'Magic' in coaching not to be dismissed

By Paul Gardner

Sooner or later, Jose Mourinho -- a man much given to speaking his mind -- was bound to say something interesting, something that wasn’t merely yet another way of telling the world that he is "the special one."

It happened last week, and I think it was worth the wait. In an interview with the Spanish sports daily AS, Mourinho declared “I am not Harry Potter. He is a magician, but in fact there is no magic. Magic is fiction, and I live in soccer, which is real life.”

Three simple sentences that seem to blow away the mystique that Mourinho has built up around himself, and with it the mystique that has come to surround the whole enterprise of coaching.

Evidently that was Mourinho’s intention, to deflate the heady expectations that have accompanied his arrival at Real Madrid. How big a change in attitude that represents in such a short time. It was only six years ago that Mourinho, fresh from the triumph of leading FC Porto to victory in the European Cup, greeted his own arrival at Chelsea with the words “don’t call me arrogant, but I think I’m a special one.”

It’s an interesting comparison. The Chelsea remark did, of course, come over as arrogance. But it was really bravado, noisy words designed to cover a basic insecurity. Mourinho knew that English soccer was going to be different from anything he had yet experienced in Portugal or Spain -- he would have learned that much from his close association with Bobby Robson.

Mourinho had everything to prove at Chelsea, and he very nearly did prove everything. He couldn’t, quite, rake in another European Cup, so he lost his job after three seasons. He went to Italy, to Inter Milan, another high-pressure hotseat, and last year came his supreme achievement -- winning the Italian League, the Italian Cup, and the Champions League.

A fabulous season, with victories pulled off against the usual Italian background of strife among players, and a rocky personal relationship with the media.

And so to Real Madrid -- no longer as a brash, boastful tyro, but as the real thing. A coach with unarguable proof of his skills, with no need at all to shout them from the stadium-tops.

The new Mourinho, in fact, plays things down. He’s telling the Real fans to be patient, that producing a winning team will take time, and he talks of down to earth matters like the number of training sessions he’s had so far with the team -- “not even 10.”

His confidence is now the real thing. He can blithely tell the world -- and his new bosses at Real Madrid -- that “if things go badly here and I have to go, I will have another club the next day.”

When was the last time you heard a coach start his new, highly paid job by talking calmly of what he will do if he gets fired?

Mourinho’s reasoning -- pretty solid, it seems to me -- is that, as he fears nothing, he can take risks, and make unpopular decisions, all in the interests of giving Real the stability that he says it needs.

No magic, though. No Harry Potter. A great line, Jose ... but is it true? As someone who has long felt that coaching is as much voodoo as it is hard work, I have some doubts about this.

In saying this, I am in no way belittling what coaches do. I am merely saying that what they do (and by that, I mean what they do successfully ) is frequently a mystery to themselves. That is not the same as saying it is mere luck -- though luck certainly enters into the equation.

But I believe -- or, better, I would like to believe, maybe I am determined to believe -- that the best coaches do bring some sort of magic to their job. OK, this is not the lurid Harry Potter type of magic. This is quieter, subtler, more difficult to pin down.

I can tell you what it is not. It is not the sort of stuff that infests the coaching courses. We are here, yet again, at the great divide of modern thinking, the unresolved duel between the Scientific and the Romantic.

The coaching courses bring science, or pseudo-science. They are crammed with theories and logic and certainties. (There is also a great deal of essential knowledge -- though much of this is in the areas of physiology and psychology, rather than coaching qua coaching.)

My problem with the “scientific” approach is that it breeds orthodoxy. An example. Back in the 1970s, when Charles Hughes was in dictatorial command of coaching at the English FA, he ruled that there are “five fundamental reasons” why goals are scored (all of them were defensive errors -- none of them gave any credit to the skills of the attacking players). It was one of a number of stupidities posing as certainties that Hughes pronounced -- but it got into the minds of a whole generation of coaches, who treated it as gospel. I know that, because I had many an argument with such coaches over the years on this point -- it was still around in the early 1990s, when a top college coach assailed me with it. I do not imagine that the Hughes theory is still propounded, but for a while it was a massive orthodoxy.

Beyond scientific orthodoxy lies ... what? Chaos? Anarchy? Possibly, though I prefer to veer off into the Romantic vision and believe that it’s individuality, personality, charisma and ... magic that awaits. Honestly, I prefer Harry Potter Mourinho to Professor Mourinho.

4 comments about "'Magic' in coaching not to be dismissed".
  1. Soccer Bloke, September 6, 2010 at 1:22 p.m.

    Magic coaches have good grasp of the "Science" and have the maturity and human understanding to gain maximum effort, cooperation and respect of their players (including their "big ego" players) and their supporting staff.

    It's not a magic quality: but it is intangible.

  2. Kent James, September 6, 2010 at 5:34 p.m.

    A lot of coaching magic has to do with having the right players. To see how much difference coaching makes, give Jose the team that just finished out of the relegation zone, don't make substantial player changes, and see if he can bring them to the top. There is only so much a coach, magic or otherwise, can do. That being said, at the highest levels I think a lot of it is getting the personalities on the team to work together so you can maximize the talent you have.

  3. Karl Ortmertl, September 7, 2010 at 9:43 p.m.

    After watching Inter shut out Chelsea and then completely stifle Messi, I believe that Mourinho's magic is the same magic that chess's Bobby Fischer had. He sees patterns and strategies that the rest of us don't. Against both Chelsea and Barcelona, it was fascinating to watch Mourinho draw the opposition into his web and then snuff them out. He had his players let the opposing offense play their game as usual and just when they thought they were in a position to score - there was a Chelsea defender right where he shouldn't be to stop it. The offensive coach that I liken to Mourinho for his wizardry is Alex Ferguson. You'll notice that both Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are fairly useless when Ferguson is not their coach.

  4. Karl Ortmertl, September 7, 2010 at 9:44 p.m.

    I meant Inter defender

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