Back in November last year, Miguel Cotto fought Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas for the WBC Middleweight World Championship, which Alvarez won by unanimous decision. At the time, Cotto had rebuilt his career by working with legendary Hall of Fame trainer, Freddie Roach. In the lead-up, both Roach and Cotto had been talking to the media about all the changes they had made to ensure the victory against Alvarez. The talk was, now Cotto had Roach in his corner, the stars were aligned and he couldn’t lose. In short, the young legs and power punching of Alvarez was too much for Cotto. This did little to alter the opinion of Roach; the game plan was effective, it was Cotto’s age which got called into question, not the trainer’s coaching mastery.
While on Twitter in the aftermath of the fight, David Oliver (USA Olympian and World Champion 110m Hurdler), tweeted something alluding to Roach was ‘overrated’ and people should quit effectively calling him the world’s best trainer and it was the top-shelf boxers he has/had in his stable which had given him his great reputation (see the back and forth tweets between us below). So it got me thinking, who plays the largest part in the Coach/Athlete relationship? Are the athletes going to succeed no matter who they have in their corner?
Staying with boxing for a second; although Manny Pacquiao has been Roach’s golden goose for the past decade, he is not the first world champion he trained, nor will he be the last. Fellow boxers see ‘Pacman’ doing great things with Roach (not so much these days), and a positive belief system is developed that the trainer must be doing something different (something better) than their current setting, and therefore the reputation is perpetuated (which I’m not saying is the case here).
The list below are some of the partnerships which showed longevity through the prime of the athlete’s career or there was a major partnership during their breakthrough years.
- Nick Bollettieri & Monica Seles
- Bob Bowman & Michael Phelps
- Butch Harmon & Tiger Woods
- Tom Tellez & Carl Lewis
- Gennadi Touretski & Alexander Popov
- Clyde Hart & Michael Johnson
There is clearly a different dynamic in team sports, but for the sake of the argument think Phil Jackson & Michael Jordan (clearly too many external factors contributing here).
So who is more important in the Coach-Athlete partnership; the Coach or the Athlete?
I have many thoughts on the topic, but if I had to say which side I was leaning towards, I would say the athlete makes the coach and not the other way around, BUT it just really depends which angle you are looking from. The athletes elicit the results of a well driven coach-led program and therefore allow the coaches reputation of building top class athletes grow. What interested me about David Oliver discussing the topic was that he had a very public ‘divorce’ from his long term coach, Brooks Johnson, see here. Brooks is one the best track coaches in the world, having had at least one Olympian in each Olympics, in his stable since the 70’s (pretty sure this is accurate). So in this instance, David Oliver is not his one claim to fame, there are many. BUT, I still think you need the athletes. As the great John Smith said, “you can’t get a donkey to win the Kentucky Derby”. Talent absolutely matters. Some people can work as hard as they like, but it will only allow them to fulfil their OWN potential. Not everyone is going to the Olympics.
Within the past couple years, I was lucky enough to start working with some talented sprinters; one well-established at the National level, others still developing. Just because they join my squad doesn’t all of a sudden turn me into a great coach. Results matter. Athletes talk with their feet; they will move and find a coach who they believe can help facilitate fast times and help them to achieve their goals and dreams. Do I think I can coach; Sure I do! If I remove myself from the equation, how will each of the athletes fare? I would say not as well. Who is going to:
- write the track and S&C programs
- call them to see how they are doing
- provide them with treatment
- recruit other athletes to push them
- monitor their progress and know when enough is enough
- watch them and provide technical advice
- discuss tactics and strategy
- organise squad get-togethers
- map out their racing schedule
- prepare them mentally for their events
- blah blah blah (there’s a lot involved)
And all of the above will be specific to the game or event. So, there’s a lot that goes into it. BUT, in the end I still believe talented athletes will find a way to rise to the top; perhaps not as high as if they had a great coach, but they will still find a way to get there.
One area where I believe coaches can make the athlete is in terms of creating a positive winning culture. Coaches must have all athletes buy-in to their program and squad culture to create a conducive atmosphere for success. Once this is created and becomes athlete driven, new athletes to the squad are increasingly aware of the expectations; which is a good thing.
So in summary, yes, I do believe ‘muppet’ coaches will get athletes to achieve great things no matter what training is provided; some athletes are just too gifted for it to matter. However, ultimately this success will eventually dry up and plateaus and injuries occur. BUT, it is when the really switched on coaches find a gifted athlete where the coach’s reputation is established. The coach could be giving the same program to squad of athletes but it is only when one of them achieves great things does it become visible; regardless if they have been coaching the same way for years; it is just the way the world works.
But in the end…
Coaches need the Athletes to show they know what they are doing
Athletes need the Coach to help bring the best out of themselves
I guess a two way street after all!