On coaching comparisons and team psychology – by Norweigan Oiler

By , October 24, 2009 10:42 am

It is as inevitable as gravity, tidal cycles and Leaf-suckage – fans and experts alike compare head coaches Pat Quinn and Craig MacTavish. The roster MacTavish commanded in his last Oilers campaign has all but entirely spilled over into Quinn’s reign, and we are tempted to draw some early conclusions. As anyone can easily observe the results have immediately improved. Though the statistical sample is limited our record stands at 6-2-1 for a strong .722 point percentage after 9 games. That, of course, has a particularly satisfying taste to the neglected palates of Oilers society, having been starved with the mediocre pastries of .500 hockey for years. But alas, this is only statistics and as Evan Esar said “It is the only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions.” Still, the conclusions here seem to flow in the same vein – Pat Quinn is a better coach than Craig MacTavish. The questions are; Is Quinn really better? If so, why is he better? What has changed? How has it changed?

In an act of horrendous (but effective) pedagogy I have through the years been repeatedly bludgeoned with the concept that correlation does not in itself imply causation and I, wisely and in fear of retribution, find reason to apply it in this situation. In any case that knowledge should incite a willingness to take a closer look. Our collective problem is, and mine particularly accentuated by the geographical distance to the situation, that we are not privvy to much information on which to base our impressions. We have no extended eye into the practices, we can not smell the atmosphere in the airplane after a road game, nor can we hear the words spoken in the locker room. The absence of information often leads to the creation of information, as we can experience here. The less we know the more we imagine. We can only speculate if MacTavish was actually abusing his coaching powers, consciously holding players back or in other ways directly hampered the team’s progress on his own. Equally we can not conclusively say that Pat Quinn is holding this positive rally or whispering that encouraging word. What we can do is observe the results and they do speak to some change. The electricity of the team and the fans runs through our Copper (and Blue) with some momentum right now, but who are the true conductors?

This is where a section of the fanbase splits, one group believing that it is the coach’s job to motivate, another advocating that the players must themselves be the primary motivators. Not surprisingly perhaps, I see it as a more dynamic relationship. I do not, whatsoever, believe in the sports-movie cliché of the intermission pep-rally that somehow turns the tide on its own. Lou Holtz provides a thoroughly descriptive quote on the relationship between ability and mentality: “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” An outside observer can be reduced to tears when he realizes that someone’s great ability (and hence, potential) goes unrealized, but who is to blame for that? In our desire to ascribe blame we tend to choose either player(s) or coach – but is that really right? Remember, the mythological mosaic ‘scapegoat’ was unfairly selected to carry the people’s sins and was sent away to perish.

So, if the players’ provide the ‘ability’ part of the equation, who is responsible for motivation? Illustrious businessman Donald Trump has said that “Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.” If we assume that it is somewhat applicable to hockey players as well, which it might be in many cases, salary is not a very big influence in terms of motivation. To me it is indeed hard to conclude (or even imagine) that players hit the ice thinking about dollars. Then what motivates?

If we continue to explore the three-pronged explanation of Lou Holtz (ability, motivation, attitude) we must take into account who is responsible for attitude - which has arguably been the single most visual change from MacTavish’s Oilers to Quinn’s Oilers. Dustin Penner recently illuminated what is often a dim area to observe for fans – claiming that he is now allowed to ‘play his game’ to a greater extent, without having to worry about making the odd mistake. His attitude has changed from being on the defensive to being more assertive and assuming control on the ice. And what a change that has been! Obviously it can be easy then to assume that the correlation between Penner’s struggles under MacTavish and Penner’s success under Quinn implies that there is also an underlying cause within those frames. In this case I believe so, but it is certainly a dual relationship. Dustin Penner came into camp fitter, stronger and more aggressive and Quinn was able to nurture it. This is what can be so fascinating with coaching (or any kind of teaching) – how easily one can get locked in a state of mind and how hard it can be to change it once the mould has been set. MacTavish might have gotten off to a bad start with Penner, thus inducing a situation where Penner felt (justly or not) that he could not ‘win’ (or be seen in a ‘new’ light). Time will tell if Quinn’s man management is good enough to avoid getting caught in the same one-way street with other players. It is still hard to say what actually triggers the attitude necessary for success and who gets the snowball of good spirits rolling – player or coach? In that winter-anology, it may be possible to say that the players’s confidence is the snow (and the amount of it) and the influences the temperature. Too warm and it all melts away. Too cold and it’s useless powder. The snowball only gathers momentum at the right temperature – has Quinn has been a mercury-controlling master so far?

“Selecting the right person for the right job is the largest part of coaching” claimed Phillip Crosby elementarily. Though its essence is entirely true I dispute that it is in fact the largest part to select the right person for the right job. I argue that the most requisite task is to define the right roles from what material you have. That is one area in which Pat Quinn has excelled so far. Nevertheless, Quinn has had the aid of a complete package that MacTavish was not in possession of in the last years of his tenure. Where MacTavish had a hard time creating a ‘new’ atmosphere in which to initiate lasting positive change, a coaching change in itself tends to create that situation by its own right. As marleysouth cleverly pointed out in another thread, MacTavish called for Penner to become fitter in order to fulfill his potential as a first line forward, he called for Hemsky do be more diligent in his own zone and so forth. MacTavish obviously had the ideas but not the means. As a bartender can’t make a fizzy drink with flat beverage and a carpenter can’t build a sturdy structure with rotten wood, MacTavish couldn’t realize his ideas when his message was either not delivered or received well enough. Or was MacTavish simply an unimaginative bartender, a clueless carpenter or a unqualified coach?

From interviews I conclude that the players’ attitudes are significantly more open, offensive and enthusiastic, not just from listening to their words (which are more often than not taken from the big book of hockey clichés) but from observing their demeanor. Has Quinn and Renney bred this change or has it been conceived by the players themselves? Some have argued that MacTavish favoured certain players or player types and that this led to dissent in the locker room – but much like MacTavish sometimes gave players like Reddox, Petersen or Thoresen quality minutes so has Quinn done with the likes of Jacques, Stone or Stortini. If Quinn continues down the same lane, will the mutineers re-emerge? Evidently, Quinn has delivered a clear message and preaches a concise message – is that the key? Was MacTavish too eloquent, too much of a professor, too overcomplicating? Did the players simply not understand the message that MacTavish wanted to convey? That’s when the circle is completed and we must again ask, who is responsible for a coaching system’s success? The coach or the players?

(Again, apologies for the long-windedness. I have highlighted some questions in italics so they’re easier to recognise if anyone wants to get to the bone without tearing the flesh)

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