Let's End the Coaching Debate

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Tell me if you’ve heard these comments recently:

“Kids these days are so soft.”

“You can’t discipline or yell at kids anymore.”

“They can’t take criticism.”

“You can’t be demanding.”

“You just can’t coach kids anymore.”

Sound familiar?

If so, then you are likely aware of the debate that has been building over the past decade on how to best coach young athletes. In one corner, you have the “old school” who pride themselves on discipline, accountability, and toughness. In the other corner you have the “players coach” who is viewed as under demanding, overly tolerant, and one who coddles his athletes out of fear of making them feel bad. To the “old school” coach, the other side cares too much about everyone’s feelings and is responsible for the participation trophy era. To the “players coach,” the old-school way didn’t jive with millennials and surely doesn’t with Gen Z’s.

It’s a heavyweight fight that has fueled lawsuits and forced coaches at every level to defend their style.

Over a decade ago, this national conversation started to gain traction in youth leagues, on high school fields, and in college locker rooms. It has even made its way into the professional ranks (see Aaron Boone). Maybe it started with Bobby Knight? Or was it the infamous Mike Rice incident at Rutgers? Regardless, as our country has become more socially conscious, coaching has been under a microscope. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert and thanks to social media we now have a platform to air our grievances (present company included). Critics from every corner are writing books and blogs breaking down the best ways to coach the 21st century athlete.

Cue in Tom Izzo.

Since the most recent outburst in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by the long-time Michigan State head coach, I’ve had many conversations with friends, family, and colleagues on the Izzo Incident (If you haven’t seen it, just Google it).

Was he out of line? Was it just good, hard coaching? Are we now so soft in America that you can’t even yell at kids anymore? Like a laser pointer, the images of Coach Izzo reprimanding 19-year old freshman Aaron Henry have refocused our attention on a critical question.

What is the most effective way to coach athletes?

The sports world is waiting for an answer. Our response is more important than we might think.

There is a generation of youth coaches about to take the court or field with their 12-u teams that are listening and ready to take our lead. We have a responsibility to address this issue and we must do so in a way that is easily understood and applied. Coaching is an art, not a science. One size does not fit all for both coaches and athletes. Players are unique and respond to different methods of coaching. However, seeing the altercation between Coach Izzo and Henry can influence the coaching style for those who do not fully understand or appreciate the complexity of the circumstance.

Let me be clear - I am not qualified, nor am I attempting to criticize the coaching of Tom Izzo. And that’s not because of his resume, it’s because of his reputation. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t respect Coach Izzo or believe he cares deeply about his players. He’s built a tremendous amount of trust with his players that few can understand, especially at that level. They clearly respond to his coaching. Besides, no one knows exactly what was said in that moment with the freshman phenom. And we would be foolish to believe that we fully grasp the intricacies of the relationship he has with Henry or the other players on the team.

I think Coach Izzo summed it up best after the game when he cautioned passing judgment on “a 10-second sound bite in a two-year relationship.” I couldn’t agree more.

In short, it’s complicated. We need to put good coaching in simple terms that can be generally accepted, understood, and replicated. It’s time we stop taking extreme views and refrain from picking sides in the coaching debate. Like most disagreements, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

It’s not about being “old school” or a “players coach.” The “old school” philosophy doesn’t even make sense if we just take a moment to challenge it. Was John Wooden “old school”? He’s largely considered one of the greatest coaches who ever lived. Did he verbally harass, embarrass, or demean his players? Watch his TED Talk, The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, and try to guess what his opinion would be on this topic. I’d be more than happy to take complaints from “old school” apologists who believe Coach Wooden was soft and didn’t hold his players accountable. Still waiting...

“Old school” has been manufactured to defend certain coaches who just wanted to ride kids and abuse their authority because of their own insecurities. Somehow, this gained popularity with youth and high school coaches and has now become a rallying cry for the narrow-minded, a throwback to the good-old days when people were less sensitive and less politically correct. Like the days when withholding water on dangerously hot days was teaching kids toughness. Or the days when scolding a 14-year old for making a mistake was building character. That’s right, the good-old days. Somewhere along the way, tough coaching got confused with being a jerk.

Well, I got some news for you - this coaching style was never effective and should have never been accepted. Sure, players and parents tolerated it. It may have even won some games. And yes, fear definitely motivated some players to work harder. I call it the “I’ll show you” attitude, when players resent their coach and try to prove