PADDY HEANEY: No excuses when coach joins fans in spouting nonsense

Watching Americans watching golf can be an unsettling and sobering experience.

Middle-aged men in shorts shouting commands at a small, white ball.

At Augusta, the good ole boys’ club that excludes female members, even the golf balls are subjected to a certain prejudice. Less intelligent golf balls have a tendency to receive the simple instruction to “get in the hole”. But golf balls considered to have a higher IQ are expected to be able to be read the greens, and therefore understand the order to “break, break”.

Studying The Masters at a remove, it’s all too easy to dismiss the American fans as gormless fools.

Unfortunately, adopting such a superior attitude would be totally hypocritical. Walk into any bookmakers in the country and you’ll find some of our finest minds shouting advice at four-legged beasts running at places like Uttoxeter and Lingfield. And those of you who don’t frequent such places shouldn’t smirk too soon. The Aintree Grand National is on Saturday. What punter can resist screaming at the TV when their horse goes over the last fence with the leaders? But while fans can be excused for yelling useless and incoherent nonsense, the same sympathy cannot be extended to individuals who are supposed to be providing sound, rationale advice to participants.

A school team once failed to control their snorts of laughter when a PE teacher informed them that the secret to success in football could be boiled down to one word: ‘Hard work.” But even that’s forgivable. Good coaches don’t have to be good spellers, but they must be able to communicate.

I once attended a series of coaching seminars where the speaker was Bart McEnroe, a man who once had the ear of Mickey Harte. McEnroe placed a huge emphasis on effective communication. He argued that the biggest failing in coaching at all levels is that managers use ambiguous phrases that mean everything and nothing.

For example, think of the age-old exhortation from the manager who says: “Lads, we need to keep it tight at the back.”

What exactly does that mean? Or, more pertinently again, how is the defence supposed to implement that directive? McEnroe’s solution makes a lot of sense. He believes that coaches should compile a list of concrete terms of reference which are reinforced at every training session. So, if the football manager wants to coach “disciplined tackling”, he will stipulate before every tackling drill that “disciplined tackling” means no diving in, no stray arms, quick feet, and quick hands.

The net result is that when the manager tells his players before a game that the referee is very fussy so they must concentrate on “disciplined tackling” — every player in the changing room knows precisely what he means.

To anyone who hasn’t spent a significant portion of their life sitting on a bench in a changing room, this might seem blindingly obvious.

However, there are tens of thousands of hurlers and footballers who will be able to provide grim testimony from the years they spent listening to men without fully understanding a word they said.

A quick survey among a few friends produced these couple of nuggets which all carry the ring of authenticity.

My favourite is: “I want the half-backs to attack but we need to keep our shape at the same time.”

The manager in question failed to outline to his players what their shape was supposed to be or how they were supposed to keep it.

Another friend told me about the day he was playing at corner-forward and the ball hadn’t crossed the halfway line. He was told to “get involved”.

Although not entirely sure what this meant, he raced out to midfield where he tried to get on the ball. When the ball then went into the forward line, and he wasn’t there, his manager reprimanded him again, saying: “That’s where you should be.”

“Get involved” is a brother of “we need to see more of you”, which is a first cousin of “walk out with it”.

Once any GAA coach learns half-a-dozen of these vague phrases, along with the weekly memo that the players are representing not just themselves but “their parents, their family and their club” they are usually granted a license to take teams for as many years as they so wish.

Tellingly, Republic of Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni is one of only two coaches to have won league titles (10) in four different countries.

With the exception of Italy, Trap has struggled to speak the language in any of his adopted homes. Ireland is no exception.

But he also once insisted that he only needed a few key phrases to manage a team in any country. While ‘Il Trap’ mightn’t be very eloquent in press conferences, he can talk the language of the changing room. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of coaches with fluent English, many of whom make as much sense as the men who shout at golf balls.

* p.heaney@irishnews.com

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