It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that sports journalism in New Zealand is in a sad and sorry state. When an intellectually challenged scribe can earn the title of “senior sports columnist”, the discipline has a problem.

Take Stuff’s Mark Reason for example. He has written a column today that begins with this paragraph.

“There are times when one thinks that it might be a very good idea to assemble all the sports coaches in the world on the deck of a big ocean liner and then abandon them in the vast depths of the Pacific.”   

Now, tell me, what is the point of that? It is not funny. It is not enlightening. It contributes nothing to the progress of sport or mankind. But it is stupid. Reason struggles on, trying to make the point that the All Blacks would play better if they coached themselves. If his point is that this one team is “over-coached”, Reason may well have a point. But that is a criticism of one particular coach of one particular team.

And how he connects his opinion of Brendon McCullum with the idea that all coaches should be swimming around in the Pacific Ocean, I have no idea. Remember the story Reason wrote two months ago about McCullum. His appointment was a terrible decision by English cricket. McCullum was a short form specialist. Nothing could save England with McCullum as the coach. Three tests against New Zealand and one against India and England, under McCullum, have yet to lose a game.

And with a run rate of more that 4 per over, it would be hard to make the argument that England would have done as well with McCullum swimming around the Pacific. As I say, Reason’s opinions are stupid.

Try and convince John Walker he would have run faster with Arch Jelley practicing breaststroke off the Samoan coast. Try and convince Murray Halberg that Lydiard was unnecessary. Or Danyon Loader that Duncan Laing should go away. Or Anne Audain that John Davies ruined her running. No, the coach/athlete team is invaluable and does not deserve to be degraded by an airhead with a pen.

And so, before I leave for the pool, to ruin another swimmer’s career let me reinforce the role of the coach. This is a quote from a guy who can write about sport, Roger Robinson. In fact, I owe Robinson an apology for comparing the two. Robinson’s ability is a gift. He entertains. He informs. Qualities Reason will never achieve. This is what Reason’s post could have said. It is not difficult to pick the difference.

“To define the coach’s role, I should like to be dryly academic for a moment and define the word itself. Kotcz is a small place in Hungary, between Raab and Buda, which gave its name back in the fourteenth century to a special kind of vehicle, a “kotczi-wagon” or “kotczi-car”, used for passengers on the rugged local roads. The term passed across to England after a hundred years or so, and by 1556 was anglicised as “coach”. “Come, my coach,” calls Ophelia in Hamlet, and she was a lady who could certainly have used help with her swimming. In fact, the word began to take on the modern meaning of an instructor only in nineteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge universities, where by 1849 to “coach” a pupil meant to “prepare in special subjects”, to carry the student along, as it were, like a coach and horses, to the destination. Soon, sporting “coaches” appeared, first of all in rowing, the social leader of Victorian sports. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “…coaching from Mr Price’s steamboat”.  Dickens in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) keeps the sense of conveying passengers when he describes Mr Crisparkle, Minor Canon of the Cathedral and previously a private tutor in Latin and Greek, as lately “Coach upon the chief Pagan high roads.”

So a coach is someone with whom you travel, who is a means of conveying the student or athlete along a rough road to a difficult destination. There is a moral in the dry dust of the dictionary. If we think of coaching as a means of travel, we may perceive more clearly both the importance and the limits of the coach’s role. The coach has indispensable functions: to instruct, to motivate and to inculcate strategy, especially that    long-term strategy which no young competitor can know by instinct. The coach should also observe clearly defined limits: not to intrude into the ultimate aloneness of the competitor nor to diminish the essentially individual satisfaction of sporting achievement. The coach’s achievement and satisfaction are equally real, equally valid, but different. The means of travel is not the traveller. I am made uneasy by coaches who speak of “we”, as if athlete and coach were a composite being.”

See how that text lifts and inspires. We are better for Robinson’s insight, his choice of words and his knowledge. He even mentions Ophelia’s swimming problems in Hamlet – a more uplifting comparison than walking Reason’s plank off a cruise liner in mid-Pacific. I commit nothing to heart written by Reason. But this Robinson sentence will forever be my coaching guide.

“So a coach is someone with whom you travel, who is a means of conveying the student or athlete along a rough road to a difficult destination.”

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