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11 December 2014

Ed Smith: for some coaches it’s not about improving sporting skills but about moulding people

Many high achievers, across all disciplines, have troubled and complex relationships with people who pushed them. I would like to pretend that psychological bullying never works, but clearly it can.

By Ed Smith

The film director Bennett Miller uses sport to explore ideas. Moneyball showed geeks outmuscling jocks, as the Oakland “A’s” baseball team used mathematical wizardry to find new ways of winning. Where Moneyball lauded the scientific method and enlightened rationality, Miller’s new film, Foxcatcher (which won him this year’s best director award at Cannes), takes us to sport’s darkest corners. The theme is possession, the hook is the pursuit of glory, the subtext is sexual ambiguity, the poison is wealth, and the setting is family life – both blood relations and the assumed family of a team.

Foxcatcher is based on a true story. Mark and Dave Schultz, who grew up in a poor, rootless and disjointed American family, found in wrestling a way of channelling their competitiveness and frustration. Both won gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Although athletic equals, Dave was the senior as well as older sibling: he was Mark’s coach and mentor, his father figure, his cornerman in life as well as in the ring. Mark needed help; Dave liked to provide it.

For the Schultz brothers, wrestling was a way of life, an anchor in an uncertain world. According to the film, for John du Pont – heir to the du Pont chemical empire and one of the richest men in America – wrestling was a toy and a compliant plaything in an emotional desert. Unloved by his aristocratic and horse-obsessed mother, du Pont craved friendship and, above all, a sense of relevance. He bought his way in to wrestling, creating an unparalleled training camp at the family’s Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania. Elite wrestling in America was, in effect, airdropped on to the manicured lawns of the du Pont luxury enclave.

Was he prompted by a love for the sport? It is a moot point. He clearly sensed that wrestling’s poverty and weak infrastructure made it vulnerable to his advances. Du Pont installed himself as head coach and mentor at Foxcatcher, though whether he did any real coaching is questionable. He focused on his own mythology: “A coach is a father, a coach is a mentor,” he announced in a self-funded promotional video, flanked by bronze eagles and vainglorious iconography, “a coach has great power over an athlete’s life.”

When du Pont latched on to Mark Schultz, that longing for power tripped into obsession. He wanted to possess him, not merely help him. Du Pont craved a son, a trophy and a surrogate lover. He installed Mark at Foxcatcher, throwing money and prizes at him, trying to rewire the young man’s thinking, asserting himself and not Dave as Mark’s rock and support network.

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Du Pont’s neurosis became intertwined with nationalist paranoia. Once, the du Pont dynasty had armed America; the new scion interpreted training and possessing a young American wrestler as the perfect metaphor for dynastic pride. He convinced himself that, in “saving” Mark, he was saving America. It led him on to a tragic collision course with Dave. Du Pont died in prison, having failed to persuade a jury that he was insane when he shot the elder brother on the grounds of the Foxcatcher estate.

What wider relevance has this bleak story? In this instance, an ambiguous relationship tripped into outright evil. But in vastly watered-down proportions, that same ambiguity – about motive, dependence and the emotional neediness of people who are apparently dispensing support – is common in coaching, in education and in families.

“What’s he getting out of this?” Dave asks his brother about du Pont’s influence at the beginning of the film. It is a much wider question. How many parents – especially in the warped age of the Tiger Mother and the mythology that “genius” can be created on a spreadsheet following 10,000 hours of dedicated practice – seek glory for themselves through their children?

As a young cricketer, I watched many parents on the boundary struggle to contain how deeply their own self-esteem and confidence were tangled up with their son’s performance. It was often unhealthy and counterproductive. But it is wishful thinking to claim that it never worked. Many high achievers, across all disciplines, have troubled and complex relationships with people who pushed them.

I would like to pretend that psychological bullying never works, but clearly it can. Andre Agassi’s autobiography depicts his father as a maniacal obsessive, driving and coercing his son to greatness. Agassi won his early grand slam titles despite hating tennis. He was a champion. He was deeply unhappy. You decide which should have the last word.

Even Rafael Nadal, always so boyishly courteous and unfailingly chivalric in defeat, knows that his uncle can be an overbearing presence on the sideline. Toni Nadal has coached his nephew from childhood, shaping the adult Rafa as a construction of the perfect champion. Nadal has 14 grand slams to his name, but has the uncle’s control reflex limited Rafa’s independence and maturity? In the words of Rafa, it has all been “a fine balance”.

Even in strictly professional situations, power struggles revolve subliminally around psychological possession and control. Alex Ferguson used his captain Roy Keane as the cutting edge of the manager’s huge competitiveness and willpower. When Keane began to challenge Ferguson directly, the relationship collapsed. It might have survived far longer if the alliance had not once been so visceral and fierce.

Moneyball argued that cleverness and ingenuity could triumph over cash without brains. Foxcatcher, cloying and tense, depicts vast wealth shielding the rich from proper scrutiny but also from the help that they might need. The two films make a diptych, with money acting as the hinge. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)