The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

Reconsidering the Coach Archetype

Beyond fussing and cussing.

Gregg Popovich, four-time NBA champion coach of the San Antonio Spurs, challenges what many consider sport “coaching.” In a recent interview with ESPN he seems to suggest that big-time sport coaching has become little more than a dramatic performance—not leading or teaching. He scoffs at the cinema ready leadership approach that is often taken during time outs in basketball games, choosing not to “give [players] some bulls#%@ and act like I’m a coach.”  This seasoned and successful coach seems to understand that fussing and cussing is not much of a way to build a championship team.

The dramatic approach to leadership is not unique to athletics.  The Atlantic magazine recently highlighted the extrovert bias in the corporate culture. Currently, aggressive and out-spoken business leaders get ahead and compensated better by corporations. Despite this reality, there is evidence that introverts, less dramatic leaders create better functioning teams…exactly what sport is all about.

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None of this is new news. The science has been clear—empowerment of followers is motivating, confidence building, and performance enhancing. Perhaps authoritarian direction works well for widget factory assembly lines. Nonetheless, it reaps few significant rewards when trying to develop cooperative and competitive teams. Popovich highlights it well when suggesting, “competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated.”  That is what the leader that hoots and hollers is doing – manipulating, not coaching.

Competitive athletes may not know all the answers to an opponent’s offensive or defensive schemes and it would be remiss to think they understand all the biomechanical nuances of their techniques. Yet they do bring a desire to feel confident about their efforts and achievements to the table. They are collaborators with coaches, not mindless pawns. Popovich again gets it right when he notes that empowering athletes provides a “psychological boost.”  When the game is on the line, it seems reasonable to suspect that such a mental edge could be the difference maker.

So both championship coaches and science know that the demonstrative leader my have a lot of bark, but develop teams with little bite. Then how does the acerbic coach archetype persevere? The answer to this is worth consideration. Some initial thoughts are that it is a schema that lies in mental laziness and manufactured sports entertainment industry. When a coach says he’s a good coach (and perhaps tells you what a great athlete he was at some “elite” competitive level) it’s easier to go along, rather than try to navigate the challenge of understanding the true quality of the coach.  Besides, look no further than the local cinema to find the embodiment of a bold, brave, and decisive leader. Then again, perhaps it is time to appreciate the less dramatic (but not less wise) leader that empowers athletes and guide cohesive teams…a championship recipe.

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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