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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 him wrong. But since when was coaching about that? I thought coaching was about lifting others to new heights? Helping make their goals and dreams a reality? I must have missed the note about tearing them down in the process. I’ll take the John Wooden approach to “old school” any day.

The opposite extreme leaves our children no better off. If being a “players coach” means creating an environment void of discipline or consequences, where standards aren’t set and players are never criticized, we are doing just as much long-term damage to our kids as if we were constantly putting them down.

Let’s stop making this about old versus new and instead set our attention on what effective coaching looks like. Let’s focus on helping athletes reach their potential both on and off the field. There are certain universal truths all coaches must understand and apply to ultimately change lives. Because the reality is that the coach-player relationship can be, and should be, one of the most transformational relationships in the life of a child. Unfortunately, often it’s the most destructive.

I can hear the “old school” crowd cringing with every word.

“So I guess we will never hold our kids accountable again, everyone will get a trophy, and we’ll all hold hands and sing kumbaya next practice.”

Ugh. They may never get it.

Just follow this one simple phrase and you will reach your potential as a coach while simultaneously getting the most out of your players.

Be demanding, but never demeaning.

And the better relationships you have, the more demanding you can be. That’s it.

But in its simplicity lies the difficulty. It’s all about developing trust with your athletes. To do so takes time and a lot of effort.

Anyone entrusted with the care and education of our future generation must abide by this one, simple rule - be demanding, not demeaning. Teachers, coaches, parents - we all must be demanding of our children. We must set high standards and hold them accountable. We need them to demand more of themselves. If we don’t and choose to pave a smooth path with no bumps along the way, we are setting them up for colossal failure. We need to build trusting relationships and then demand nothing less than their best.

But we should never demean them. That’s not teaching. That’s not coaching. That’s flat-out bullying. That’s using our position of power as the adult to create fear. And with fear comes self-doubt and anxiety.

Fear is a powerful motivator, but it’s not inspirational.

Do you want to be motivational or inspirational? You have the choice. And I would bet the most influential relationships in your life have been inspirational. Relationships that have built you up, not knocked you down. Relationships that have picked you up, not kept you down. Coaches, let’s inspire more and motivate less. And let’s amp up the demand we place on our athletes, but never demean in the process.

So, was Coach Izzo simply being demanding? Did he go overboard? Was it passion in the heat of battle or was he looking to embarrass his player to make a point? As I’ve spent time reflecting on the situation I’ve come to terms with being mostly fine with what transpired between Coach Izzo and Aaron Henry. That said, I’m still puzzled by two areas that I find difficulty accepting.

First, the comment Coach Izzo made after the game about his altercation with Henry I find interesting.

"I don't know what kind of business you're in, but I tell ya what, if I was a head of a newspaper, and you didn't do your job, you'd be held accountable."

I’m not a betting man, but I would be willing to wager that if your boss went into your office and treated you like Coach Izzo treated Aaron Henry, you would want to quit your job. Am I alone on this one? Or are bosses all over America treating their employees like this? I’m not saying you can’t be held accountable at your job. It goes without saying that you should be. However, to suggest the only way you hold others accountable or get the best out of them is by popping a vein in your neck in sheer anger is just absurd.

Accountability doesn’t have to be angry, in your face, and down right mean. If I’m not doing my job right, I can be reprimanded, I can be given an improvement plan, I can be demoted, I can be fired. I can be held accountable. But I don’t have to be verbally assaulted in front of my colleagues or teammates. Although it may be an option, it’s not the only way to effectively get the most out of people and I would argue it doesn’t.

Yet, how often do we see coaches yelling at kids in sports? Can we see an issue with youth and high school coaches agreeing with Coach Izzo’s definition of accountability? I understand his general point, however I believe that comment sends the wrong message. Maybe it’s just me.

The second matter I’m struggling to accept is perhaps most perplexing to me as a current coach. I can’t see how effective coaching would ever lead to having your emotions rage so uncontrollably that you would need to be physically restrained by your own players and coaching staff like Coach Izzo had to be. I’ve tried, but just cannot fathom that part of it.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate. In fact, I agree with German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s view that “nothing great in this life can be accomplished without passion.” I love fire. I want my coaches and athletes to care. I don’t want us to be emotionless robots. But I also think you have to be in control of your emotions. Just like we wouldn’t want our players losing their minds on the court, shouldn’t we as coaches show some control on the sidelines? In my opinion, the leader needs to be the calm in the storm. The steady hand at the most crucial time of battle. It doesn’t mean you can’t get emotional, it just means you shouldn’t go crazy. When the kids playing the game are forced to be the rational ones restoring order, the excuse that this was “coaching” has gone out the window.

In the end, was Coach Izzo justified? Is this an example of effective coaching? Are those who disagree “soft” and doomed to perpetually coddle the next generation? Let’s look at what Coach Izzo’s players had to say about the scene:

"It's nothing new, it's just responding to it, accepting the coaching, not having a pity party for yourself, just being a basketball player and go respond.” - Aaron Henry, Freshmen

“We talked about it, laughed about it, because like I said, people outside looking in probably don’t know all that goes on behind us and all that goes into this team.” - Cassius Winston, Senior and Team Captain

“If you don’t have a coach on you telling you what you did wrong, that you’re accountable, then they don’t care about you. That’s why you come here. You want to get coached. That’s what you expected when you signed up to come here.” Kyle Ahrens, Junior

Coach has certainly built very strong relationships with his players. He’s developed a strong culture. And I give these young men a lot of credit for taking ownership and responding to his coaching. In fact, I love it.

That said, I still have concerns about the message this sends to youth coaches across America. We're not all coaching Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, some of us think we are. And I highly doubt we have all built the trusting relationships necessary for this type of demanding coaching to be effective. Nevertheless, those points will likely be lost as everyone rushes to take sides and debate the extremes. Players do not respond to a one-size-fits-all coaching approach. Once again, don’t take my word for it. Maybe we can draw insight from Michigan State captain Cassius Winston’s comment:

"I just felt at that moment, I could get the message to him better than Coach. I know what it feels like to be in his shoes. There’s so much probably going through his head, that the yelling approach just wouldn’t work at that moment. So I asked Coach, 'What do you want me to tell him, and I can get that message to him.”

Cassius, I couldn’t agree more.

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