Talentspotting.

I like to waffle on about the expression of talent; the role of coaches as receptors or guardians of that magical stuff. How it can seem blisteringly obvious that player x or y has simply ‘got it’. How essential this ability to read gifts really is. How often we think we’re right when… you know…

I’m aware of course that this athletically coiled cyclical meta-discourse is kindof sprung from some despicable arrogance on my part – namely the assumption or belief that I know or understand or have the gift myself of identifying and appreciating the level of god-given wotnots parading before me at any given time. If that is inferred by the following, in my defence, might I say – with hands gathered apologetically if not pathetically around my head – I only allow myself this shocking indulgence on the following grounds;

  1. I freely open up this indulgence to everyone, ‘allowing’ and enjoying the multi-faceted banterfest that we might then serve up (scampi and chips-in-a-basket-style?) as the essential craic, as pub-talk, prompted to then flourish as debate rather than monologue
  2. I’m happy enough to be publicly wrong
  3. My contribution to this aforementioned (sporting) debate is reasonably well-informed, because I know and live and love sport- for its daft majesty, its laughable life-or-deathness, its ludicrous capacity to bewitch; I love sport.

And I meander through this NOW because following the beginning of my own new season of coaching yesterday, those perennial markers begin to spring or flicker once more. Boy A (8) times and middles a straight drive in a ‘knockabout game’ to eye-moistening perfection. Girl B (9) takes an absurdly good catch, substantially after the ball’s flown past. OOFF!! That… is brillee-yunt. Beautifully, life-affirmingly brilliant. Speaking personally, these quietly defining moments, that give us such an opportunity to enthuse and support, are both a delight and an inspiration. All the more so because the inspiration – the dripfeed of mini-triumphs – reccurs.

The transferability or contextualisation or rating of these gemlike examples of skills is the business of the coach. Somewhere we need to be weighing them as well as filing them away for reference. In my own, current case this is particularly fascinating and even demanding because this is the first time I have seen most of the wee talents gallivanting before me. Ultimately though – after much entertainment and encouragement – a team has to be picked. At every level, this is both an endpoint and the new beginning for continual reassessment; for when matches begin so does that frisson around pressure; who can live off that adrenalin, who might crumple? At every level pressure exists… and counts, bringing us back into this precious kaleidoscope where skill level and belief and confidence are shifted around. The coach has to predict who is most likely to thrive under the vagaries of the moment, the opposition, the conditions, the various overlapping psychologies. Knowing who to choose for what is a fascinating and a fraught enterprise- and a hugely revealing one. No wonder we’re all doing it… picking our teams.

A brief scan of current sporting scenarios of various sorts throws up a couple of what Sue Barker is probably calling Sporting Conundrums. They both present rich territory for the coach or the fan to sink deep in the quicksand of the Decision-making Process. Enter on the one hand Martin O’Neil – recently appointed Manager of Sunderland AFC – and on the other, more muscled wing Stuart Lancaster, the new Head Coach of England Rugby.

O’Neil is the likeable but rather serious new gaffer at the ambitiously titled Stadium of Light, Sunderland. (No – let’s get off that fence – at the completely ludicrously named Stadium of Light, Sunderland. At the ground that has every chance Brian, of being renamed The Stadium Where The Northern Lights May Possibly Occasionally Be Visible Given Recent And No Doubt Ongoing Meteorological Events. (Sunderland.) But I digress…)

The point about O’Neil is that he is by common appreciation one of the great motivators around and is therefore a focus no doubt for study/gobsmacked hagiography around the matter – the reality – of his ability to coach. In a matter of weeks he has utterly transformed the nature of his club, from that of a (self-?)defensive also-ran with little, brittle or no confidence to one broiling with ambition, fight and the type of lungbursting commitment unthinkable three months ago. But am I right in thinking that even those close to the team itself talk unspecifically of MO’s general gift for enthusing and generating belief rather than any revolutionary tactical nous? So what is it, exactly, that is succeeding so well here?

Clearly O’Neil’s sides do have a particular shape and energy; they also characteristically have a robust team ethic rather than say… a galactico-led swagger. But what seems to be key is simply a faith in the boss and a willingness to give freely to the cause. Players buy in to a refreshing and often inspiring O’Neil picture of how things might be. An infectious mixture of positivity and generous, not to say near unbeatable work-rate appears to be remarkably swiftly engineered in a fashion which seems mysterious, yet is surely ‘only’ the result of great management of individuals (as individuals) and outstandingly peppy pep-talking. Individually and collectively, those Sunderland players will now run through fire for O’Neil and for the club; suddenly, they believe.

We’d have to have the privilege of being absolutely (as Martin might say) on the inside to get further than this fans-eye appreciation of what O’Neil actually does. But it’s clear to all of us, is it not, that he’s got something special working for him? Maybe something particularly attractive because it feels like it’s to do with a kind of honesty?

Stuart Lancaster has certain things in common with Martin O’Neil. He’s a bloke; he’s articulate. But the style of motivation is surely less hands-on in his case, or, my suspicion is, less heart-on-sleeve; making it different in its non-personal or less personal nature. I am currently fascinated by choices Lancaster has to make; choices of the sort we all make whether as coaches at local level or as armchair punters berating our alleged superiors in sport.

The England boss has sounded rather bland to me; now Lancaster the man has to emerge, has to decide for example whether or not to change a winning side now that key(?) talents have become available to him; Courtenay Lawes, Manu Tuilagi and Toby Flood. This is a juicy one, a defining moment in my view, for off the top of my head I can think of the following live issues around selecting these guys and/or dropping their colleagues.

  • Some coaches really don’t change a winning side
  • To accommodate Lawes a lock has to be jettisoned; despite the unconvincing nature of the England lineout there is an argument that they defended manfully in both games and that 4 and 5 played a significant part in this(?)
  • Yes, but Lawes is better/more athletic/more of a dynamic force around the pitch
  • Tuilagi has to play, he is simply the most gifted and terrifying centre England have
  • Barritt is undroppable currently, even if he is less of an attacking threat
  • Farrell is undroppable currently, because of his composure
  • Flood must play if fit – he was underappreciated previously and was nailed on starter at ten before his injury
  • Hodgson has done reasonably well and scored two tries from chargedowns!
  • The England attack, despite its novelty value and its relative youth, has rarely attacked…

Mere starters in the racing jumble of factors the England Coach must rate and then relate to those quivering hearts in the dressing-room. Who goes? On what basis? We know that these days all things are tracked and measured – from tackle counts to yardage gained. But where does intuition kick in, if ever? How do you measure the balance of a team – the way personalities as well as gifts complement or undermine success? What, even, is success? Playing wonderfully at your limits or in some dirge-like state of control? Does Lancaster really want to liberate his team, or does he want to win? Does this coach view those concepts as mutually exclusive?

What’s your hunch?

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