Individuals who have coached for a long time view sporting events differently than the normal fan. Every one who cares about a particular team’s fortunes is frustrated when things don’t work out. Yet observing failure while seeing yourself as the person charged with getting people to perform as well as designing a plan to tactically succeed is very different. And there are things we can learn from this.
Abject under performance is galling. There is no excuse for it, yet it happens regularly. Dropping passes, missing kicks or tackles and fumbling are all parts of the game. Yet when these things occur in the most crucial moments, as a coach I can feel the frustration of a year’s worth of work being lost supposedly by one person’s lack of concentration or ability to perform. Obviously, if the level of competition is high and the teams are evenly matched, the margin for error is smaller. Yet mistakes that happen at the end of the game are magnified beyond all reason. The Giants-49er play off game contained the perfect example. Number 10 fumbled in overtime. (I always refer to players by their number, because it really isn’t personal.) Yet, as a coach I felt that the 49ers QB, 11, made just as serious an error when he overthrew an receiver running behind the defence in the 1st quarter. It was a TD and he missed. Just like the kicker for the Ravens or his own team mate, but because the fumble happened at the end of the game, most fans lay the blame on that particular player. Coaches know better.
Interestingly I think that players do too. Many of them have been that guy who made his mistake late in the game some time in their career. Play long enough and it will happen. They know that the most important play of the game is the one that happens next. Coaches know, which is why they are so intent on trying to get perfection all the time. Player reaction to a play like the fumble or the missed field goal is usually pretty sensible. At the moment they are disappointed and even angry. But later on, in the interviews or on Twitter, they back their team mate because they know the game. They are all responsible, as each player who played had his change to put a stamp on it. Maybe #10 failed but they know that they did too.
What is harder to explain is a full out melt down, like the Packers or the Falcons. It was equally a team effort but it was team bad. Coaches have no explanation for these events. Practices and warm ups are no indicator of how teams are going to play, for the most part. It can be like a malaise that hits the team while the game is going on. You can feel it, but it is hard to stop. If you are lucky the other team can get the sickness too and the game gets ugly. If you have watched, coached or played football you have seen games like this. All a coach can do is play the players he feels give him the best chance to win and construct a game plan to take advantage of your strengths and your opponents perceived weaknesses. If players don’t listen or perform, then there is disbelief, frustration and then resignation. What can you do? “It wasn’t our day”. You have heard it. Perhaps the best indicator of how good a coach is, provided he has the players, is how often his teams do this. They all do, just how often and when is the issue. The coaches of the Packers and the Falcons didn’t get stupid in one week. Their teams had their bad game at the wrong time.
No one wins all the time. If the talent is there and the team is healthy then expectations inside and outside the team rise. Yet that is no guarantee it will all work out. Lots of cliches are available to coaches to address this reality. “Only one team wins their last game.” “We had a great year.” “We have nothing to hang our heads about.” This is all crap because in pro sports there is one measuring stick. Wins. No moral victories. At least not for the teams with the talent to win. (Over achieving is possible and nice to watch but it is pretty rare.)
That is why I like university and high school sports more. They provide a chance for young people to experience the challenge and get something positive even if they don’t win. That is the responsibility of the coach in these situations. This is when it can become clear that there are lessons that come out of pro sports for the rest of us. And if the coach knows the game, as well as the fact that life is not about just winning the game, they can teach them to work together, to live as if the next thing they do may be the most important thing they do, to realize that we all have the opportunity to put our stamp on things, and that if someone screws up we need to support them because you have or you will.
Then it becomes about more than winning and losing.