Monday, October 30, 2006

a coach's life...

I was reading this article in the Times about Bill Parcels, the Dallas Cowboys head coach and couldnt agree more on how a person could feel this way about something he has been doing for sixteen long years. This because many ideas expressed in this piece mirror my own sentiments, in fact would mirror most of our sentiments. This is a very well written article and for the ones who have twenty minutes to spare, I would ask you to read it. Because you usually dont get words that fit into an idea so perfectly that often.

Some of the really well developed lines need to make it into this blog, at least for my own petty satisfaction..:)

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He still returns in his mind to a question his wife often asked him: why do you do what you do? Coaching football doesn’t make him obviously happy. “When my wife asked me that question,” he says, “I never had a good answer. There was no answer. There is no answer.”

It galls him that the media’s curiosity so closely echoes his inner concerns (by far the most common question is, are you thinking about benching Bledsoe?), and makes him even less inclined than usual to satisfy it.

What has him troubled — what has him waking up choking on his bile — isn’t what you might expect. It’s not concern that the Redskins’ coaching staff could spring something on the Cowboys for which they are entirely unprepared. And it’s not his team’s raw ability. It’s a thing that’s harder to put into words, and impervious to strategy. Even as he is trying to study his next opponent, he can’t shake what happened on Sunday. How his team, the moment the Jaguars pushed back, collapsed. How, the moment the players felt the pressure, they began to commit penalties and the sort of small but critical mental errors that only a coach watching video can perceive. In their performance he smells the sort of failure he defines himself against.

“It’s a laboratory,” he says. “You get a real feel for human behavior under the strongest duress — under the threat of physical harm.” In this laboratory he has identified a phenomenon he calls the game quitter. Game quitters, he says, seem “as if they are trying to win, but really they’ve given up. They’ve just chosen a way out that’s not apparent to the naked eye. They are more concerned with public opinion than the end result.”

Parcells didn’t see the Hart-Antuofermo fight (boxing) in person but was told about it, years ago, by a friend and boxing trainer, Teddy Atlas. It stuck in his mind and now strikes him as relevant. Seated, at first, he begins to read aloud from the pages: how in this fight 29 years ago Hart was a well-known big puncher heavily favored against the unknown Vito Antuofermo, how Hart knocked Antuofermo all over the ring, how Antuofermo had no apparent physical gifts except “he bled well.” “But,” Parcells reads, “he had other attributes you couldn’t see.” Antuofermo absorbed the punishment dealt out by his natural superior, and he did it so well that Hart became discouraged. In the fifth round, Hart began to tire, not physically but mentally. Seizing on the moment, Antuofermo attacked and delivered a series of quick blows that knocked Hart down, ending the fight.

“When the fighters went back to their makeshift locker rooms, only a thin curtain was between them. Hart’s room was quiet, but on the other side he could hear Antuofermo’s cornermen talking about who would take the fighter to the hospital. Finally he heard Antuofermo say, ‘Every time he hit me with that left hook to the body, I was sure I was going to quit. After the second round, I thought if he hit me there again, I’d quit. I thought the same thing after the fourth round. Then he didn’t hit me no more.’

“At that moment, Hart began to weep. It was really soft at first. Then harder. He was crying because for the first time he understood that Antuofermo had felt the same way he had and worse. The only thing that separated the guy talking from the guy crying was what they had done. The coward and the hero feel the same emotions. They’re both human.”

“Just because you can identify a problem,” he says, “doesn’t mean you are any closer to fixing it.” He’s an odd combination of fatalism and can-do spirit. He seems both to believe and yet not to believe that he can get through to his players. On the one hand, he says, “the players now have so many people telling them what they want to hear that it’s harder to get through to them with words.”

“Blame nobody, expect nothing, do something.” “Losers assemble in little groups and bitch about the coaches and the system and other players in other little groups. Winners assemble as a team.” “Losing may take a little from your credibility, but quitting will destroy it.” “There are many exit doors in pro football. Don’t take them.” “Don’t confuse routine with commitment.”

Parcells says he has no idea if his words have any effect.

It’s an elemental thing — that mysterious something in a player under pressure that either snaps or holds — and elemental things are what interest this old coach.

More than any other sport, football is meant to be viewed from a God-like angle. Pacing up and down the sidelines, the head coach has the worst view in the house — except for everyone else on the sidelines. The sidelines are an obstacle course of thick cables, Cowboys cheerleaders, flatbed trucks with TV cameras, pushy cameramen and wide people with even wider sound dishes. So the only way to tell if a play is good or bad for the Cowboys is by the crowd’s reaction and the replay on the Jumbotron, which the players themselves watch when they’re curious about what has happened. The closer you are to the action, the more desperately your eyes search for the televised image. All in all, the sidelines illustrate that physical proximity to a complicated event doesn’t necessarily help you understand it.

But if all you saw of the game was Bill Parcells’s face, you’d never know life was good. Parcells is a study in dissatisfaction, and the TV people have figured that out: they focus on him only after some Cowboy has screwed up. Disapproval to Parcells is like snow to an Eskimo: he has spent so much time living with it that he has developed an elaborate range of signals, many of them nonverbal, to express the subtle shades of dissatisfaction. One time he looks as if he has eaten a bad oyster, another as if he has just been told his car has a flat tire. In any case, NBC relies on him to convey what is wrong with his team, but not what is right.

All week long it wasn’t strategy that occupied him; it was character. There’s a tendency to believe that, to be successful, a pro football coach must have a gift for the chessboard aspect of the game. But strategy isn’t what chiefly interests Parcells. His success depends on his ability to demand, and to receive, higher levels of performance from his players. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but his actions speak for him: he spends much more time thinking about getting inside his players’ heads, and their skins, than about anything else. He tries to make them uncomfortable. On a baseball team or a golf team, this sort of pressurized approach might lead to a team-wide nervous breakdown. In football — at least for him — it works magic.

But mainly the old coach looks sick to his stomach. As the clock winds down, and the camera lingers on Parcells, lips pursed as if he has just finished sucking the world’s largest lemon, NBC’s play-by-play commentator Al Michaels laughs and says, “You’ll never see an expression indicating pleasure on Bill’s face.”

“We had 70 yards in gains negated by 60 yards in penalties,” he says. “That’s 9 points.” I ask him if there was any pattern to the penalties. “Yeah,” he says, “they were all stupid.”

He was right: there’s always something. It’s in the nature of the job. “Guys can’t take it,” he says, “that’s why they get out.” Some of the best coaches the game ever saw — Bill Walsh, John Madden — quit simply because the strain was too great. Parcells won’t quit. He now knows that about himself: he needs it more than it needs him. He just turned 65. His marriage is over, and his daughters are grown. “My whole life I’ve always had some guys,” he says. “You gotta have some guys. That’s probably one of the fears I have when I get older: that I won’t have any guys.”

But when your life has been defined by the pressure of competition and your response to it, there’s a feeling you get, and it’s hard to shake. You wake up each morning knowing the next game is all that matters. If you fail in it, nothing you’ve done with your life counts. By your very nature you always have to start all over again, fresh. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it’s nonetheless addictive. Even if you have millions in the bank and everyone around you tells you that you’re a success, you seek out that uncomfortable place.

“It’s a cloistered, narrow existence that I’m not proud of,” says Parcells. He sweeps his hand over his desk and points to the office that scarcely registers his presence. “Who’s got it better than me?”

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