Monday, November 19, 2012

Cultural Differences and Coaching: Language, Register and Hierarchy between the US and France














Still basking in the glorious afterglow of UCLA thrashing u$c Saturday, I’ve been thinking of the successes of the Bruins’ first-year head coach Jim Mora, Jr., who despite a reputation as an authoritarian and disciplinarian is widely regarded as a “player’s coach.” His players both like and respect him – and he has established a rapport with them where they can easily relate to him and share in his vision. While this has been a successful model for Mora (9-2), the perennial player’s coach in the NFL, Kansas City’s Romeo Crennel, for whom his players have great affection, has the worst record and team (1-9) in the League. This has led me to recently reflect on player-coach relationships and team success.

An article appearing in this morning’s French daily sports paper L’Equipe, written in conjunction with the announced release of former French national soccer manager Raymond Domanech’s memoirs of his beleaguered tenure at the helm of the darkest chapter in the history of the international side, led me to reflect on the impressive cultural differences between players and coaches in France and the US. In an excerpt about the infamous exchange with Nicolas Anelka before halftime of the fateful France/Mexico World Cup 2010 tilt (link, in French, here), Domanech writes the following account (my translation):

     - “(Anelka, to Franck Ribéry, after I told him he wasn’t pressing forward far enough) He’s pissing me off. What the hell is that? Always me!
     - (Patrice Evra intervenes) Alright, guys, let’s calm down; we have another half to play. Everything is alright…
     - (Anelka did not clam down) Motherf***er, why don’t you [tu, the familiar register, ed./ndlr] do it all yourself then, with your shit team! Me, I quit….
   I didn’t hear everything. The rest of his sentence was lost in the chaos of the moment. Oddly, I was less shocked by the swearing/verbal abuse than I was by the use of the familiar register, which broke a barrier – that of duty, of age, of hierarchy.”

A similar story emerged in the Rugby World Cup of 2011. France had beaten Wales in the semi-finals and was preparing to meet host and international colossus New Zealand in the finals. Their manager Marc Lièvremont, who was only 42 at the time of the match and had played with a few of the French internationals as a teammate in the 1999 World Cup, requested that his players rest up and not hit the bars and be seen smoking, drinking or enjoying night scene in Auckland (which, as a cultural side note, is a favorite point of mockery for Anglophone journalists belittling the loose French brand of “champagne rugby”). When papers began publishing paparazzi photos of players doing just that, Lièvremont lost his cool, verbally abusing players in a recorded team meeting and saying to the press (link): “What am I supposed to do? […] They’re a bunch of spoiled brats (sales gosses) – undisciplined, disobedient, selfish at times. They’re always groaning, complaining and have been constant ball-breakers for four years now.” French Number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy took particular offense to this and has said many times that in taking this internal affair out of the locker room, he broke with code and, due to this, Lièvremont effectively lost the respect his team - which, nonetheless, still almost pulled off the unthinkable and heroically played the All Blacks to an narrow 8-7 defeat.

Reflecting on my own brief athletic career, even with the established hierarchy, it was not too uncommon to cuss with or at coaches. And, whether it’s Jerry Jones coming down on coaches or players, Rex Ryan griping about his QB play or Kobe Bryant discussing a teammates fitness level with the press, the hierarchies are certainly not as engrained and the codes much more in flux than in France. This stands as evidence, I believe, of the social function of sport, which remains in France, culturally speaking, a very formative, even aristocratic realm of human exchange; where as, in the States, it is much more about camaraderie and interaction.