“I think, for the most part, my strength as a teacher emerged from planning and organization.”–John Wooden, “Pyramid of Success”
John Wooden is a legend. His UCLA Bruins won the NCAA national championship in men’s basketball 10 times in 12 years. In fact, his teams won 7 in a row, an unapproachable feat, noting that the next nearest teams have amassed only 4 consecutive championships. Lest you think his success was during an era of scant talent, two legends that Wooden coached were Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, players whose talent stacks up against any of the greats today.
Yet this acclaimed coaching genius comes across more like an educator or a CEO. Where is the brutish quality some attribute to successful coaching? We have all seen the taskmaster who teaches toughness and aggressively confronts players, often while millions are watching the drama unfold on televised broadcasts. Coach Wooden approached preparation for success this way: “I spent two hours with my staff planning each practice. Each drill was calculated to the minute. Every aspect of the session was choreographed, including where the practice balls would be placed. I did not want any time lost by people running over to a misplaced-ball bin.”
Three things stand out to me regarding his mentality. Coach Wooden took responsibility for making practice time a maximum experience for his players. His focus was laser sharp on efficiency. And there seems to be an unspoken joy that resonates in purposely attacking his goals. You cannot argue with his success, so you must pay attention to his methods.
Contrast the method of this coach described below. His talented athlete wrote the following: “I knew the coach was tough, and I have no problems doing extra work or having someone push me to do better. But when he gets in my face, calls me out, embarrasses me in front of the team, and has a problem with me every day it makes me question why I still play. I used to play to learn, compete, be with friends, and have fun. Now I can’t wait for the season to be over…” (sportpsychologytoday.com, “How Bully Coaching Affects Athletes by Mike Edger).
Parents know their children best. Coaches are central to the sports experience. When your athlete consistently dreads practice, comes home dejected, feels degraded by his coach, that’s a big red flag. Toughness is a by-product of challenges and perseverance, not how much verbal abuse you can withstand. Coach Nick Saban whose Alabama football teams have approached dynasty status, emphasized character in his players. It is said that “Saban believed that if you invest–honestly and truthfully invest–in building a better person…you end up with athletes who, in times of intense stress, embrace the moment rather than run from it.” (“The System” by Benedict and Keteyaian).
I have known coaches who mimic coaches they themselves experienced or those whom they admire, by demonstrating an affinity toward aggressiveness to instill toughness in players. Vulgarity, emotional distance, even physical tactics designed to motivate young athletes is a misguided approach. It is not necessary to break an athlete emotionally in order to build a successful team.
Listen to your child. Drop in on a practice on occasion. Evaluate how your child responds to her coach’s style. Is there emotional discord? Is there fear of repercussion when a mistake is made? Is there a culture of disrespect rather than mutual support and encouragement? Coaching has evolved, and the best coaches model a more positive approach. As a parent, do not allow much time to pass before addressing questionable behavior on the part of your child’s coach. A sports experience is not worth subjecting your child to bad messaging. Your primary objective is to have the sports experience enhance your child’s growth and development, producing rewards that endure beyond the experience. There are many coaches who share that objective, and it’s worth the effort to find one.
- It is always appropriate to be aware of the quality of your child’s interaction with her coach.
- Coaches who use bullying techniques are misguided and should be avoided.
- Successful coaches know how to prepare athletes for challenges, a skill that is useful beyond sports.