“The reign of one of Australian sport’s finest coaches is set to end after Kookaburras mentor Ric Charlesworth announced he will step down after the Commonwealth Games later this year”. With that headline, this blog began, albeit a few months ago. But Ric had one last trick up his sleeve, an early retirement. As was Rics way, he did something different to the norm. I’ll add it to the list as I take the chance to write about our coach, our mentor and my mate Ric.
Many superlatives can be used to describe Ric. Knowledgeable, prepared, thorough, passionate, competitive, honest, influential, cryptic, uncompromising, perfectionist, crazy or stubborn, the list goes on and on. But one of his greatest traits is that he cares about his players and has crafted and perfected the rare ability to extract the best out of most of them. He knows which players need extra attention and which players can handle a kick up the arse. Just as he knows who isn’t working hard enough or who is exceeding expectations.
He adheres to the philosophy of troubling the comfortable and comforting the troubled. It was this mantra that saw him occasionally clash with the greatest female player of our generation, Alyson Annan. “We were all motivated to be the best we could be,” said Annan. “Ric’s undeniable ability to bring the best and the worst out in people is extraordinary. “ It is a shame that it is only when you get older that you begin to realise just how good it was, how great our team was and how dedicated we were to achieve our goals.” It's only been a few months since Ric departed, but I'm already starting to get that feeling...
I had many arguments with Ric, or as he liked to call them, ‘robust discussions’. A contest of ideas he reckons. Contests he still always wanted to win. These robust discussions often left each of us with something to think about even if we didn’t resolve the issue immediately at hand. A handful of times over the past six years I would have either called my Dad or girlfriend and vented. ‘Fucking Ric, what’s his problem?’ to which they would usually reply, ‘why do you think he said that? This would cause me the most annoyance, as more often than not, I'd spend so long trying to work out the meaning behind his comments that I’d often forget what we were even ‘robustly discussing’ in the first place. It usually always circled around to motivating me to be better, to push myself more and reach my true potential. Something I probably failed to do in his time in charge, even with his constant encouragement.
One of the first things Ric ever said to the Kookaburras group was that he would treat us all fairly but not necessarily equally. And to his credit, he upheld this notion for the most part. Glenn Turner lived and trained in Goulburn for a large part of Ric’s time in charge because it enabled him to keep his long-term job and be close to his family. Tristan White shared his time between Wollongong and Perth in order to study and train in the environment best suited to his needs. And Jamie Dwyer skipped a session here and there last year in order to manage his workload leading into the World Cup. All were different circumstances but all were in the best interests of the individual and therefore, the team.
Being a avid reader and wordsmith, Ric would often bamboozle the group with his penchant for big words, some I still believe he made up, but would usually make it an enjoyable experience for all. He used to single Mark Paterson out, he was the human dictionary. Ric would shout out a word, Pato would have to define it, Pato would generally stuff it up and we would all have a good laugh. He would mingle with the group whilst away on tour, not everyday, but just enough. The corridor of the hotel was where he would model his various fashion faux paus’, or as he would call them, ‘future trends’. He would gather many of the single boys in every now and then and give them some advice on how to ‘pick up chicks’. Not many chicks were picked up in those six years. We even found something that Ric wasn’t good at during one tour of Malaysia…playstation. One of the worst to ever pickup the controller. He swore, he whinged, he whined, he stunk the place up with his lousy attempt at AFL and after a few goes at trying to master it, cracked the shits, blamed the game's creators and slunk his way out of the room.
Ric has a pretty quick wit as well, and could deliver a line with timing and enough of an edge to leave you partly laughing but partly shitting yourself. I remember Ric once asking if anyone had replied to his email, asking for information on a previous tour. I replied “I think all of your emails go to my trash Ric”. At that moment he wheeled around and with a menacing look said to me “Well Orch, selection is tomorrow and I have a feeling your name will go straight to the trash bin”. Oops. I made sure I replied to Ric as soon as I got home from training.
In terms of coaching, he achieved a 77 per cent win ratio with both the Hockeyroos and Kookaburras teams. In all, he won 333 matches as coach, losing just 50. Find me a coach with a better record over such a long period and I will eat my hockey stick.
Doctor, politician, Sheffield Shield cricket captain (although it was said ‘paint dried and grass grew faster than Ric scored runs’), exceptional hockey player then decorated coach, consultant to Indian hockey, New Zealand cricket and the Fremantle Dockers AFL team, Ric, at 62, decided it was time to retire and spend more time with his young family. And who could blame him. He has given so much to hockey, and sport in general. He has revolutionised the way hockey is played to the point where the Kookaburras are now lauded by the public worldwide and are the envy of all of our competitors.
His outspoken approach has at times brought criticism and misunderstanding, but he has never backed down from wanting to improve the game and to keep it contemporary in an ever changing sporting landscape.
Here, a direct quote from Ric sums up our style of play the best “I think what I always tried to do as a coach were create teams that were exceptional – teams that did things better than everybody else, teams that pushed the margins, that extended themselves, and tried to dominate and change the game.”
He’s amongst the greatest coaches in the modern sporting era but was still learning and evolving after 20 years in the game. Soccer analyst and World Cup commentator Simon Hill made the comment after Brazil 2014 that teams which attack with lightning pace, and press high with dynamic energy have inherited the earth. Now I realise soccer isn’t hockey but the games have many similarities and it’s no coincidence that the style of play that set the football world alight in Brazil was first pioneered in hockey by Ric in 2009 when he took over the Kookaburras. He’s that far ahead of the game…
In one of my last ‘robust discussions’ with Ric, we discussed the future and it was then that I saw the first signs that maybe he had grown tired of the coaching caper. He had always said that a coach’s lifespan was about 6-8 years, anymore than that and he thought the message and the process started to become a bit stale.
I walked away from that meeting with a sense that he was carrying some uncertainty about his role as head coach. I've often thought a man of his ilk would never struggle with self-confidence but I feel it’s often the greatest people that require the most positive reinforcement, something that probably didn’t come from our group all too often. He asked me if I thought he was the right man for the job (perhaps tongue in cheek) and I’m pretty sure he cut me off before I could say anything…
What I wanted to say was 'yes, of course you are. You, along with the rest of our coaching staff are the reason we are the best side in the world. You’ve taught us how to be better hockey players and in the last 12-24 months especially, better men as well. You motivate players to realise their potential and reach levels no one else thought possible. You’re more than a coach, you’re a mentor, a teacher, a father figure, a mate. And above all else Ric, the part that impresses me the most is that you have maintained the focus and purpose to sustain excellence whilst everyone else struggles to sustain success'.
I went home that day, after the meeting, and wrote a two-page email basically saying a lot of the stuff in this blog but never sent it. I just let it sit. I don’t think it would have changed his mind about coaching but at least then he would of known how I felt. Hopefully after reading this he will…even though he professes to never reading this ‘rubbish’.
To finish, after the London Olympics Ric sent us all out an individual review. Mine wasn’t great and it annoyed me. He wanted to meet up, I didn’t. But finally we got hold of each other and that was when I told him that review aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the Olympic experience and that although I was extremely disappointed to not win a gold medal with my teammates in London, I was still happy.
He still thinks I’m crazy. Can't comprehend it. I don’t think he could believe what he was hearing. How could I say that, especially as he was so disappointed, taking a lot of the blame upon himself? This is the one thing I thought Ric could do better, enjoy the ride, make the most of the good and bad and remember that it is only a game. Alas, he doesn’t think that way.
But for me, a quote from Alyson Annan’s book says it best. “Failure is never fun, but success doesn’t guarantee happiness. What guarantees happiness, whether you have failed or succeeded, is knowing that you gave it your best effort”. I think everyone can train harder, longer, better, with more determination, energy and effort. I could of done much more. But as a coach, Ric left no stone unturned in his quest, our quest for an Olympic gold medal. So instead of being so hard on yourself Ric, pat yourself on the back for a change, knowing that you gave it your all, gave us the best chance of winning. And sit back now, knowing that you stand atop the coaching mountain with names like Harry Hopman, Wayne Bennett and Rod MacQueen. Maybe you can change that motto as well, something like...
What is the price of life? The Pursuit of Happyness ; )
Ric kept us guessing his entire coaching career and he did it again with his early retirement announcement. I for one was really disappointed in the decision, but am thrilled he could go out the way he did. His hockey and life lessons will stick with me forever in a day. The coach that changed the way we play and win. The coach that reinvented our game. The coach that just wanted the best for his team. The greatest coach there ever was…Ric, you are a legend!
The 'enigmatic' Ric Charlesworth at our post-2014 World Cup celebrations