This Sporting Life: The Problem of the Coach on Screen

This Sporting Life: The Problem of the Coach on Screen
Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) gives a pep talk in Any Given Sunday. Photo: Warner Bros.

Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) gives a pep talk in Any Given Sunday. Photo: Warner Bros.

Gaël Monfils is a wild and dangerous tennis professional. From his opponents you hear this repeated refrain: you never know quite what he is going to do next. He takes boundless, energy-defying leaps across the court to reach out-of-reach balls, only to slam those balls into the net’s unbridgeable barrier with the repetition of the sportingly insane. He has all of the talent and more in the world for tenni s- but a significant portion of that always seems to go to waste.

Gaël Monfils is uncoached – and, in his own words, uncoachable too. Uncoached at the moment, that is, having been through seven in his ten-year career. Being uncoached and uncoachable makes a player unpredictable, like a child abandoned to the wilderness without human contact. A coach – or a good one at any rate – moulds and instructs until he has constructed an image of himself; until he’s fashioned an error-free effigy of perfection.

No role in sport is quite so misunderstood – and there is no role quite so open to stereotype. Cinema, ever-eager for easy soundbites and cliché, has limpeted onto the idea of the coach as a pseudo-martial rabble-rouser who wields a broadsword of motivational metaphors. Think of the Al Pacino-induced hilarity of Any Given Sunday, where the great man adopts a hoarser voiced version of himself to play Tony D’Amato, the hard-bitten, twice-shy coach of the Miami Sharks. “We can climb towards the light and fight our way out of Hell,” intones Pacino-D’Amato in the film’s climactic locker-room scene – floridity surely more at home in the pages of the King James Bible than in a room full of testosterone-fuelled megatrons. Still, such themes persist.

Directors must tick off a sizeable ream of stock features to come up with an acceptable – and accepted – cinematic sports coach. He must, first of all, be a family man – because, as another great sporting cliché goes, a team should be one big happy family. “You know who your Daddy is, don’t you? Gary, if you want to play on this football team you answer me when I ask: ‘Who is your Daddy?’” These are the words of Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington in Jerry Bruckheimer’s exceptionally execrable Remember the Titans (2000), set around the 1971 racial integration of T.C. Williams High School in Virginia.

A combination of stolidity, toughness and aggression is essential for the would-be coaching film star. Samuel L. Jackson’s Coach Carter (2005) arrives on scene at California’s Richmond High School to teach basketball with a thousand-yard scowl and a pate as shiny as the surface on which his game is played. Ken Carter is perhaps more law enforcement officer than martial commander – he is fond of gunning out verbal bullets like “Push up or shut up” – but he shares a grim demeanour common to many of his fictional brothers. “’Sir’ is a term of respect – and you will have my respect until you abuse it,” he barks at his charges on one of their first meetings – an eerie if unintentional allusion to Herman Boone, who tells his team, “This is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law”.

The coach in American cinema has become a vehicle for the didacticism of moralising. With that, he has also turned into a parody of himself- and of the real thing. Jerry Bruckheimer’s second and marginally improved effort at a feel-good sports film, Glory Road, sees Don Haskins, the coach of Texas Western University, lead a team of exclusively black players to the 1966 Basketball National Championship by recruiting boys unwanted by the bigger, more prestigious American colleges. Unfortunately Bruckheimer, as is his wont, takes a sledgehammer approach to what should have been a fascinating subject and turns Haskins into a basketballing version of Boone, replete with talking-doll phrases like “Your dignity’s inside you. Nobody can take something away from you you don’t give them”.

The televisual adaptation of Friday Night Lights (2006) turned Buzz Bissinger’s unparalleled examination of High School American Football and its importance to a West Texan town into an extended portrait of one, bland man. Eric Taylor has a family he adores, he’s tough as old boots, he treats the players like his sons – and he coaches football. You could swap him in for Boone or Haskins or even D’Amato and few would notice the difference, because the screen has a curiously effective way of decanting any coach’s character into a few very neatly-ordered test tubes.

It would be wrong to think that it’s only the American film industry that has a problem portraying the coach. Michael Sheen took David Peace’s dark, psychologically-troubled Brian Clough from The Damned United and morphed him into something approaching a comedic figure – if not quite the court jester, then certainly not the tormented figure Peace re-imagined him as.

Perhaps, then, this malaise is a problem common to cinema as a whole. “We” go to watch films to be entertained – to be put through the emotional grist before the satisfyingly happy pay-off at the end. In the real world, however, the coach’s endgame is seldom happy. If he’s not fading into obscurity then he’s tarnishing his legacy by staying in a job far too long, until he’s simply a memory of his former dignity. Such was the case with Clough in his later years at Nottingham Forest – funny how a gradual drowning by alcoholism and professional failure was not made into a film.

I think the true reason however for the coach’s stilted portrayal on screen is that the best ones just aren’t that interesting. It goes back to the idea I write about earlier – that the role of the coach is to bring his or her charge as near to perfection as is humanely possible. The coach pans for flaws like tarnished gold, and when he finds them he picks out the pieces and analyses them until tarnish becomes burnish. Hollywood’s deathly-dull portrayals are simply hyper-realised versions of background figures who exist to make others better – and through that achievement make both themselves and their subjects less interesting.

All of which is why I will stick to following the uncoached, uncoachable Gaël Monfils and his glorious imperfections. Andy Murray, on the other hand – now there’s a man you could make a film out of…

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

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