceived him all this time.

That week as the master coach held out his rough weather-beaten hand, with the ancient whistle laying in its palm, Grasshopper “opened it with his sword” and used a shock tactic.

Grasshopper aimed his punch at the old bloke’s middle age tummy, which he could hardly miss.

Grasshopper did not want to hurt the master, just bend him in half.

Grasshopper’s jab did the job. The Master coach adopted the, “I am going to be sick” position and the whistle was launched from his hand in a low parabolic arc that ended in a simple catch for Grasshopper.

The master coach lay in the foetal position, giggling and spluttering. In between the gulps for breath and laughter, he said he knew Grasshopper would one day figure out that coaches must think laterally and change their strategy to give their opposition what they don’t want.

Unexpected attack

He also knew Grasshopper would learn that, as a head coach, sometimes you have make decisions that are ruthless. You will hurt people.

But in jabbing the master coach, Grasshopper had trusted his instincts and bravely followed through with his plans.

The master told Grasshopper it is very lonely in the high places of coaching leadership where he was heading. Being a Grasshopper is easy. Becoming a master is exceptionally hard.

Like all fables you are left to decide which is the correct choice

Grasshopper had to prepare himself for consistent, unexpected attack. Just like that punch.

Grasshopper bent down and put his arms around his mentor and lifted him to his feet. He thanked him for all the wisdom he had given him. He knew these lessons would hopefully make him a high-quality master coach.

Later that day the master coach went to the CEO’s office and told him he was stepping down at the end of next season on the proviso that Grasshopper got the gig.

The CEO knew that change must come as the master has been around a long time, maybe too long.

The line to the media was: “We are handing over the coaching baton to the safe, familiar hands of coach Grasshopper. There will be a continuity of our playing philosophy for the team’s continued success. It’s business as usual.”

Then, as in all fables, the unexpected happened. In the master coach’s last months, his effective, simple and quite boring game plan, that won games for so long, was completely picked apart by the opposition coaches. For the master coach, it ended in several large, bitter defeats.

Remember this is a fable, not a fairytale.

Instantaneously Grasshopper was now the head coach. He had been a sensational Grasshopper coach but never before the head coach.

The lesson in this coaching fable lies in which path Grasshopper pursues to become a master coach.

Coaching grave

Grasshopper got the gig to continue the master’s philosophy, but in massive games that plan failed. Does he allow his old boss to dictate to him from the coaching grave, just like he did for all those months with that ridiculous grab the whistle stuff?

Or does he heed the lesson in his own actions and Shakespeare’s words: “The world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.”

To achieve the level of master coach, does Grasshopper take decisive, assertive action, like the punch he delivered to the master’s belly button, and change his team’s strategic plan to forge his own unique path?

Like all fables you are left to decide which is the correct choice for Grasshopper. The right decision will lead him on to become a master coach. The wrong choice will condemn him to forever remain an excellent Grasshopper coach.

The one thing this coaching fable does confirm is that becoming a master coach is bloody hard.

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