Ken Jones: Coaches take passion bypass at own risk on crowded highway

Thursday 20 February 2003 01:00

The theory that success in sport depends on how well the coach devises strategy, alternates tactics and motivates his men when matching wits with the licensed genius across the way, has not lost momentum over the past week. If there has been so much going on that the coach has had little time for anything else that is the nature of his game.

It was Sven Goran Eriksson's game when the England team he sent out to play 45 minutes against Australia performed so listlessly that the airwaves crackled with disappointment and the printed word formed a big question mark against the advisability of handing control of the national team to a foreigner; it was Sir Alex Ferguson's game when the disappointment of a home defeat by Arsenal resulted in a dressing-room bust-up with David Beckham that has ballooned out of all proportion to the incident itself; it was the New Zealander Steve Hansen's game when the Wales rugby team suffered an embarrassing loss to Italy in Rome that brought down charges of a team playing without a breath of traditional passion.

You name it and the channels of sports communication have it. The trick is to sleep as late as possible because when you wake up there is more of the same. Periodically there are calls for sanity. But the very use of the word proclaims there is something generically insane about sport. And perhaps there is.

One thing leads to another. On Tuesday evening I had no sooner arrived at Highbury to watch Arsenal take on Ajax in the Champions' League when news came that Mike Tyson was going ahead with a contest against Clifford Etienne in Memphis, Tennessee, this weekend after previously withdrawing on the grounds of ill-health.

Thus, the crowded and confusing present became more crowded and confused. Defining the present is a tricky business. "What do you make of this Tyson business?" one of my companions asked. What could one conclude? Only that the very act of allowing, indeed encouraging, Tyson to fight for the sole purpose of proving himself capable of taking another hiding from Lennox Lewis was just another example of how money has utterly corrupted sport.

A personal lack of interest in the Ferguson-Beckham affair springs not only from knowledge of similar events that did not reach the public domain but despair with a system that makes the marketing of sport more important than sport itself, and the psychology of sport a profitable enterprise.

According to one of the prints I sometimes consult in the course of my researches Arsenal are now employing a sports psychologist to help the players overcome the trials and tribulations of a season in which they hope to win three major titles including the European Champions' League which must surely be Arsène Wenger's principal target.

When I read this it did not seem to fit with the comparison that was drawn last week between Wenger's apparently calm manner of management and the volcanic outbursts for which Ferguson is famous when Manchester United do not perform to his satisfaction. Both, however, excel in the brains department.

It is not news that it takes hard work to achieve things, except possibly to the many sports performers whose idea of employment away from their chosen profession is to get people to look at them on television commercials.

Some psychologists have theorised that pep talks can have a hypnotic effect that expands horizons and capabilities. Others have demonstrated that their effects are temporary and perhaps illusionary. Different strokes for different folks. Wenger and Ferguson get it in their own way.

Ferguson's verbal outbursts are a spring breeze compared with those of the legendary American football coach, Vince Lombardi, whose death in 1970 followed shortly after making the statement, "genius above discipline is never going to work."

I'm not about to suggest that Wenger had lost faith in the carefully honed purpose of his team on Tuesday night, but as the game advanced to a draw it appeared that his patience was wearing thin. "Get them going," people seated nearby began to shout.

If you think back to England's defeat by Brazil in last year's World Cup, lack of passion was the main charge levelled at Eriksson. Wales were bereft of it in Rome last week. Cliff Morgan never thought he'd live to see the day when that was said about a Welsh team. "Sad and worrying," he said.

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