Formula to free the spirit

The alternative voice is still struggling to be heard

Malcolm Cook was taking a coaching session one evening under floodlights at Liverpool's training ground. Kenny Dalglish was watching as Cook showed a young player the art of shielding the ball. "Hey, Cookie," Dalglish called out. "Use the shadows." Cook was bemused. Shadows? "The shadows, from the floodlights," Dalglish shouted. "You can learn a lot about where the defender is from the shadows."

Malcolm Cook was taking a coaching session one evening under floodlights at Liverpool's training ground. Kenny Dalglish was watching as Cook showed a young player the art of shielding the ball. "Hey, Cookie," Dalglish called out. "Use the shadows." Cook was bemused. Shadows? "The shadows, from the floodlights," Dalglish shouted. "You can learn a lot about where the defender is from the shadows."

Cook had never thought about making use of such basic information, but, a decade or so on, he finds the tale easy to retrieve from the jumble of experiences which form his own very particular philosophy of coaching. At the core of Cook's radical, but wide-ranging, beliefs lies a fundamental examination of the relationship between coach and player. By tradition the coach teaches, the pupil listens - do it this way, do it that way. Football is more abstract than that. The job of the coach, Cook says, is simply to guide players into unlocking their inner potential.

"In England, if you ask a young player to kick the ball, he'll be thinking about the position of his left foot, his knee, his body shape and a thousand other things that he's been told. The Brazilian will simply grasp the image of a beautiful white ball sailing through the air and listen to the sound it makes. He's dealing with feel and emotion. In our coaching, there are too many words and too many rules. The great players stay true to their own instinct and have an absolute understanding of themselves."

The English game, wedded to the culture of results, views such stuff with a suspicion bordering on fear. Despite a decent playing record with Motherwell, his home club, and Bradford City and an impeccable coaching pedigree, Cook has struggled to find an influential audience for his views.

But the recent performances of the national side hardly constitute a vigorous defence of current coaching methods. At Euro 2000, multi-million pound players forgot how to pass the ball properly. Only now, at the age of 57 and with England's standing at an all-time low, is Cook beginning to gain widespread acceptance for the concepts of Freeflow, which have already been widely understood on the continent. His portfolio carries ringing endorsements from Craig Brown, Alex Ferguson and Gérard Houllier.

Cook's own influences range way beyond sport, from complementary medicine through martial arts to Zen Buddhism, music, dance and philosophy. He is as intrigued by the methods of teaching and learning, the nature of intelligence, as by the curriculum itself. His mother was a Scottish communist, his father a Scottish methodist, and he has inherited a crusader's energy and an independent mind. He looks a touch like Craig Brown, talks - to his dismay - with the same distinctive cadence as Tommy Docherty, and was brought up in Govan, in the same character-forming neighbourhood as Ferguson.

He recalls an incident with Frank Worthington, the supremely gifted and serially idle centre-forward with Huddersfield, Leicester and England. Cook was coaching the art of the volley, but he wanted to focus the player's attention on the pace and flight of the ball.

He used a rhythmic slogan - bounce, hit - and fed the ball to Worthington in that rhythm so that the player's mind instinctively relaxed, allowing the creative, right side of the brain to dominate the more analytical, cautious, left side. The result was a near-perfect series of volleys and a state of mental composure which tennis players often refer to as "being in the zone". Then what happens? Cook varies the rhythm by lobbing the ball high into the air.

"Nine times out of 10, players will miss it. Why? Because their mind suddenly focuses on a load of other things, clouds in the sky, what happens if I miss. It's the old saying, 'Too much time to think'. So he's no longer following his instinct." Cook gets the player to focus on some other phrase: easy, easy, easy. As luck would have it, the 10th player - and this is why he remembers the moment - was Worthington, who struck the lob with the same facility as the other nine. Cook asked how he did it. "I clack my teeth together while I'm waiting," Worthington said. An early example of Freeflow in action.

The next step is to develop a series of accreditation levels - gold, silver and bronze - for coaches and to market his methods more widely. All he demands is a hearing and a few open minds.

As a parting shot, he offers to take 10 football journalists and improve their game within 15 minutes. It is an irresistible challenge, alongside which changing the immutable laws of English football will seem but a minor inconvenience.

For further details contact 01274 679069 or email malcolmcook@freenetname.co.uk

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