Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Coaching

Coaching is an odd profession. How many of us have vocations wherein we could switch employers every two to three years, without future employers questioning our abilities? In what other profession can a man be fired two or three or four times- each time a very public humiliation, his failures cataloged in print and on the airwaves- and find a new company eager to hire him the very same year? How often, in the real world, does a person win an annual award dubbing them the best in their field and then lose their job two years later? How often can one win the biggest prize there is to win, only to be considered expendable at the next contract renewal?

It is difficult to appreciate the value of coaching in the NHL because the League, as a whole, acts rather as though it doesn’t believe coaching has much value. Coaches, as a class, are not paid particularly well and not kept around long, nor is their prior record of successes and failures given much weight. There are a lot of franchises that seem pleased to treat their coaches as entirely interchangeable- fired or not renewed the one after the other, five or six to a decade- and even those franchises who have been known to keep a very special coach for half a dozen years are not above firing that same coach after a half dozen rough games, just to ‘shake things up’.

If coaching is a real skill, once would expect to see some sign of investment in that skill. One would expect to see teams invest in keeping good coaches, and find them correspondingly reluctant to hire coaches who come with a track record of failure and dismissal behind them. One would expect to see highly desirable coaches commanding higher salaries and greater prestige. And yet, one does not see very much of that. One sees coaches being picked up and tossed aside quite casually, with little reference to historical performance, and the pantheon of coaching greats is one of the less-venerated side niches of Hockey Olympus. It’s a small apse in the corner, seldom-visited, weeds growing up around the marble.

The problem is that the coach occupies a structurally weak position on an NHL team, which makes it hard to gauge what exactly he can and cannot control. In the formal hierarchy, he sits between the general manager and the players, but the system grants him very little substantive power, and so in terms of practical leverage, he sits very near the bottom of the pile, somewhere below the promising-but-unproven rookie and slightly above the seventh defenseman. He is significantly less important than most of the team he ostensibly commands. The traditions of the role demand that he be considered an authority figure, but this authority exists in name only- it has almost nothing behind it.

Both the general manager and the players represent substantial investments of the franchise’s limited resources. The GM is an investment of time, since his work can only be done in spans of half-decade or more. There is no point in hiring a GM and giving him only a year or two to institute his plans and prove his worth- to do so would be to throw seasons away. Towards the end of his plausible term, if the seasons have been more bad than good, perhaps the GM’s job becomes precarious, but for the vast majority of his tenure, the man is an autocrat. He cannot be challenged by anyone short of another GM, the owner, or the League itself.

To the team, however, players are even more precious than the GM, because they are investments of money and space, both of which are strictly finite (time, measured in seasons, is precious, but at least there’s always more of it). A franchise only has so much cap room, only so many roster slots per year. Once both of those have been committed, the team has to do whatever it can to make the investment pay off. Only the very bottom role players and maybe the backup goalie can be casually cleared aside. Everyone else represents dollars, development, draft picks- value that can only be held or exchanged for different value, never trashed.

In between these two essential pillars of the organization, the coach is just an employee. His salary is (comparatively) low, the term of his contract a mere formality. Although he has nominal control over the players, there is nothing backing up his authority but the title itself and the goodwill of the GM. Come a crisis, any player- no matter how stupid, wrong, or useless- is an investment that the team has to somehow try to make good. The coach is just a dude on the payroll. So, although the coach is supposed to have power over the player, in truth the player has far more power with the organization than the coach.

Moreover, in addition to being structurally weak, the coach’s position is also strategically weak. He stands behind the bench during the games, wearing a suit, looking In Charge, but he has less control over the outcome of the game than anyone in the organization short of the stick guy. He cannot make his team- he can adjust it, very slightly, to the tune of the two to three players in the pressbox, but he cannot have any players other than those chosen for him by the general manager. Neither can he make his team do anything- he can send them out in particular groupings at particular times with particular directions, but once they’re released onto the ice and into the fray, his ability to influence their behavior is limited to shouts and glares. The roster is in the hands of the GM, the plays are in the hands of the roster, and the coach really can’t do very much but stand around looking as snazzy as possible and making strongly-worded suggestions to the people above and below, which may or may not be followed.

So why have one at all?

Seriously, why does a team even need a coach? What is the point of this strangely powerless, often disrespected position? What does it do for the team that the team cannot do for itself? Cut away everything about what a coach should do or ought to do, cut away the lore and the legend, and consider: what is the essential nature of the job?

First, and most absolutely necessary: bench management. One of the most difficult parts of this insanely difficult game is that each player only plays for a fraction of a minute at a time, and anybody who has ever played the game at any level knows how easy it is to fuck up a simple rotation. A team of people who know each other pretty well and get along pretty well can bench-manage themselves reasonably smoothly, but throw in a few strangers and a little pressure and nothing will fuck up your game faster than the inevitable disputes over who should go out when and stay out how long. Moreover, players, in the state of nature, tend to defer to the person among them with the most on-ice skill, but the person with the most on-ice skill is often some scoring forward whose hockey sense comes from parts of his brain that don’t connect to the talking part. If there is anything of significance on the line, it is essential to have a third party, a non-player, organizing the bench.

Second, and related: allocation of minutes. Just like raising kids, winning hockey games isn’t about treating everyone the same, it’s about matching strengths to situations. It’s giving some guys the O-zone faceoffs and others the D-zone ones, putting some out on the PP and others the PK, and, on home ice, trying to give players the matchups against whom they can be most productive. This is the part of the game where coaching genius, if it exists, has the most space to express itself. The essential challenge of coaching is to take a fixed set of assets, the players lined up in front of you, and manipulate them according to game states in order to get goals. Unfortunately, the assets aren’t all that fixed and the game states change about every five to ten seconds, so even the best coach is never going to be able to execute the plan as it exists in his mind. Like everything in hockey, coaching is half tactics and half luck under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances are often somewhat less than ‘best’.

Third, also related, although perhaps less important: creation of lines. It is an open question, for me, how much of this is human insight and how much is trial and error. There are a lot of different ways one can divvy up twelve forwards, and there’s something to be said for almost any potential variation. Plenty of first lines have been successful with some ostensible third-line talent on one wing, and plenty of shoulda-been-second-line-centers have ended up eating 6 minutes a night with the goons. How many coaches create better, more effective lines than a monkey with a roster list and a bag of darts would? I don’t know. But bottom line, somebody has to do it, and that somebody is whoever is standing around wearing a suit and looking Not Amused.

Fourth, unrelated: strategy. Here we depart from the essentials of coaching and get into the usefuls. A team does not need somebody to watch video of upcoming opponents and make notes of their strengths, weaknesses, and style. It does not need someone to go through video with the players and point out to them what they’re likely to encounter and how best to exploit it. The team could function without these things, but it would be a worse team for it. It is indisputably useful to have someone coming up with battle plans for each game. However, I do think fans tend to overestimate the importance of these plans, given that the coach has no power to put them into effect, but only to tell the players. The coach cannot really be praised too highly or reprimanded to strongly concerning the quality of his plans unless the players execute them perfectly, which they seldom do.

Fifth, semi-related: practice. Practice is the space the coach is given in which to try to physically discipline his players into doing whatever he’s trying to tell them to do during games and at video review sessions. It is an imperfect, approximate space, but hockey players are body people and probably need a certain amount of drilling in order to get into the habits they’re supposed to have. It is the coach’s most direct tool and also his weakest, since it is both the most like an actual game and the furthest removed from it. The heart of practice in the NHL, I sometimes think, is not so much to teach anything but mostly to maintain the routine and constancy of hockey life. It is a critical tool in the never-ending struggle for consistent on ice-performance, but a problematic tool for the inculcation of specific strategy.

So, if we consider these five things, the coach’s job is basically to be the prefrontal cortex of the team. He’s the executive function, the higher reasoning capabilities, the superego. He takes stock of an unsightly, disorganized collection of talents and impulses, which he sorts, organizes, and deploys towards the accomplishment of a larger goal. He cannot make talents and impulses that are not there. All he can do is try to discipline what is provided and focus it in a particular direction. Just as the coach is the least essential part of the team, so the prefrontal cortex is the least essential part of the brain- plenty of creatures out there breathin’, eatin’, sleepin’ and fuckin’ their way to a happy old age with hardly a hint of a prefrontal cortex. But it does make the difference between gnawing the marrow out of still-warm gazelle femurs and just zapping some teriyaki in the microwave, which ain’t nothing.

But this is not remotely what we think of when we think of coaching (the being-the-brain-of-the-team part, not the gazelle-femur part). When we think of coaching, we think of forceful men with baritone voices striding into locker rooms, punching something authoritatively to call for silence, and then discoursing before the awed, humbled faces of the assembled team about The Meaning of The Game. In sports movies, it is inevitably The Coach who is given the big oratorical moments, and in fact, The Coach doesn’t generally do much more than speechify. The real work of coaching makes for terrible theater- you have to be pretty crazy for the game to get off on the fictive Xs and Os of a fictive team- and so The Coach ends up carrying a lot of the dramatic load to justify his screen time.

Coaching is, therefore, one of the most misunderstood of all sports professions. People have this idea that the coach’s job is to motivate and inspire the players, and that motivation and inspiration is all that it takes for a team that’s down three goals going into the third to come back and win the game. Inevitably, when a team does manage a come-from-behind win, there are always reporters asking questions about ‘what was said’ in the locker room, as though oratory was the secret key to unexpected triumph. That’s a treacherous idea, because flip it around and one can start to believe that the right motivation can make any team win any game, and then one starts to think that the important thing about a coach is not how he thinks but how he acts, and begins to expect that a good coach is a man capable of turning around any team through the power of his tough talk and personal charisma.

A coach is not a motivational speaker. It’s not his job to inspire. Players who come into the NHL are already at least fourteen years into their hockey careers. They are 95% formed already. They are professionals being paid hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to do something they have been doing virtually every day of their life since they can remember. Whatever sports clich├ęs and platitudes are out there, they have already heard. Whatever wisdom there is to be had, they have already been told. Their inner resources, their motivations, their work ethic- by the time the player reaches the NHL, these things are between the man and his God or gods, and I would question the value of any pro whose performance vacillated significantly depending on shit someone told him between periods.

A coach is not a mentor. It’s not his job to befriend the players, guide them, teach them important life lessons. Mentoring is important, certainly, but that’s why the Good Lord created kindly veterans, and crusty grandfathers, and wise old Zamboni drivers. Not coaches. Personalizing the coach-player relationship is likely to be counterproductive. To do his work as well as possible, the coach needs to have the freedom to be brutally utilitarian. He needs to be able to change up lines and allocate ice time according to the strategic calculus, without concern about how it makes anyone feel. Once the coach is expected to start worrying about player’s feelings, and motivations, and aspirations, you are asking him to start trying to consider factors beyond the game at hand, and that is not his job.

Popular images of coaching betray our understanding of the profession, leading us to believe, consciously or not, it is mostly about leadership and inspiration. Do general managers share this misapprehension? Does anyone in any front office believe that a good coach should come armed with a miraculous motivation-ray that can imbue deeply flawed rosters with the Will to Win? Are they firing these dudes, the one after the other, year after year, over failures of charisma and oratory? Or is it simply that firing the coach is the easiest thing to do when Something Must Be Done? As much as I would like to believe coaches get fired for good reason, because I would like to believe that GMs do everything with good reason, if you look at a hockey team as a system it is obvious that the coach is the only person who is readily expendable, and therefore it is not surprising that he is the one most often expended.

And at the end of all this, the question remains unanswered, is one coach really better than another? Is there anyone whose strategic calculus so far outweighs that of others that he is an asset unto himself, even occupying the weak office he does?

It is worth considering that the only two teams in the NHL which have not changed coaches in the past ten years are Buffalo and Nashville, and these are also known for being two of the most efficiently managed teams in the NHL. If any franchises were likely to find a way to squeeze extra wins out of something other teams undervalue, it would be them. The long tenures of Barry Trotz and Lindy Ruff might imply that at least two shrewd GMs have realized there is something to be gained from investing time and dollars and authority in a coach. Or, perhaps, it implies the opposite: that they realize there is so little to be gained from the position that it is pointless to shuffle it at all.


Tom Benjamin said...

As usual, nice post. I do think the coach has an important organizational role. I agree that the biggest impact a coach can have is in bench management. (That's also about the only real power the coach has over the player.)

Teams attach almost no value to coaching because coaching skills are relatively common. There would be a huge gap between Scotty Bowman and me as a coach, but at best Bowman would have a tiny edge over the 30th or the 130th best coach in North America.

But somebody has to pay the price when expectations are not met. It is almost always the coach because the coach is always easily replaced by someone who won't do any worse (or better). The Lindsay Ruff and Barry Trotz survival stories have depended the fact they have usually managed to exceed low expectations.

Managing the media is another pretty important role, both in terms of his personal survival and the marketing of his team.

E said...

so you're suggesting that coaching skills are basically interchangeable? i.e. despite all the discussion one hears about varying philosophies and strategic values among coaches, they're basically all doing the same thing, and therefore one is basically as good as another? or is it more that coaching strategy is such a small part of what makes a team successful that it's just not worth much investment?

the whole 'somebody has to pay the price' thing is what i find perfectly baffling about the entire view of coaching in the nhl. people will at the same time believe that the coach is so powerful that firing him will, in itself, make a huge difference in the team's performance, and yet at the same time believe that any new coach can do the job as well as the last. in the end, it gets treated basically as a symbolic role.

Clare said...

I have to agree with Tom on one point in particular. Barry Trotz has gotten the praise he has in large part because no one expected the Predators to succeed--low payroll, small market, no superstars (until last season, anyway). Preds fans have always taken great pride in his ability to "get the most out of his underdogs." But this season, expectations have become much higher and the calls for Trotz to be either fired or slapped upside the head or both have become much, much louder. And all the anger comes down to what kind of players Trotz benches and how many minutes he gives those he does play. There are people who believe that Trotz's bench-management priorities are holding players back from producing.

E said...

and there were never any of those kind of criticisms before? in all the seasons the preds missed the playoffs or got eliminated in the first round, everyone was happy anyway because the expectations were so low? if that's the case, i suspect the complaints about trotz now are a consequence of the nashville fan base/media corps maturing. montreal can't go two months without a flare-up of coach-firing fervor. i will be very interested to see what poile does in this situation...

and, if i might ask your opinion, how do preds fans rationalize this change of opinion? i mean, if this is a dude who's gotten players to overperform for the past, why exactly is he stifling them now? what's the logic the critics offer?

Chris said...

Your blog, specifically this post, got a shoutout by Ron McLean just a few minutes ago on the Hotstove.

I think you have it right in saying it's a largely managerial role, but I don't agree with Tom when he says coaches are interchangeable and that all coaches at the NHL level are equal. Just like in the world outside of hockey, there are some people who make better managers, team leaders and group organizers.

Tom Benjamin said...

so you're suggesting that coaching skills are basically interchangeable? i.e. despite all the discussion one hears about varying philosophies and strategic values among coaches, they're basically all doing the same thing, and therefore one is basically as good as another?

Pretty much. One might be a little better at this and a little worse at that. But the overall difference between the best and the worst is basically nothing in my opinion.

the whole 'somebody has to pay the price' thing is what i find perfectly baffling about the entire view of coaching in the nhl. people will at the same time believe that the coach is so powerful that firing him will, in itself, make a huge difference in the team's performance, and yet at the same time believe that any new coach can do the job as well as the last.

The "somebody has to pay a price" is baffling to me, too, but the fanbase in most places want something done when the team loses. I'm old enough to remember when winning wasn't nearly as important as it is today.

People believe lots of pretty silly and contradictory things. In this case they believe it because teams pretend it matters and because a coaching change often appears to work simply because coaches are almost always fired near the end of a long losing streak.

Clare said...

E, it's not that those complaints weren't there before. It's that they are much louder now--being said more frequently by more people with a greater degree of conviction. And there are fewer people arguing against those complaints. And yeah, this level of freaking out is unusual in Nashville. In part, I think, because we haven't really dared to hope for better things before.

The rationale is shots on goal--people are complaining that Trotz benches guys who aren't adequately defense-minded and who get creative and shoot the puck. The "why now?" part is twofold--one, that lack of offense killed us in the playoffs so that's what we need most to improve, and two, that Shea Weber put his foot down and said "get me offense or I'm outta here." So they want Trotz to adapt to that and play the guys who shoot the puck. It's a sort of "he got us this far but this strategy won't work going forward" thing.

Perhaps it is a sort of maturation; I haven't considered it in those terms before. I will say that I have never thought Trotz could lose his job before, and if you asked me in May, I would have said "Are you kidding? Look what he just accomplished." But after losing 4 in a row with the guys looking directionless, I seriously thought this might be Trotz's last year. (Poile's in an even leakier boat with the fans right now.) We looked really good the past two games, though, so it may calm down. But I'll tell you that so far, Trotz hasn't gotten any real credit for those wins.

E said...

chris- there are few things more vindicating than getting name-dropped by ron maclean. i owe that man an empanada, at the very least.

tom- when was this magical time when winning wasn't as important? tell me of it! (i know, that sounds like sarcasm, but i am completely serious.) there seem to be two ways one could come to the conclusion that coaching doesn't matter. the first is, i think, what you're saying: that coaching isn't the sort of skill where one person can get all that much better than another, because of the nature of the job. the second would be to argue that, even if the difference between coaches in terms of talent is huge, 'coaching' occupies a relatively small wedge of the 'team success' pie chart, and therefore the quality of the coaches work is drowned out by the quality of the players, injuries, 'luck', and whatever else.

clare- i wonder if there is a common theme of fans under-appreciating defense in hockey. the a-1, knee-jerk criticism of martin (other than his unfortunate personal style) is his 'boring, defensive system'. nevermind that we don't have the horses to go up against washington, pittsburgh, etc in a war of offense-on-offense, nevermind that during that deep playoff run everyone was saying, oh, it's the system that's saving us. whenever shit goes bad, it's because the defensive system is holding us back. bah.

Tom Benjamin said...

tom- when was this magical time when winning wasn't as important? tell me of it! (i know, that sounds like sarcasm, but i am completely serious.)

I am tempted to blame Vince Lombardi, but he was a product of his time, too. But before big money - big TV, I guess - entered the picture, we had a different view.

Winning was always important of course, but it was not everything. It sounds quaint now but I was sent into the sporting arena with "It isn't whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." Many of Lombardi's better known quotes directly refute that ethos.

I still can't help myself in this respect. Winning isn't even everything to me - and it certainly isn't the only thing. I don't think that attitude is healthy for anyone.