Most people know that John Chaney was famous for his focus on disciplined approach to coaching basketball at Temple University. In fact, Chaney was such an unrelenting taskmaster that the famous 5 a.m. practice sessions were just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes, it was told, Chaney would hold practices where he would lecture the team the entire session. His players would just sit there rapt with both fear and wonderment as the coach waxed on about topics that had nothing to do with basketball.
Chaney didn’t have guidelines or rules for his players to follow – he laid down the law. Whatever came out of his mouth was followed to the very last detail… or else. Needless to say, Chaney’s players were not too eager to find out what would happen if they crossed him.
One of Chaney’s laws was that his team was not allowed to talk during the bus ride to the arena before a game. They were supposed to sit quietly and focus on the game and the task at hand. Talking, laughing or other types of socialization were forbidden until the game was over.
Once during the ride to the game a fire broke out on the back of the bus. The story goes that the small blaze burned for a while until the driver finally pulled over to put it out. Yet during the entire fire, Chaney’s sat in stony silence. No one said a word. Even as a fire raged on the team bus, Chaney’s players were so programmed to follow the rules that even the risk of life and limb kept them quiet.
Whether or not such coaching tactics are effective are open to debate and there certainly is no shortage of coaches using such theories. Actually, back in the ninth grade my basketball team followed similar guidelines. For games on the road we were expected to wear ties, a team sweater, a blazer (which we wore to school anyway) and we were not allowed to talk at all, though I imagine the rule would have been waived if a fire broke out.
The idea, of course, was to focus on the game, but the truth is it did nothing more than make traveling to a basketball game feel like a job. Worse, we were a bad team that might have won six games all year. Off the bus we bickered, complained, whined and undermined each other for everything from minutes on the court to shots to spots to set up the offense.
The entire season was miserable.
But the following season at McCaskey High, we didn’t have to be quiet on the bus ride. Instead, we talked, told jokes, laughed and had a great time. We also carried a large boom box on trips that we blasted as part of the pre-game routine. In the days before iPods or even the proliferation of CDs, the boom box was intimidating – that was especially the case when the city kids from McCaskey rolled out to the sticks to play teams around the county.
Better yet, the loose, relaxed atmosphere was perfect for a bunch of kids looking to have fun playing basketball. That year we went 16-1. The following season we won 20 games and went to the District playoffs – we even beat a few “powerhouse” teams during the regular season. The year after that we went to the league championship game, and we never even had to be quiet.
Needless to say, such tactics don’t work with pro athletes. That type of forced asceticism as a motivation ploy is foolhardy for the best one percent of athletes in the world. They are motivated enough already, and when the millions and millions of dollars are factored into the mix, what good is forcing grown men to have a faux intensity?
Why no good at all.
But that doesn’t mean coaches and managers don’t try it. In the case of Charlie Manuel it isn’t so much as a matter of motivation – his players are already intense enough. If you don’t believe that, try talking to Chase Utley for three hours following a loss. Chances are it’s not going to be especially insightful.
Focus, though, is a buzzword that transcends all levels of sports. In the pros team have psychologists to help players keep their heads clear. In baseball, since players spend more time with teammates than their family during the season, cards, golf, video games and movies are omnipresent.
However, sometimes those things are taken away. When Larry Bowa managed the Phillies, players were not allowed to take golf clubs on road trips. Charlie Manuel famously removed the ping pong table from the clubhouse back when he was managing the Indians when he thought his players were too intent on winning at ping pong than baseball.
Otherwise, Manuel is fairly laidback with his players. His reasoning is that preparation is a personal task. With so much at stake for every player in the room, no one is intentionally going to be less than ready for a game.
But sometimes they might need a little extra reminder. Take last Sunday’s doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium, for instance. After taking apart the Mets in the opener to climb within a game of first place, Manuel posted a notice that no televisions in the cramped clubhouse were to be tuned to football.
Even though the opening Sunday of the NFL season was in full swing and the players had a keen interest in the games, Charlie Manuel was not ready for some football... at least not before the nationally televised nightcap against the Mets.
Certainly the Phillies have wiled away the afternoon watching sports on TV before games. During a trip to D.C. a couple years back, players spent the time before batting practice lounging on oversized couches to watch the World Cup matches. Suddenly, the tiny clubhouse at RFK had become the best little sports bar in The District.
Saturday college football also piques the interest of ballplayers, though (obviously) not to the degree as other baseball games. Even the broadcast Little League World Series draws in the viewers in big league clubhouses.
But the prohibition on the NFL last Sunday showed that Manuel meant business. Good-time Charlie was clearly taking the game against the Mets more seriously than the other ones in the series. It was as clear as the black void on the closed down TV set.
Maybe that’s why the Phillies laid a big egg last Sunday night.
Nothing went right for the Phillies following the football ban. Ace Cole Hamels turned in a clunker, the team was sloppy on defense where failed execution and errors led to costly runs and the bats sleepwalked through most of the game. Hell, Manuel even got himself ejected during the first inning.
Maybe he wanted to go back to his office in the clubhouse and catch up on some football.