T Nation

Words of Wisdom

In fact if you were to look at any major league sport, you would be hard pressed to find a coach who was ever a top player in the game.

Mike Ditka, Lenny Wilkens, and Larry Bird all had a fair amount of success as both coaches–all bringing teams to at least their conference championships–and were Hall of Famers as players. Frank Robinson’s done more with the Expos than anyone could have expected, and he, too, is a Hall of Famer. Ted Williams was a pretty successful manager, too.

chris: you are correct, there are some examples of some very good coaches who were also accomplished athletes in their sport. However I think the overwhealming number of successful head coaches in most sports were never great players and many never even played at pro level.
I think Stu’s point was along the lines of…you would’nt go to Mario Lemieux to teach you how to be a great hockey player because he just is and probably could’nt show you how. The same could probably be said of Michael Jordan, or Jerry Rice. They would probably tell you to work hard and they could probably show you a couple things, but they could’nt teach you to be like them as so much of what they have is simply a gift.


I’m not too sure about your basic premise. There certainly are athletes for whom the game comes so naturally that they can’t explain what they do, but many of the all-time greats are great because they combine talent with relentlessly practiced skills and tireless study of the game. The three athletes you listed probably would be excellent coaches in my opinion–particularly Rice, who always compensated for a lack of breakaway speed by running absolutely picture-perfect routes and concentrating with such intensity that he seemed never to drop a ball after his rookie season.

Rice could probably teach the position of wide receiver better than anyone who ever played because his excellence was more a triumph of good hands, hard work, and knowledge of the game than of speed and “talent.” Jordan had phenomenal physical gifts, but he also had an understanding of the ins and outs of the game of basketball that few others will ever have. Lemieux seems to understand the game of hockey on a different level than anyone but Gretzky as well. I have no doubt whatsoever that either would make an excellent coach because they both understand the game so well.

The biggest problem that the all-time great has as a coach isn’t that he did so much on natural talent; it’s that he’s bound to get frustrated by the fact that the people playing for him don’t have that same degree of talent. That’s what Jordan’s problem was with the Wizards: even in the front office at thirty-eight years old, he was the most talented basketball player attached to the team. For an all-time great to be a good coach, what’s needed isn’t a deeper understanding of the sport–people who are determined to get their names in the record books and to get themselves talked about 50 years later study the sport every bit as intently as those who are just barely hanging on to their positions on the roster. What’s needed is the patience to apply what you’ve learned about the game to those less talented than you.

You’d get a lot more agreement from me had you brought up players like Ken Griffey Jr., Allen Iverson, or Randy Moss. Players like this seem to skate on natural talent more that truly understand every nuance of the game. They’re the people who are more talented than some of the all-time greats, but who will fall short of greatness because they don’t pursue an encyclopedic understanding of the game or the highest standards of physical conditioning.

I think Stu’s point was that just because someone is the best player, doesn’t mean the’re the best coach.

Trust me, I asked him.

Of course there are exceptions, feel free to pick the ones you want. Everybody can have their favorites.

I truly believe that most great players who have a strong understanding of the game do so by intuition and less by tireless research and film work. That is the reason they often fail to capable of teaching the game well to lesser athletes. Yes there are exceptions but I believe it is more often the player who was the “plugger” and had to work for every ounce of success as a player who makes the more successful coach.

Magnus I’d have to agree with you on that last post all the way up to one man,

Payton Manning.

He’s got the genes to be the top athlete that he is, but it’s well documented that his research and film study overshadows a lot of coaches.

I listened to an interview with him last monday and it was amazing how prepared he was for New England, and that was Monday.


My point was simply that “plugger” and “great player” are hardly mutually exclusive. The great players who have become great coaches have all gone at understanding every nuance of the game with the intensity of someone whose job was on the line. I agree wholeheartedly that you’re not going to be a good coach unless you were a plugger, but show me a bigger plugger anywhere than Jerry Rice or Larry Bird. Bird became an excellent coach, and I have no doubt in my mind that Rice would do the same. Both far exceeded the natural limits of their God-given talent, even though both had more talent than most people who ever played their respective sports.