The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

Reconsidering the Coach Archetype

This seasoned and successful coach seems to understand that fussing and cussing is not much of a way to build a championship team. There is evidence that less dramatic leaders create better functioning teams…exactly what sport is all about. Read More

Read any book by Red Auerbach

or by any of his former players like Bob Cousy or Bill Russell. Red would ask his players for ideas during time outs and would usually call the play that somebody suggested. He knew that if it was their own idea, they would buy into it and execute it. If it didn't work, they would know that they had to practice it more.

That said, Red also knew that different players needed different motivational techniques. Some players would get yelled at and other players would be allowed to read the newspaper during practice. The science may or may not be clear, but dealing with people is in many ways an art.

Your observation is spot on: pop culture, corporations and the media have a skewed idea of leadership. I don't think yelling and screaming is even productive on the widget assembly line. When I was a teenager I worked for a summer at a warehouse, and the boss who calmly told us what needed to be done and let us go about doing it got much better results than the one who constantly checked up on us and yelled when he didn't think we were working hard enough. Everyone was eager to please the boss who showed us respect. The boss who treated us like slackers nad goof-offs got exactly what he expected. We would goof off and post a guard to let us know when he was coming so we could look like we were working hard. He made it a game and we were willing to play it.


Thanks for the thoughtful response. Keep spreading the gospel and enjoying it all.


There are all kinds of successful coaches

All kinds of coaches have won the Super Bowl. There have been taciturn, sullen coaches (like Bill Belichick) and cheery, backslapping "rah rah" coaches (like Pete Carroll). There have been loud, animated, emotional coaches (John Madden) and quiet, cerebral coaches (like Tom Landry). There have been cursers and screamers (like Mike Ditka), and there have been soft-spoken gentlemen (like Tony Dungy). There have been snarling, sarcastic coaches (like Bill Parcells) and laid-back coaches (like Bill Walsh). There are coaches who spend 100 hours a week at work like Dick Vermeil) and there are coaches who go home for dinner with their families every night (like Chuck Noll).

So, in one sense, you're absolutely right. There is no ONE type of coach who's successful. Players will perform at a high level for tough guys AND for nice guys, for cold fish and for huggers, for tyrants AND sweethearts. ALl that really matters is:

1) Do the players believe the coach knows what he's doing?

2) Do they believe that, if they buy into what the coach is selling them, they'll WIN?

3) Do they believe they can trust the coach?

If the answer to those three questions is "yes," it's not really important what the coach's personality type is.

Players can and do learn to LOVE a yelling, ranting coach, so long as they believe his system will get the team to a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, or NBA title.

And players will learn to trust a seemingly abusive coach, so long as he proves that he keeps his word. For example, Mike Ditka was a fiery coach who was quick to scream at players who fouled up. BUT he was just as quick to offer praise for excellence. Moreover, if Ditka told a player, "You're my starting quarterback, no matter what," that quarterback knew Ditka was telling the truth. By contrast, Ditka's successor, the much "nicer" Dave Wannstedt, often showed that he COULDN'T be trusted, and that his promises weren't credible.

Interestingly, what DroneDad says about Red Auerbach was also true of Vice Lombardi. The cliche is that "Lombardi treated everyone the same- like dirt." But in reality, Vince Lombardi DIDN'T yell and scream at everybody on the Packer's roster. He DID yell at players like Paul Hornung, palyers he thought NEEDED to have a fire lit under their butts. But he never yelled at Bart Starr publicly, because Starr was sensitive. Lombardi was quick to praise Starr, and only criticized Starr behind closed doors.

Even the successful coaches that people THINK were tyrants didn't act like tyrants ALL the time.

Thoughtful Comment

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you really nailing the subtlety of being a coach vs. acting like a coach. A couple quick ideas to build off your thoughts:

- Your numbered list highlights that relational and confidence building end of coaching. Check out Deci and Ryan's Self Determination Theory for a nice way to frame the needs that drive humans/athletes, it gives some framing to what a coach should strive towards.

- You elaborate on the concept that one needs to look closely to see how successful coaches motivate and empower athletes. How a coach acts outside of the spotlight tells a story.

- A final idea to throw into the mix is the contagiousness of stress. Volume can be good, but a coach must be wise and consider what emotions and energy are they spreading.

I appreciate your reading and thinking about the column. Keep on rolling.


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Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.


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