Most people who enjoyed the football World Cup assumed they were watching sport at its finest: gifted players in meticulously prepared teams going at full tilt. But what Ric Charlesworth saw was an event that embodied many of the myths and flaws of Älite sport. While the players were the world's best, he says, "I don't think anyone is as exceptional as other people think they are." Take the Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who scored the only two goals of the final. Some commentators portrayed his play as dazzling. But was it? His first goal was the result of doing what six-year-old players are taught to do: follow in shots on goal in case the 'keeper leaves crumbs. "He just did the workmanlike stuff," says Charlesworth, who thought many of the teams, such as defending champions France, were poorly prepared, their campaigns built more on arrogance than on teamwork. As for full tilt, don't make him laugh. In no sport more than football are teams so prone to sitting on leads or not firing until they're behind. "It's caused by fear of losing," says Charlesworth, "and it's not the way sport should be played."
Who is Charlesworth to say how sport should be played? Probably one of the best coaches in Australia. In 1993, he took charge of the national women's hockey team and made them near to unbeatable until 2000, when he stepped down after the Hockeyroos won their second straight Olympic gold medal. It was a record built on a set of principles and practices that many observers considered radical, but which Charlesworth, 50, attributes to common sense and has now spelled out in Staying at the Top (Pan Macmillan; 172 pages). To those who say the author knows only hockey, Charlesworth counters that "most of the stuff in coaching is generic." Indeed, the pocket-sized book is pitched as a blueprint for success in business as much as in sport-and even as a manual for life. Despite its dry approach, it offers a coruscating look at how and why many people who reach the top eventually self-destruct.
Charlesworth argues that a coach has no more important nor difficult task than to prevent his players from believing they're indispensable. In his time with the Hockeyroos, he had some original ways of applying the cold water. For starters: no captain. Captains tend to think they're special. Much better to have many players assume the responsibilities of leadership than to bestow the title-and all its baggage-on any one of them. Second: no bench. Benches create a hierarchy-poison for team spirit.
And Charlesworth is notoriously blunt. "I never seek to make people cry," he says, "but sometimes we don't like hearing the truth about ourselves." Casting his eye over world sport, Perth-based Charlesworth-who's now a coaching consultant to the Australian Football League team the Fremantle Dockers, and a mentor coach at the Australian Institute of Sport-sees several champions who might benefit from a chat with him. Pete Sampras, for example. Athletes are at their physical peak in their early 20s, Charlesworth believes. Sampras, 30, seems to have run out of challenges; yet he still claims he can win grand slam titles. Says Charlesworth: "I'd say he's probably kidding himself."
Instead of his "directness," most sports people experience pampering and sycophancy, argues Charlesworth, a qualified physician and a former Olympic hockey player and Federal Labor M.P. The Irish soccer player Roy Keane was sacked from the national squad for aiming a foul-mouthed tirade at his coach in a team meeting on the eve of the World Cup. Says Charlesworth: "And what was the response of his club [Manchester United]? They sent a plane to pick him up." Outside forces-a gushing public and media-also warp a player's sense of perspective. "It's a blot on Australian culture," Charlesworth says, "that we don't want to talk about teamwork. We want to talk about individuals and stars and flamboyance and special, bizarre things."
To balance this, coaches should do the opposite. While journalists lionize the goal scorer or wicket taker, he writes, "coaches must find ways to break down this traditional and simple analysis"-often by highlighting the less eye-catching lead-up work of teammates. And no matter how thick the player's scrapbook is, a coach must continue to critique him. An uncoached player (or employee in a business) becomes smug and unapproachable, says Charlesworth: "Most people would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism." He's not belittling Ronaldo's work in the Cup final. Quite the opposite: it was a credit to the striker-and his coach-that a player of his status was prepared to do the small things.
Though he writes of being a child who "imagined myself representing my country in sport or as a doctor discovering a cure for a disease," there's nothing dreamy about Charlesworth. More than great deeds and soaring moments, sport to him is an exercise in managerial vigilance. While he accepts that proud, charismatic stars captivate fans, he has a mundane view of athletic greatness. "Why are the best players the best players? In hockey, football, cricket, whatever, they're the best because they've got the best basics and fundamentals," he says, "and then the situation allows them to do something brilliant."
His contention that teams shouldn't be sent out to win but to play well could be misinterpreted. It's put to him that fans expect to see their team play with fire and desperation, not just methodically execute skills. "Playing well is about being fired up and desperate," he counters. "If you don't have that, you might as well not bother." He admires tennis world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt: "I love his intensity ... in a team sport, if you get that in your group, you're very hard to beat."
Charlesworth says coaches tend to get too much credit when their teams win and too much blame when they lose. But Staying at the Top isn't the book of a fatalist. Charlesworth's view of sport is that very little need be out of your control: if you're a player lacking physical gifts, work harder; if you're a coach without champion players, build a team. And phooey to chestnuts like ďsuccess is cyclical': "It's nobody else's turn to be the best," he writes, "unless you let your standards slip."
This is a man who, as he puts it, likes "having his hands on the levers." There's no doubt he moves them expertly. But his thoughts may jar with those people who like to see sport as something spontaneous and majestic, rather than as a bunch of not so interesting parts being shifted about by a giant brain in the wings.
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