Players As Captains

Now that the United States Ryder Cup golf team has lost the cup once again questions abound as to why this group of talented golfers doesn’t seem to be able to win a team competition against a patch-work team of players from Europe and Great Britain. Phil Mickelson has again put his foot in his mouth and made disparaging remarks about the team captain, Tom Watson, who (it is generally agreed) botched the job. Mickelson simply said what the others wanted to say but had the good taste to keep it to themselves: Watson just wasn’t up to the task. He did a couple of things right, such as putting two first-time players together who made an excellent team — only to leave them out of competition on the second day when their twosome might have won a much-needed point for the U.S of A. Also, he forgot to mention to them that they weren’t going to play.

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tom Watson (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

It seems Watson was too autocratic, too “stand-offish” and uncommunicative. He didn’t involve the players themselves in the decisions he made, and several of those decisions raised eyebrows around the golfing world — like the one mentioned above and the decision not to play Mickelson and his partner Keegan Bradley on the second day when they have shown themselves to be one of the most successful teams the Americans have ever put together. In any event, the golfing world is resounding with the second-guessing of experts and want-to-be experts and they all seem to agree that Watson simply did not get it done.

This raises an interesting question: why is it that outstanding players like Tom Watson so often make terrible coaches in sports of all types? Bill Russell springs to mind — one of the greatest basketball players ever to play but a mediocre coach, at best. The European Ryder Cup team was captained by a very good, but not outstanding, golfer by the name of Paul McGinley who seems to have had the magic touch, taking the same types of self-absorbed, wealthy, spoiled golfers from Europe and melding them into a winning team. Again, why does this sort of thing happen?

My guess is that the outstanding athletes don’t know what it is that makes them outstanding at their sport. They play largely by instinct. I once watched Marty Riessen give a tennis lesson to a middle-aged woman on the tennis courts at Northwestern University. Riessen was a perennial Big Ten tennis champion, played on the Davis Cup team, and later turned professional — once beating Rod Laver for one of his professional championships. But as a teacher he was tongue-tied. He had no idea what to say to his pupil. He became increasingly frustrated and she got correspondingly tense as the lesson went down hill. This is an extreme case, but it is graphic evidence of the inability of at least this great player to communicate to someone else what it is they needed to do to be successful — like the brilliant physicist who can’t teach entry-level physics.

And that seems to be the key: communication skills. Anyone who listens to Tom Watson will be immediately struck by the fact that he has difficulty saying what he is thinking. Couple that with his determination to stand away from his players and call the shots from on high and you have a formula for failure. A good coach is frequently one who has struggled himself or herself to learn the basic skills of the game and who has the ability to communicate with the student just what they must do to be successful. I dare say that golf came very easily to Tom Watson. And he apparently can’t pick up on the chemistry that does or does not exist between people.

I was not an outstanding tennis player. I played a good deal of competitive tennis and won a number of small tournaments, but I wasn’t in a class with folks like Marty Riessen, to be sure. But in taking the game apart and putting it together again at a boys’ camp in Maine years ago with a friend of mine, I learned what it took to produce tennis strokes and was able to explain the mechanics of the game to people trying to learn it. I spent 35 years teaching tennis and another fifteen years coaching at the collegiate level. Whatever success I had was due to my own struggles with the game coupled with my sympathy for those who found the game to be difficult — and my ability to communicate with them successfully. I also learned quickly the delicate art of keeping quiet when necessary. I have seen that formula repeated again and again. The formula the U.S.A. has for picking captains is doomed to failure: a famous player who has himself achieved greatness in the sport. It works on occasion, as it did with one of the few successful American Ryder Cup captains, Paul Azinger (not himself a player in the class of Watson, but an outstanding payer none the less), but not as a rule. The Paul McGinleys of the world will usually trump the Tom Watsons when it comes to coaching — even if they couldn’t beat them head-to-head on the golf course.