Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hurray for the Uncoached

As this blog has evolved it's largely taken the form of commentary on timely events regarding soccer and sports in general and the possible lessons to be learned for society as a whole and coaches and athletes in particular.

As a former coach, I obviously believe that coaches are, at their best, essential to the development of players and teams. This is always true of team sports, where individual brilliance may be present, but has to be integrated into the machinery of the team in order for there to be collective success.

In individual sports, coaches used to be the exception, not the norm. But these days every tennis player has a coach, and every PGA player has at least one, and often more: swing coach; short game coach; psychologist; not to mention caddies and agents. 

I believe that all this coaching has taken some of the magic out of those sports. We now seem to have cookie-cutter formulas for success. In women's tennis, in order to be a star you apparently have to grunt/scream in agony on every shot (and it doesn't hurt to have a last name ending in "ova"). Men's tennis is now just a series of baseline displays of power, with two players firing ICBMs at each other until one succumbs. The players then move on to the next point, indistinguishable from the last, where the sparring renews. 

It's the same in golf where most of the players, especially those in the middle-of-the-pack, seem interchangeable. I'm always amused when a commentator analyzes some player's swing with the super-slow-motion camera and breathlessly describes the takeaway or the downswing or the follow-through. They all look exactly the same to me (except, of course, for Jim Furyk's). But maybe that's why I'm watching and they're playing.

I pine for the days when you could tell a player just by his/her swing, whether on the court or the course. Just saying the name Borg or McEnroe or Evert or Palmer or Player conjures up a very clear image in my mind, not of the player's face, but the player's stroke or swing and the way they played the game.

The classic Palmer follow through.

Which is why Bubba Watson's triumph at the Masters this past weekend came as such a breath of fresh air. As I'm sure you've read by now, Watson has never had a golf lesson and is mostly self-taught. His pairing with Louis Oosthuizen for 20 holes on Sunday provided the perfect contrast between the always-in-control-never-out-of-balance swings taught and learned by almost everyone these days and the swing-from-your-heels-or-toes-it-doesn't-matter-when-you-hit-the-ball-350-yards thrashing of Bubba.

Bubba's follow through. While with a driver -- look familiar?

Watson has commented before that he in all likelihood has Attention Deficit Disorder (which his wife readily confirms) and that he relies on his caddie to keep him on-task during a round. But he has consistently refused to hire a swing coach or even seek much advice regarding his swing. And, as far as I'm concerned, we're all better off because of it.

While the psychologist quoted in the article above likens an athlete with ADD to those individuals who used to be described as having an "artistic temperament", nothing about Bubba's game is particularly artistic. In his all-white outfits, wielding a pink driver with a pink shaft, hair flowing out of his visor like a frat boy at Ft. Lauderdale on spring break, the image is much more that of a mad scientist or a wizard. And all of us are enchanted.

Tell me you can't see Gandalf with a pink driver in his hands.

While Bubba evidently identifies most with the late Payne Stewart (who also likely had ADD), their games aren't much alike. The golfer who Watson most reminds me of is Seve Ballesteros, another mad genius whose imagination could help him escape the most unlikely of circumstances. Although, in Seve's case, it was usually much farther from the green than Bubba normally finds himself.

More than most, I understand the value of coaches and coaching, especially in team sports. And I certainly understand, particularly with my flawed golf swing and more flawed psyche, that coaches can benefit players in individual sports as well. But I also appreciate artistry or mad genius, particularly in individual sports. And that's why we all should celebrate Bubba's triumph.

He is every kid, who, hitting a ball he tossed to himself, shooting a three-pointer, or hitting a practice ball (on a vacant lot, or hoop without a rim, or sandy spot in his backyard) dreamt of hitting a walk-off home run, or making the last shot in the NBA finals, or sinking a putt on the 74th hole to win the Masters. It can happen. And you can do it all by yourself.

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