It always surprises me that some of the roughest, toughest coaches are among the most successful. In fact, it really burns me. As a coach, I feel like the best way to bring a team together is be kind, skilled and inspirational. But is that the approach that brings the greatest wins on the field or court? How can the two be reconciled?
I am clear that my coaching philosophy is borne out of having experienced some very awful coaching. Perhaps this is why I have the most disdain for coaches who are brutally tough and win anyway. I had a coach in college who often singled me out and berated me (despite the fact that I was a team captain). Thus, I find it hard to respect a coach who berates players in an effort to “motivate” the team. If you can win by lifting players up, as much as you can win by putting players down, why would anyone ever choose the latter?
I personally look to John Wooden and Pat Summit as coaching role models. Coach Wooden was an amazingly compassionate coach who seemed almost angelic in his motivations at every moment of his life. His wisdom, passed down from his father, was abundant and remarkable. I see Coach Summit not exactly as the opposite of Coach Wooden, but she sure was a tough, driven coach. She was definitely an authoritarian coach, but was also quite motherly toward her athletes. I am sure that most of her players feared her often and admired her equally as often.
Recently, I was working out at the YMCA with a friend, a recently retired professional ice hockey player for sixteen years. Midway through our work out I asked him, “Who was your best coach?” He was quiet for a moment then said, “I’ve had some pretty bad coaches.” His bad coaches stood out in his mind more prominently than his best ones. When I think back to my own experiences as a division I college athlete, it is my worst coach who stands out most prominently in my mind too! I was curious. Why? Why can’t we call to mind our best coach as easily as we can call to mind our worst coach? Why is it that we can recall these negative experiences more readily than the positive coached experiences?
I did some research and came across this idea of a “negativity bias.” The foundation of negativity bias has its roots in the evolution of humans, in our quest for our personal safety and survival. As humans we are wired to be most concerned with the immediate environment that might cause us harm or threaten our survival. In other words, we are wired to address what threatens us most readily. In this case perhaps a red-faced coach screaming in our personal space.
As coaches this is how good we have to be! Our best coach has to be way more exceptional than even a moderately bad coach because the kids we coach will remember. They will remember first the coach who put them down and then, only after that, will they remember the coach who lifted them up.