Hot Topic: Do midseason coaching changes work?

FILE- Then-New York Islanders head coach Scott Gordon

FILE- Then-New York Islanders head coach Scott Gordon during the third period while playing the Ottawa Senators at Nassau Coliseum. (Nov. 15, 2008) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

Years of scholarly research and psychological interpretation can assure Islanders fans that this week's reboot - firing of coach Scott Gordon and replacing him with AHL call-up Jack Capuano - may work. Or may not.

"I think back to the New York Yankees and Billy Martin," said sports psychologist John Murray, who has worked with coaches and athletes in all professional sports, "and the brief effects of the incredible passion he would bring. He'd win a while, then they'd start losing and he was gone, then he'd come back and they'd start winning again."

A 2007 article in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching - "The Effect of Mid-Season Coach Turnover on Team Performance: The Case of the National Hockey League (1989-2003)" - found that teams that resorted to such methods boosted their point totals from .35 to .45, a slight improvement, during their transition season, and continued to improve to .51 the following year.

But the same study indicated, similar to the Billy Martin anecdote, that the change was relatively short-term.

As far back as 1963, an analysis by Oscar Grusky - examining managerial changes in baseball - demonstrated a "negative correlation" between replacing the team's skipper and its won-lost record. Grusky's interpretation, cited in a 1995 Journal of Sport Behavior paper, was that the manager/coach replacement process for a struggling team "is also disruptive to the organization. The uncertainty associated with a new leader with a different agenda and new ideas may result in ever poorer sport team performance."

That hardly is encouraging news for the Islanders' rescue plan, with the team on a 10-game winless streak and the season in danger of slipping away altogether.

The same Journal article, however, offered opposing fact-finding by Gamson and Scotch, published in the mid-1960s, arguing that Grusky had not given sufficient credit to the "meaningful impact" of coaches and managers on team performance. Gamson and Scotch contended that "a change in leadership provides fresh ideas, new perspectives, and a rejuvenated atmosphere. ..."

Murray agreed. "Novelty in human behavior is something that is extremely salient," he said in a telephone interview. "It's like, if you want your dog to come, you use a different tone of voice. It may be questionable how effective it can be early in the season. It's difficult to predict. But it might be an effective psychological ploy."

Not surprisingly, these mid-season searches for a master locksmith - attempting to free what possibilities might not have been realized on a stumbling team - have become increasingly common. According to a researcher named Dodd, the rate of turnover among managers and coaches in professional sports in North America jumped from 15.3 to 20.6 percent from the mid-80s to mid-90s, with coaching tenures dropping from an average of 2.48 to 2.44 years.

With any disappointing team - the Islanders and Dallas Cowboys being the most obvious current examples - there clearly are factors beyond any coach's command. Player talent. Injuries. Deteriorating confidence. Still, the time-honored coaching shake-up, often presented as a call for accountability, can fall on deaf ears if read by players as holding only the coach accountable.

"I do believe there are benefits to novelty," Murray said. "But you can't substitute quality. I would think, that unless it's an extreme, extreme case, you can always improve a team with good mentoring. Take anybody: There's a range of behavior from good to bad. A good coach can inspire his players; that's what I do for a living. You try to get the maximum out of each person."

So, the Islanders' sacrifice of Scott Gordon may work. But only if expectations are based in reality.

"You don't control the outcome in sports," Murray said. "You control performance. Don't think about winning. Don't think about statistics. Think about performance. Don't think about outcome."

Don't think about the Stanley Cup just yet.

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