Sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne would have been a great sports coach. In the twenty-first century world full of politicians, religious leaders, military people, celebrities, business tycoons, cultural experts, sports and coaching gurus who all seem to know, without question, the answers to all the world’s problems Michel would have been a stand out. Why? Because his stated life philosophy was “que sçay-je?” In modern language this pretty much translates as “what the fuck would I know.” Montaigne was smart enough to know that neither he, nor anyone else for that matter (publicly acknowledged geniuses included) had all the answers.
Montaigne was one weird puppy. Passionately multi-cultural, anti-xenophobic, arguably a teensy bit misogynistic, Marcel preferred a night looked away with his books in his tower library than an evening at the pub with his mates. Montaigne’s greatest contribution to the world of philosophy was that he was the first thinker to cloud the distinction between serious academic discussion and rambling exposition of his own life’s experiences, foibles and failures. One moment Marcel could be talking about Socrates or Aristotle and the next thing he would be talking about problems with his bum.
Montaigne’s self-deprecating approach to life was not cynical. In effect it was life affirming. He had contempt and admiration in equal measure for Aristotle… as he did for local university professors, bakers, garbage collectors and himself. Montaigne’s “what the fuck would I know” approach to coaching sport would have been a breath of fresh air to the athletes who suffer under the oppressive regimes of modern smart-arsed, know-it-all, sports coaches.
Here are some of Michel de Montaigne’s thoughts and comments… food for thought on how a sixteenth century philosopher should influence the thinking of modern teachers of sport.
Montaigne’s thoughts on being an idiot…
“No-one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”
“You, silly shit!” (Montaigne talking about himself)
As a sports coach you are going to make a goose of yourself. That’s a fact of life. Get used to it. It’s impossible to avoid. Coaching may not be brain-surgery, but it is complex. Under time pressure, under people pressure, under situational pressure some day you are going to say or do something that you regret. It’s okay. The only coaches who are not forgiven for being idiots are the ones who push on with their stupidity even after they have been proven to be wrong. Good coaches laugh at their own stupidity, apologise if need be, fix up the problem then get on with it. Coaches not willing to forgive themselves for being idiots are almost as tiresome as the ones who think they are always right. It’s fine to call yourself a “silly shit” as Montaigne did, but tell yourself that you are a very smart, very decent and very nice shit!
Watch the post-match press conferences of successful coaches and most are disarmingly honest about their own misjudgements and miscalculations and give the impression that they have no intention of sulking about it but will work on the issue as soon as is possible. Show me a coach who doesn’t think that they are a “silly shit” and I will show you a silly shit!
In other words, … don’t take yourself too seriously! You are a coach… not a nuclear physicist. Come to think of it… nuclear physicists shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, either!
Montaigne’s thoughts on the huge difference between knowledge and wisdom…
“If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life.”
“We readily enquire, ‘Does he know Greek or Latin?’ ‘Can he write poetry and prose?’ But what matters most is what we put last: ‘Has be become better and wiser?’ We ought to find out not who understands most but who understands best.”
Montaigne was very big on the point that wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. He was very critical of education systems that insisted on imparting in-depth knowledge but left students quite unaware of how to live a good, worthwhile life. If Montaigne were coaching a soccer team, he would work hard at teaching his players technical skills, but he would work just as hard (possibly even harder) at ensuring they could apply those technical skills in all kinds of practical situations.
It’s an awful sporting cliché but Montaigne, as a coach, would have been very big on execution. Lots of coaches talk about execution but transferring skills into real life situations takes work. So, as a coach, don’t be tempted to move onto high-powered, complex, stuff until your athletes can perform the basic stuff well in games. A team that can execute a simple system ninety-percent effectively will always beat a team that can execute snazzy plays with only sixty-percent effectiveness.
In other words, … great coaching doesn’t have a lot to do with in-depth knowledge. Great coaching is about understanding how to make stuff work… simple stuff work!
Montaigne’s thoughts on pretending you have a huge dick and the consequences of unrealistic expectations…
“Great harm is done by those graffiti of enormous genitals which boys scatter over the corridors and staircases of our royal palaces! From them arises a cruel misunderstanding of our natural capacities.”
Montaigne nails this one! Be real. Nothing kills an athletes’ passion and commitment faster than things going horribly wrong relative to their expectations. I knew of a bunch of kids from a small town who scraped together a team because they wanted to play together in a pretty high-level representative basketball competition. Their coach only took them on, on the understanding that they would stick together for a full three-year project. He made no bones about the fact that things might be rough for a few years. Good thing he was straight with them. They were absolutely smashed for two and a half years (didn’t win a game for the first two and a half seasons) but then went on to win several major championships and became tiny town sporting heroes.
Reading about the plight of professional sporting coaches who are sacked by their clubs after half a dozen games because their teams were underperforming makes me sick to the stomach. To take over a team, develop appropriate systems for the players available, teach the systems and integrate them into the training and then integrate the new skills and approaches into real time sport takes a minimum of half a season and may take several seasons. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that when the team finally starts to function they can remain high functioning for years.
In other words, … there is coaching wisdom in communicating realistic expectations.
Montaigne’s thoughts on what makes remarkable performance…
“Storming a breach, conducting an embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor being false to yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare and more difficult.”
I love watching the Matildas (the Australian women’s national soccer team) play. In recent years, under the mentorship of coach Alen Stajcic, they have grown in stature to the point of being one of the best teams in the world. Despite the hype surrounding their star striker Sam Kerr, in truth, there is nothing fancy or original about the way these women play the game. The reason why they are so good is because their coach has them playing basic offensive and basic defensive patterns better than anyone else in the world, right now. It’s all a matter of basic stuff executed brilliantly.
In a recent game against a highly ranked Brazilian team arguably one of the world’s best players, Marta, piled heaps of pressure on the Matilda’s teenage defender Carpenter early in the game causing her to make fundamental errors and giving up an easy goal to the Brazilians. Rather than falling back into a more conservative, deeper, role Carpenter continued to push forward per the team’s game plan and it wasn’t long before the Matildas had the Brazilians on the back foot and easily back in control of the game. Even under significant pressure, the Matildas do the basic stuff well. Their commitment to sticking to a plan and executing well may well take them to number one in the world in the next few years.
In other words… getting the basic stuff right is just as hard and just as rewarding as the showy stuff that everyone else thinks is impressive.
Montaigne’s thoughts on coaches who push complex systems or have biblical length play books…
“If I come across difficult passages in my reading I never bite my nails over them. After making a charge or two I let them be. If one book wearies me, I take up another.”
“Difficulty is a coin which the learned conjure with so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies and which human stupidity is keen to accept in payment.”
This point is related to the previous one. Montaigne would argue that coaches who devise long complex patterns or plays or have dictionary size play-books that are hard to understand are “wankers.” Be careful though. All new skills and new patterns will challenge athletes initially (even the simple ones) and just because it takes a few sessions for players to be able to perform a new skill or drill doesn’t mean that the concept should be rejected. Some of the best and most useful strategies are a bit difficult at first but deserve to be persevered with. On the other hand, the coach needs to ask him or herself, “is this as simple as it can be?” If the play is unnecessarily complex and difficult, he or she is just wasting his/her valuable time.
There is nothing clever about a coach who talks in riddles or who mystifies athletes with strange words and overly-complex concepts, methods and systems. Great coaches talk in plain language, explain concepts clearly and simply and focus on helping their athletes get through stages of their learning and skill development that they might have initially found difficult.
In other words… overly difficult and complicated stuff is just a waste of time. Ignore it!
Montaigne’s thoughts on jargon…
“The search for new expressions and little know words derives from an adolescent school-masterish ambition. If only I could limit myself to words used in Les Halles, in Paris.”
The sporting world is full of shameless jargon designed to make coaches seem clever and knowledgeable. Coaches should go out of their way to only use terms, words and phrases that athletes can understand. If a coach does need to introduce a new word or expression to their charges that has a very specific and important meaning then the coach should carefully explain the meaning of the word, demonstrate how it applies in the game and then get the players to demonstrate back to him or how that they understand what has been taught.
I love the use of the word “shape” as it is used in soccer (not). I have seen young kids’ eyes glaze over as “knowledgeable” coaches refer to “shape” this and “shape” that at a practice session. In soccer “shape” can be used to describe a player’s position relative to the formation that the team is playing or can describe a player’s body position relative to the ball or to an opponent… or can even refer to the path of the ball as it travels through the air after a pass or shot is made. If I were a soccer coach, I would completely get rid of the word “shape” from my vocabulary and come up with different ways of clearly describing simple things. Coaches should eradicate shameless jargon designed to make them sound clever and knowledgeable.
In other words… use words and expressions that would make sense at the supermarket, the hairdresser, the café or the pub!
Montaigne’s thoughts on fucking up…
“(Mistakes) I am full of them.” Montaigne happily confesses that his work is full of errors.
Coaches, players, referees, club officials and everyone else involved in sport make mistakes. Big deal. People who don’t make mistakes are either not taking risks or not trying hard enough. Obsessing over a play or skill or ruling in the hope of perfection is simply a waste of valuable time and energy. Coaches need to allow themselves to make plenty of mistakes and they should allow their players to make mistakes too.
Watch star Socceroo mid-fielder Aaron Mooy during a game. He makes way more effective passes than anyone else on the team… but he also stuffs up regularly as well. If he played a mistake free game of simply passing the ball back to an unmarked defender every time he got the ball, Australia would never score any goals. The best coaches and players attempt positive but challenging stuff regularly and sometimes stuff up! Making mistakes is a good thing!
In other words… make mistakes!
Montaigne’s thoughts on quoting the experts…
“We know how to say, ‘This is what Cicero said’; ‘This is morality for Plato’; ‘These are the ipsissima verba (actual words) of Aristotle.’ But what have we got to say? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do!”
Be a student of other great coaches (and pinch their ideas) but don’t simply parrot what they have to say. Craig Bellamy, Eddie Jones, Lisa Alexander and Phil Jackson all have much to offer but to learn from them you need to be critical. What do you think about their ideas? What do you think are their strong points and their weak points? What would you do differently? Aristotle was as brilliant as he was because he questioned other great minds. With this in mind it seems ludicrous to quote Aristotle as if he could do or say no wrong. The same applies with great coaches. Sometimes they speak total crap. Question them!
In other words… it’s your ideas that count!
Montaigne’s thoughts on gurus who are nongs and shouldn’t be listened to at all…
“If I spend an hour reading him (which is s a lot for me) and then recall what pith and substance I have got out of him, most of the time I find nothing but wind.” Montaigne being less than kind in relation to the work of Plato.
If you can believe Montaigne some experts are just plain nongs and shouldn’t be listened to at all. In his essays he went out of his way to make it clear that Plato is one expert not worth studying. There are plenty of coaches out there, too, who may have been great students of the game, or even been great players themselves but have absolutely no idea how to coach. Don’t assume that everyone who has managed to secure a top coaching job is worth listening to.
In other words… the ideas of the experts are not always what they are cracked up to be.
Montaigne’s thoughts on the value of finding wisdom in everyday life…
“Whoever recalls to mind his last bout of anger… sees the ugliness of this passion better than Aristotle. Anyone who recalls the ills that he has undergone, those which have threatened him and the trivial incidents which have moved him from one condition to another, makes himself thereby ready for future mutations and the exploring of his condition.”
“You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life just as well as one of richer stuff.”
According to Montaigne, life skills, acquired through analysis of one’s own life experiences are more useful to an individual than the learning that is provided by reading the work of Aristotle. This is particularly true of coaching. Having a deep understanding of a game or sport is nowhere near as important as understanding how people think, what makes them tick, how they learn best, what motivates them, what makes them angry, what fills them with joy and what gives them courage. Wisdom in relation to these things is much more easily acquired through a close examination and appreciation of the everyday trials of your life than it is through studying the experts.
In other words… apply your life’s experiences to what you are coaching.
Montaigne’s thoughts on arse scabs…
“Whenever I ask this acquaintance of mine to tell me what he knows about something, he wants to show me a book. He would not venture to tell me that he has scabs on his arse without studying his lexicon to find out the meanings of scab and arse.”
You don’t need Wayne Bennett to explain to you that you have scabs on your arse. Look at your arse and make up your own mind!
In other words… to be studious and knowledgeable is good… but what do you think?
Montaigne’s thoughts on conventional wisdom…
“In Pisa I met a man who is such an Aristotelian that the most basic of his doctrines is that the touchstone and the measuring-scale of all sound ideas and of each and of every truth must lie in conformity with the teachings of Aristotle, outside of which all is inane and chimera: Aristotle has seen everything, done everything.”
One of the greatest faults in coaching circles is the tendency to accept the way that things are being done right now is the “right” way! Great coaches do not accept conventional wisdom as truth. The latest trend or gimmick may seem to be winning attention from all the popular coaches you know but that does not mean that they are right! A few years ago, every soccer coach wanted to teach tika taka football to his players. Tika taka was like a religion. Now, not so much so. Coaches in all kinds of sports right now are obsessed with small field, small game activities and turning their backs on basic skill drilling. These trends may be right. But they might not be, too. Be irreverent. You don’t have to accept the teaching of Aristotle. Albert Eintein might have been dead wrong. Relativity might just be bullshit.
Montaigne knew that the greatness of Aristotle was in the fact that, while he was a great student of the great minds that came before him, he was critical of those great minds. Progress is only made when great minds think critically about the work that has gone before them. Aristotle himself would expect that Montaigne would be critical of him. Great sporting coaches would expect their work to be examined and criticized. Admire the great coaches of the past but criticize them. Take what is good from their ideas, adapt their ideas and improve their ideas. Most of all, add your own ideas to theirs!
In other words… be irreverent! Be iconoclastic! Be brave enough to challenge accepted ideas.
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