Skip to main content
Original Issue


Coaches, players and fans tune in to new technology

There's timeout on the floor during the Los Angeles-Denver game and the Laker Girls are gyrating away. But from his perch high above the Forum floor, L.A. assistant coach Randy Pfund doesn't notice. He has eyes only for the small video screen in front of him.

"O.K., Bill, let me have their first three offensive plays," says Pfund into his headset. Just like that, the Nuggets' first three offensive sets appear in succession on the screen. "O.K., O.K., that's their flex cut. Now, Bill, how about some [24-second] clock times? Seems they're shooting within eight seconds. They're really pushing it." And up come clock times on the screen.

Pfund's unseen partner is Bill Desser, the Lakers' video coordinator, who operates out of a control room just down the hall from the team's dressing room. Like some 20th-century Prospero, Desser pushes buttons and adjusts dials, controlling the ebb and flow of seven different VCRs on which he is both taping and editing. By the end of the first half, Desser, with Pfund's guidance, will have made an edited videotape of 8 to 10 key plays. When the Lakers troop into the dressing room at halftime, coach Pat Riley will use the Desser videotape as the basis for his second-half strategy. At the end of the game, Desser will give Riley a complete tape from the Nugget game as well as a videotape of the Lakers' next opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Are these guys for real? A video coordinator? An assistant coach who watches TV during the game? Well, this is L.A., a town that has always made much of watching things on screens. In truth, though, the Lakers' devotion to tape is no isolated video-syncrasy. It represents a new technocracy that has invaded—flashers flashing, beepers beeping, timers timing—almost every sport in America. Consider the following:

•Most major league baseball teams use at least four video cameras at each game to record every possible angle of play. While managers and coaches depend on tapes for scouting, players view them to pick up flaws in their swing or delivery. Baseball people love video. When Texas Ranger manager Bobby Valentine was out of the game and operating a restaurant in Stamford, Conn., he watched baseball videotapes 12 hours a day. So it was quite natural that his No. 1 priority when he got the Ranger job was to convince management to invest in a sophisticated videotape system. "I begged for it," he said.

•The NFL voted that all 28 teams switch from film to videotape before the 1986 season. The move cost each team at least $500,000 to start up, but some, like the Super Bowl champion Giants, spent more than $1 million on the video conversion.

•Basketball has been heavily into the videotape game longer than any other sport, primarily because its limited playing space is ideal for videotape coverage. Now, both the pro and the college game could hardly exist without the technology. In the NBA, it's not just the well-known Captain Videos, like Riley and the Houston Rockets' Bill Fitch, who are plugged into the videotape trend. Noncontenders such as New Jersey, Indiana and Sacramento also view half-time edits. Says Washington Bullets assistant and video ace Freddy Carter, "If you don't make good use of video, you're going to war where everyone has an automatic weapon and you have a self-load, single-shot gun." At the college level, the University of Tulsa's J.D. Barnett is not alone in his desire to have every possession of every game broken down. "For each game, we watch about 25 hours of tape," says Ron Jirsa, one of his bleary-eyed assistants.

•Some coaches use tape for less-than-subtle reasons. Consider the case of Roger Neilson, cocoach of the Chicago Blackhawks and one of the pioneers of videotaping in the NHL. "Suppose you want your team to get up for the hitting game," says Neilson. "You show them 30 or 40 good bodychecks done in previous games. It's far superior to chalk talk." Lord, is Knute Rockne listening? Or has he, too, switched to videotape?

•Video has wedged its way into the world of boxing, too. Trainer Troy Summers of Marysville, Wash., whose pro fighters include junior welterweight Joe Belinc, credits much of his boxers' success to video. "You have to drive them away from the videos," says Summers.

•Some athletic trainers replay videotapes of injuries before deciding on treatment. "If you get the right angle, you can see the actual mechanism of injury," says Dodgers physical therapist Pat Screnar. "It's very helpful."

Golf, tennis, swimming, track and field, bowling, soccer—name a sport and someone, somewhere, is videotaping it for some reason. "Videotaping is bound to have a dramatic effect on all sports throughout the country," says BYU basketball coach Ladell Andersen. "It will raise the level of performance on both an individual and team basis." Says Rod Woodson, Purdue's cornerback, All-America hurdler and videophile: "It's going to be an important tool in the future in all sports."

And that represents only the tip of the video iceberg. Video technology matured so quickly and became so instantly accessible to so many people that its effects cut across ability and age. In the long run, the effects of video may be as profound for the average Joe working to get his bowling average above 170, as for a professional athlete.

Video has enormous potential for the younger generation, which has grown up on VCRs. Thousands of documentarian daddies can be seen in the bleachers these days; a nine-year-old can strike out three times in a Little League game and be watching his batting flaws 15 minutes later. There are parents who take this a step further and send home-made videos off to colleges in hopes of getting their kid a scholarship.

"Some are even putting subtitles on their videos, like 'The Bull Stomps So-and-So,' " says a bemused Tom Hersey, football coach at Canisius. Hersey says he doesn't expect to find a player that way, but "We do look because you always have that feeling, 'Hey, if I don't look at that kid, someone else will get him and he'll come back to haunt me.' "

One video dad, Jerry Craft, president and owner of CCTV Inc., a cable television firm in Jacksboro, Texas, even started a regional video recruiting business after his videotapes, which he sent off to 17 schools, landed a football scholarship for his son, Clint, at the University of the Pacific. "If your kid's an all-stater you don't need it," says Craft of his Sports Video Resumè business. "But it was really good for a player like Clint, who played at a small school and didn't get much attention."

If Junior doesn't like to watch himself on film, he can still go home and plug any number of instructional videos into the VCR. He can get his tips from the immortals, like Pete Rose (Baseball: The Pete Rose Way or Pete Rose: Winning Baseball) and Mickey Mantle (Mickey Mantle's Baseball Tips for All Ages), or from lesser lights such as Mets batting coach Bill Robinson (Basics of Hitting) or former Cincinnati star Vada Pinson (Baseball—The Art of Hitting: Vada Pinson).

Indeed, one of the major outgrowths of the video revolution has been a proliferation of self-help, instructional and entertainment sports videos. Move over, Jane Fonda—everyone's in the business. There are more than 800 different sports video programs, either instructional or entertainment, estimates Ken Ross, who heads CBS/Fox's burgeoning sports home video department. "The coming of home video is like the Gutenberg printing press," gushes Dawn Morris, president of Morris Video, a California-based home video firm. "It's that revolutionary." Ferdinand Marcos, who knows something about revolutions, might agree with Dawn. Last December a videotape of Marcos was made showing him going through his daily calisthenics routine to assure the faithful in the Philippines that he was fit and ready to return. However, the tape was confiscated by authorities before it could be shown.

Many of the instructional tapes are excellent. Many are merely strange. If you have just one wish for the week, let it be that your children are not parked in front of the VCR watching that pro wrestling classic, The WWF's Amazing Managers, or Lisa Sliwa's Common-Sense Defense.

The biggest phenom of the instructional market is Bob Mann's Automatic Golf. It has sold more than 500,000 copies since it hit the market in December '82, making it the largest-selling instructional video ever, not counting Jane Fonda's aerobics tapes. Mann, 51, was a top amateur golfer in the '50s but rarely plays the game today. His tape contends that if the golfer sets up correctly, "the swing becomes an expansive, pleasurable action that is truly automatic." He feels that this formula is responsible for his success. Others in the industry, however, argue that Automatic Golf sells because of a clever marketing strategy. Mann has consistently reduced the price of the tape and it now sells for $12.95, much less than most instructional tapes. Also, he has gotten Automatic into specialty stores, like pro shops and sporting goods outlets, rather than depend on video stores, whose customers tend to rent rather than buy.

Automatic is certainly not prospering because of its production quality. One leading retailer of instructional videotapes says: "Mann's tape has kind of a living-room quality to it. I moved it out." But many other retail outlets have moved it in. And, in Mann's defense, his instructions are clear and concise. "A poor instructor tells you everything he knows," says Mann, "but a good instructor, like myself, tells you what you have to know."

Ben Hogan, who has thought as much about golf mechanics as anyone who ever lived, once commented that he never saw himself swing until late in his career. But nowadays your Little Leaguer can start studying himself when he's nine years old. Video has truly opened up another dimension for athletes who are trying to improve their performances.

"You think you're doing something one way, but you pull it up on the screen and you're not doing it that way at all," says Bobby Grich, late of the California Angels. "You just can't visualize yourself. You can't feel it. Then you see it and you get the real feel in your mind."

The real feel. That's the perfect phrase to describe the benefit and appeal video has for today's athletes. Theirs is a TV generation. "Film was black and white, but now the player gets the feeling, 'Hey, I'm on TV,' " says John Misciagna, the administrative assistant to the athletic director at the University of Maryland. When athletes are on the road, they don't read much or see the sights. Most of them watch television. Video plugs into their interests.

Detroit Tigers first baseman/designated hitter Darrell Evans takes a VCR along with him on road trips to watch tapes of his at bats and to stay in shape with the Jane Fonda workouts. Meanwhile his wife, LaDonna, is home taping all his TV games. Evans became a video believer in 1983, when he struck out three times in one game, then watched videotape of himself until 4 a.m. and the next day hit three home runs.

"The tapes allow me to be scientific and have film at my disposal whenever I want," says Evans. "I put the at bats back-to-back and see the subtle things."

Testimonials to videotape can take on a kind of my-life-was-changed-by-Herbalife giddiness. Consider one Mary Banyi, a 55-year-old golfer from Seattle, who took a video lesson from her pro at the Interbay Driving Range. "I was a struggling 29 handicap, hitting drives about 110 to maybe, with some roll, 125, and spraying them right, left or wherever. I now hit everything down the middle, 160 to 175. And I'm a 23 handicap. Amazing! Simply amazing! I float on air! Videotape is the only way to go."

It is the purely mental aspect of video that attracts many disciples. For them, it is not important to find out exactly what they are doing wrong with their swing, but merely to form a mental picture of the correct swing, damn the specifics. The revolutionary how-to sports tapes produced by SyberVision, a video company in Newark, Calif., consist of nothing more than footage of the same exemplary technique repeated over and over again. For example, SyberVision's tennis tape shows Stan Smith advancing to the ball and crushing his backhand. Then it repeats the same scene time and again, all to the accompaniment of original background music. There is no verbal instruction, which SyberVision founder and cochairman Steve DeVore calls "paralysis by analysis."

When things aren't going right for pro bowler Mike Aulby, he hauls out videotapes of some of his successful television matches. "When I'm feeling low mentally or don't have any motivation, I like to go back and see the shows where I was really up or made good shots in the clutch," says Aulby. For athletes like Aulby, videotape performs an almost subliminal boost. Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House, an avid video man, says, "The mental side of the game is just as important as the physical side."

Many coaches consider the VCR to be just another member of the organization, part of the brain trust. Football's mania for studying the opposition is well known; what videotape has done is encourage teams to spend more time looking at themselves.

"We were figuring everybody else's tendencies, but we were forgetting that we, too, had developed tendencies that everybody else knew," said assistant coach Leon McLaughlin of the football St. Louis Cardinals. "With videotape, that won't be the case anymore." After a 4-11-1 season, however, a little Cardinal-watching goes a long way.

Boston University soccer coach Neil Roberts credits videotape study with helping his 1985 team reach the NCAA quarterfinals. While reviewing tapes when he got the job at the start of that season, Roberts noticed BU's tendency to give up the ball—and goals—in its defensive zone. "I broke down those films and showed them to the players," said Roberts. "We went from 36 of those goals to 11."

There's no doubt that videotape has had a profound effect on scouting the opposition. VCRs are rarely silent in stadiums and arenas equipped with satellite dishes, while some teams hire private citizens, as the Utah Jazz have done with Richard Smith of Salt Lake City, to tape their games. Thus, baseball and basketball teams acquire instant libraries on their opponents. As an added bonus, the dish can provide scoreboard highlights.

Even without a satellite dish, there is no shortage of games available for videotaping if a coach is enterprising enough to set up a VCR network. Before Kansas plays SMU, for example, assistant Jayhawk coach Mark Freidinger will make sure that alumni in Dallas have taped some of SMU's games. Purdue coach Gene Keady depends on his wife, Pat. "She'll help me tape the games," says Keady, "as long as we watch her soaps first."

Videotape has totally changed NBA scouting, according to Bucky Buckwalter, director of player personnel for the Portland Trail Blazers. "We used to go see another team in the league several times," Buckwalter says. "Now you normally go see them one time in person, then scout them off tape 10 times."

Picking up college games with a dish also gives pro teams instant information for the draft. "It's our policy on potential first rounders to watch every game they play as a senior, either in person or on tape," says Pete Babcock, director of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets. "That has to be done. A team like, say, Duke, has so many of its games on TV that to see Mark Alarie [whom the Nuggets made the 18th pick in the NBA draft last June], for example, we only had to acquire maybe a half dozen extra tapes."

Some teams use videotape to maintain a businesslike atmosphere in the clubhouse. At the instruction of videophile Valentine, Rangers video man Carl Hamilton puts nothing but baseball on the clubhouse VCR. "From the time they enter the ballpark to the time they go home, they are exposed to baseball," says Hamilton. "There is no golf on that TV in the clubhouse, nothing except baseball."

But when do we have too much of a good thing? Wouldn't it do the Rangers some good if Hamilton slipped in a rerun of The Honeymooners once in a while? Now is the time to ponder whether sports, at both the college and professional level, are becoming too dependent upon video.

Wake Forest football coach Al Groh sees two possible dangers of obsessive video use: "First, athletes may lose the joy of playing, and second, perhaps we will lose the flow of spontaneity."

That video camera is unblinking, unemotional and unforgiving. "Video convicts," is the way Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight puts it, as only he can. Says Cleveland State basketball coach Kevin Mackey of video, with admiration in his voice: "It takes the mystery out of ball games."

Well, do we want that? By turning sports arenas into human performance laboratories, is it not possible that video has made things too "hot" for athletes? It was hardly surprising when the Boston Celtics, en route to the NBA championship in 1980-81 under Fitch, cheered en masse when his video machine fell off its perch and hit the ground. Some of the players acknowledged that even though video study helped, they grew plain tired of it.

Listen to Ron Steiner, an administrative assistant to the football coach at the University of Louisville: "At a luncheon, instead of introducing people with the spoken word, it's all by video. And at our honors awards luncheons, each player is introduced by a video feature instead of by somebody reading something. It's very modern."

Gee, isn't that neat? The spoken word is just, isn't it?

Somehow it's not surprising that Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney, who came into the game when the grass was real, worries about video. "My fear is that this technology could intimidate players," he says. "They're under great pressure now, but with the way video pinpoints players' mistakes, it could create grave problems. What's wrong with being an individual in sports? You know, it bothers me that there's no room for a free thinker anymore."

A free thinker, suggests Rooney, like, say, the late Bobby Layne. Imagine how Layne would have reacted to three hours of videotape. "Well, hell, I don't need to watch no bleeping movies," Layne might have said. "I want to watch a movie, I'll watch John Wayne. I want to win a football game, I'll go do it out on the field."

Layne's time has passed, of course. Some may rue that fact, but no one can deny it. Videotape has tremendous applications for both the professional and the amateur. Consider Henry Hopkins, the 43-year-old track coach at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. On many weekends Hopkins can be found practicing the pole vault, while his wife, Suzanne, tapes him with their videocam. Hopkins's goal is to pole vault as high in Masters meets as he once did as a college sophomore at Indiana Central College in 1965—14'8".

"Age is working against me," says Hopkins, "but technology is working for me." There's something nice about that.

And there's something nice about an athlete's using videotape to maximize his or her potential. "Players today are 20 to 25 percent better because of video," says Morgan Wootten, the nationally known basketball coach at DeMatha High School in Baltimore.

Probably so. But coaches, athletes and parents should realize videotape's limitations and should guard against turning its application into a quasi religion. Sports need enthusiasm, spontaneity, joy and mystery. Videotape, used to extreme, works against those intangibles. Someone once asked poet T.S. Eliot why he did not often go to the movies. "Because," said Eliot, "they interfere with my daydreams."

Let's not let videotape do that.



Studying replays of an injury can help a trainer determine the correct treatment.



Parents can catch the eye of recruiters by sending their kids' tapes off to college.



What you see is what you can perfect: Videotape helps those with the greatest flaws.



A Masters pole vaulter finds that while age works against him, video works for him.