Friday, February 23, 2007

Flat and Flattened: Leadership lessons from the A-League

I saw Dr Marty Seligman speak today. His main football message was his response to a question about his appreciation of people that have positively influenced his life. It was not until his sixtieth birthday that he realised that people like his football coach had influenced his life so much and, in this case, influenced the type of football player he turned out to be. Before that he had assumed that his achievements had been the results of his own efforts.

Well, John Kosmina at 50 has had a similar revelation. But John's enlightenment has been about his influence through his actions on his players. He is reported to have said, 'For me, a big part of life is learning from your mistakes, and I've learned a lot from mine.' Well John, it is a pity you did not learn some of these lessons a lot earlier. Like before you became a professional coach with the weight of the future of the A-League on your shoulders.

My guess is that John learnt that if you swear at a referee and accuse him of cheating and then laugh at the sanction the professional body puts on you - saying that your team could be coached from a coffee shop, then don't be surprised if your senior players copy your lead in the next match. As Dr Seligman pointed out, even though you think that your skills and behaviour as a footballer are the result of your own efforts, they are in fact shaped by your coach. If your coach shouts and swears when under pressure, then so will even your best players.

This is why John had to go. Whether he can resurrect his career at the A-League level is a tough call. The A-League has only 8 teams and it has now had 19 coaches in only two seasons. Even getting a chance at a second go is a big call. Only Laurie McKinna and Ernie Merrick have survived the whole way through.

Plus the FFA is likely to be really cheezed with John. His behaviour and its halo on his team was the main story for the A-League's two key games for 2006-7. He over-shadowed tributes to Archie Thompson's five goals, to Fred's wizardry and even descriptions about just how poorly Adelaide played, particularly their defense. It did not allow football analysts to draw their own conclusions about Nathan Burns' disallowed goal or whether or not Thompson was offside for his fourth.

It also overshadowed the announcement today that Greg Owens has left Adelaide despite a year to run on his contract. I wonder what happened in that dressing room at half time when Owens was subbed.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

On Finals Eve: A John Kosmina story

John Kosmina joked about his suspension. And few would believe that he is in any way likely to change his behaviour. After all, anger management classes made no difference. As one of his former players told me, ‘That’s how John plays his football.’

The problem for the FFA is that it isn’t really John’s behaviour they want to change. After all whatever he said to referee Matthew Breeze last week it captured the media attention. Probably more than the prospect of the final itself. After all it will be the third time these two teams have met in four weeks. Media readership outside Melbourne and Adelaide are more interested in Australia’s failure in one-day cricket and the build up to the winter codes. So for most, saying the teams are evenly matched is probably enough information. Kossie gave the press a general interest story t could run with for days - eve a 24 hour extension for his case to keep it all burning.

No, the problem for the FFA is 1. How others’ judge it by its response particularly on football’s reputation for violence, and 2. Whether Kosmina’s behaviour affects how others treat football refs. Particularly at junior level, the FFA struggles to get enough refs and assistants to cover all the games. And Matthew Breeze, our number two ref, has a non-football day job.

The John Kosmina story should be a good one. Frank Farina says he is the best coach in Australia. And he was a hot tip to take over from Terry Butcher at Sydney - before Branko Culina (Jason’s dad) got the nod for 14 games. Fifty year old Kosmina has managed to keep going in Australian football for 34 years (less one game at Arsenal). He was a star of the National Soccer League, a highly regarded 60 cap Socceroo, he coached Brisbane, Newcastle and Adelaide in the NSL and won home and away season of version one of the A-League. Adelaide will be in this year’s and next year’s Asian Cup. And by tomorrow night, he could be an A-League champion. Plus Graham Arnold has made him assistant Socceroo coach and John has said he would like to coach the Socceroos one day. Also, John is very well known by the media and he promotes the game to them regularly. And by and large the media is forgiving, or at least see the funny-side, of his behaviour (but not of others that emulate it).

This story probably made the FFA’s decision difficult. Punish John hard and the FFA could cop the blame if Adelaide lose. And Adelaide need to win to ensure it can attract quality players to replace potential retirees from this squad. And some fans could be put off.

But then there are those two problems. Refs already get enough abuse across all age-groups to put potential refs off. And this is Kosmina’s second suspension this season. The first was for football violence. Last season the problem was publicly arguing with other coaches.

So summing that up, I think a five-week ban from the technical area and an undisclosed fine is not going to stop John losing it again and I think it will not counter the weight of his actions to encourage bad behaviour from other coaches, players and parents. And what do the FFA do next time?

Here perhaps the FFA could learn from Cricket Australia’s long-term punishment of Shane Warne. After multiple misdo minas Cricket Australia made it clear (but I don’t think they ever said out loud) that Warne would not captain Australia, he was dropped early from the one-day squad and, despite his clear brilliance, he never won the Alan Border medal for best player. Coaching the Socceroos is an equivalent position to captaining the cricket team. So perhaps we should expect to see John gracefully cite pressure of the Asia cup and step back from the Socceroos. And then the FFA will never have to ‘say out loud’ and Adelaide can keep their coach. Like Warne, a clear exception could be made for John - behaviour tolerated but ‘don’t try this at home because the punishment will be made to fit you’.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell Blogview

I spoke to Malcolm Gladwell today and I didn’t miss the opportunity to discuss football. Well, partly it was about how football is not his passion. But don’t worry about that. We were both born in England in the same year and we were both there in 1966. He somehow was not impacted by the sporting events of that year. Or at least not in ways that are recognisable. But it could be in his unconscious when he makes decisions? About the same time his parents headed for Canada, mine headed for Australia.

And yet Malcolm did have some very important things to say about sport and football in particular.

Malcolm’s ideas as I heard them

Malcolm made the point that a small percentage of people have both a large social network (say 150 plus close non-family relationships as opposed to 35 for most of us), and contacts in many different social worlds (say 15 to 20 different social groups as opposed to 3 to 5). Social worlds could be professions or sporting groups or say particular artistic interest groups. These people, he calls them connectors, rapidly transfer information across an organisation or across society. So when there is a crisis or a call to action, it is generally the connectors we hear and perhaps follow - as opposed to others that have no connection to us.

Then there is another group of people, that Malcolm calls mavens, who accumulate knowledge about particular subjects. Briefly, the idea is that in a society where there is too much information to be helpful for people to make decisions about very complex issues, we rely on the advice of mavens. The example he gave was buying a laptop and relying on the advice of his brother who has a piece of tape in the middle of his glasses.

Malcolm also talked about how people who study a subject deeply and gain extensive practical experience develop an ability to tap into their unconscious to made very fast and accurate decisions. Here he used the example of Ronaldo who will take a striking opportunity instantaneously, without conscious thought, by drawing on all his experience and training. And that if he did think about the shot then someone would have the time to take the ball from him. Or as we often see in the A-League, a player creates a fantastic opportunity, and then takes time to think about his shot and powers it straight to the goalkeeper or wide. So Malcolm would probably advise that we need to select strikers that can act ‘at a glance’, who will look at a fast moving situation and be able to make the correct call and to subconsciously draw on their knowledge and training. And make the decision that gets the goal.

I asked Malcolm about his emphasis on people over decision making technologies. And this is where we hit sporting pay-dirt. He said:

‘I am a big sports fan and there is a debate about the use of computer driven algorithms to assess the skills of players… there are limits to this type of analysis, some people are un-coach-able, or may do drugs and stay up late or may not exercise in the off season, the computer may not pick these things up. So you need both computers and intuitive assessment for complex issues.’

We discussed American author Michael Lewis’s Moneyball which is about how the last placed team in American baseball became the first placed team by using a computer algorithm to select players.

Malcolm Gladwell is a great speaker and has written two books:

‘The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference’ Abacus 2000
‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ Little, Brown and Company (2005)

He is also a writer with the New Yorker Magazine and is currently writing his third book.
Malcolm on sport.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Newcastle 3-2 … run devil run .. over-stimulation

Newcastle 2 - Sydney 0 (first leg Newcastle 1 - Sydney 2)
Record crowd for Newcastle at 24,338
Referee Matthew Breeze

At the end of the game Terry Butcher kicked up a large divot of turf. The retort would have been ‘leave our turf alone.’ But Newcastle fans would not have noticed this misdo mina. Euphoria held sway.

The first half of the game surprised me. Sydney played defence. But Alex Brosque allowed himself to get frustrated. He and a few other Sydney players were over-stimulated. Stimulation can be key in big games where the performance formula is so critical:
Confidence + Motivation + Talent = performance

Sydney has a coach that relies heavily on stimulation to feed motivation. But his approach and other off-field machinations may have affected motivation, and training interruptions and injuries may have affected talent. Perhaps instead of water bottles and shouting they could have done with calmness and meditation. To produce:
right Confidence + right Motivation + right Talent = controlled performance

All Sydney needed to do was draw or score within one goal (and let penalties work it out). And yet Alex Brosque let himself get disconnected from Steve Coria, looked like a frustrated lone wolf and gave away two silly, silly, worth a yellow card, fouls. The first only 13 minutes in, and the second on half time. His elbow to Paul Okon’s neck may even have been worth a straight red. Okon felt it and went straight back at Alex. Which led everyone into it. Did someone hit Rudan? Did North head butt Talay or was that a dive? It looked like a dive. What was bench player Sasho Petrovski doing getting himself involved? And if a bench player can get a yellow, can they be given a red, and if so would someone else have had to come off? It looked a bit like, and for the first time I might add, that Matthew Breeze had lost control.

Newcastle were also over-stimulated. Milton Rodriguez missed an open goal early on and in the 60th minute (he was carrying an injury from half way through the first half). Then a hand ball penalty by Talay (same player was let off for this against the Roar) was not given. It is too hard to tell if Talay meant it. But if it did not hit his hand, it was going to go in. And so, think of all the ‘in the box hand balls’ that clearly were not going in but were given as penalties.

Then around the half hour, Joel Griffith beats Rudan and Talay who then combine and trip him up in the box. Again no penalty. Rudan is playing a rough tough game and minutes later gets a deserved yellow card.

And the third missed penalty appeal came in about the 60th minute when Nicky Carle, almost on the 6 yard box, had an open goal but was tacked from behind by Iain Fyfe. If Matthew Breeze had called three penalties chances differently, this game could have turned into a rout. Newcastle are like the Roar in that they find it hard to convince refs to give them the penalties that other teams use to win matches.

After this performance, how are Sydney going to go in the Asia cup where the refs are going to be seeking out Australian aggression? Motivation cannot be allowed to convert into straight aggression. This is training a losing discipline. Over-stimulation is a coaching failure.

As a footnote, the games goals were good. But I was impressed by Bolton. He caught and did not spill the hard shots - like the Milton Rodriguez second half free kick. I like my goalkeepers to catch the ball if all possible. It stops accidents.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Football-Head Reads: Fever Pitch Nick Hornby

Book Review: Fever Pitch Nick Hornby.

The edition I have reviewed is from the Brisbane City Council library. This edition was published by Penguin Books in 2000. Originally Fever Pitch was published by Victor Gollancz in 1992. I have yet to find a copy I can buy locally. So Amazon for new or Alibris for second hand may be the go.

When I think of Nick Hornby I think of the movie About A Boy. I just didn’t realise how much he had to tell me.

Fever Pitch is Hornby’s autobiography in the form of a diary. Each entry is the date of a football match and Hornby describes what happened to him at that match, what was going on in his life and the inter-relationship of the match and his life.

Right at the start I was hooked. This happens to me:

‘’What are you thinking about?’ She asks. At this point I lie. I wasn’t thinking about Martin Amis or Gerard Depardieu or the Labour Party at all. But then, obsessives have no choice; they have to lie on occasions like this. If we told the truth every time, then we would be unable to maintain relationships with anyone from the real world. We would be left to rot with our Arsenal (think your a-League team here) programmes or our collection of original blue-label Stax records or our King Charles spaniels… ‘ pages 1 and 2.

Hornby points out that football is usually about disappointment. About shouting, anticipation and let down. But occasionally this is made worthwhile by fantastic goals and winning. How different to following the Australian cricket team eh, which has now resorted to talking England up because the walk over has been so complete people are now saying why bother. Mind you the English Premier League now has the annual lopsidedness of Manchester United and Chelsea to reduce the expectation of fans. In the A-League, despite Melbourne Victory’s initial run, it could be anyone’s title and therefore is more interesting to all fans. Hornby reminds us that draws mean that winning and perhaps scoring in more than half your games can be an achievement. And yet fans, despite 12th player cliches, are pretty powerless to help their team. So Hornby resorts to internal psychological tactics:

‘if we win the league, I won’t mind the rejection slip. The rejection slip duly came, and hurt like hell for months; but the Championship came too… I know that the bargain I made was the right one… Yet the terrible truth is that I was willing to accept a Conservative government if it guaranteed an Arsenal Cup Final win; I could hardly have been expected to anticipate that Mrs Thatcher would go on to become the longest serving Prime Minister this century… I wouldn’t have settled for anything less than another Double.’ Pages 104 and 105

Hornby also comments on my current interest. Football entertainment. The entertainment spectacle or results based entertainment. In many sports, growing sophistication of strategy and tactics, basketball, rugby, Australian rules, leads to teams winning through defense and dominance of possession. In rugby league, perhaps Australia’s greatest coach of any football code, Warren Ryan and his Wests team, became so proficient at a results based game that they lobbied the code's international body to change its rules so that rugby league remained interesting and therefore kept its fans. If only football could be that flexible. It was in its early history, for example introducing and changing offside rules, but more recent changes seem to have been more about politics. Anyway. Hornby raises this:

‘… the away team are struggling, unambitious also-rans; their manager. . wants a draw… Nobody, not even someone like me, would have been able to remember the game had it not been for the post-match press conference, when Alan Durban became angered by the hostility of the journalists towards his team and his tactics. ‘If you want entertainment,’ he snarled, ‘go and watch clowns.’ It became one of the most famous football quotes of the decade. The quality papers in particular loved it for its effortless summary of modern football culture: here was conclusive proof that the game had gone to the dogs, that nobody cared about anything other than results any more… I have come to believe that Alan Durban was right. It was not his job to provide entertainment. It was his job to look after the interests of the Stoke City fans, which means avoiding defeat away from home… ’ pages 124, 125 and 126.

This quote is set in 1980, right at the heart of Sydney FC coach Terry Butcher’s English football career. When he learned his trade.

Hornby speaks directly on our youths:

‘… it suddenly occurred to me over the next few weeks… that my heroes were not going to age as I did. I will reach thirty-five, forty, fifty, but the players never will… I am more than a decade older than the people I love in the current Arsenal team… they have done things that I never will, and sometimes I feel that if I could just score into the North Bank end and run behind the goal to the fans, than I could at least leave behind all childish things.’ Page 140

And the concern for every parent:

‘There must be many fathers around the country who have experienced the cruellest, most crushing rejection of all: their children ended up supporting the wrong team. When I contemplate parenthood, something I do more and more… I am aware that I am genuinely fearful of this kind of treachery.’ Page 122

Nick Horby has also put together My Favourite Year: A Collection of New Football Writing (Paperback - 31 Aug 2001)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

One more cup of coffee before I go? Or Sydney v Newcastle is even more interesting...

So the current story is Frank Farina.

Former Roar coach Miron was running from this story from about half way through last year. For Miron and many Roar fans the story was - whether true or not:
ex-socceroo coach Frank Farina wants an A-League coaching job and there are only eight. Frank won the grand final for the Brisbane Strikers as captain coach in 1997. So Frank will wait for an opening at the Roar.

And when it became a question of when and fans again began calling out from their seats for Frank, Miron jumped.

But Miron caught everyone off guard. Particularly Frank and more particularly, it appears from press reports, his family. Frank had been preparing Courier Mail readers with hints in his weekly column that he was interested but that Miron had the job. Miron had to make the finals, so maybe the chance was next year. But at about the half-way mark Frank was put on the spot. Take the chance now or risk losing it altogether - a European was said to be interested in buying a share in the Roar and converting it into a feeder club for a major European club (or something like that as an alternative to Frank). And there are only 8 A-League coaching jobs. And he probably didn't want NZ.

So fans are told Frank is at the Roar for two years. Later it transpires that this was a handshake deal without a contract. Everyone wanted to move fast to secure the right outcome. Handshakes can be worth the paper they are written on.

Fast forward to the present. Terry Butcher is not well liked at Sydney. Players have been fighting. Top strikers have not been getting game time. At least one player has signed with a Japanese 2nd division team coached by the former Sydney coach. One of the coaching staff leaves for the same team and others may follow. Apparently, Terry threw water bottles and things around in the dressing room. Plus his game is said to be boring. And he does seem to be in his own world when you see him on the sideline. Also the crowds stayed away.


Come the end of the home and away season when destabilisation isn’t going to impact the Roar performance, someone howls to the press that Sydney FC is interested in Frank and Frank may not want to move to Queensland after all. With that any breathing space that Frank might have had, or needed, to wait for the orderly end of the season and to allow all the cards to fall as they will disappears.

Soon there is a bark in the press that Frank has been asked to commit to two years as our best friend within 24 hours. The deadline passes. Ambiguity reigns. Can Terry yet make the case to stay? What would it take? Enough that Sydney retain their title? Or too late anyway but can’t move for another coach until the season is officially over? And of Frank, there are still only 8 A-League jobs (he has consulted for the two new teams but they are not due till 2008-9 season), and if he leaves the Roar and Sydney does not become available? Maybe Frank needs Newcastle to win well enough to knock out Sydney tomorrow night, and then he can declare his hand?

And for the Roar?
Are fans left thinking that they are the second choice and part of a step in someone’s career plan? Are they left, as the Courier Mail has suggested, with Damian Mori and is he a serious coaching contender? Surely Miron can’t come back? Or will the European reappear? Or was that media handling to make it look like the Roar had thought-out choices?