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Fear vs. Teaching

As a former teacher/coach and in light of some recent trending sports topics, I felt compelled to write this blog. Recently, a few college coaches have been catching some heat about some of their coaching techniques- mainly about how aggressive they are. I believe that this topic needs to be broached with a clear mind. It’s been a few weeks since these stories have been in the headlines, which has also given me a lot of time to think about it.

Let’s start with coaching. The goals for all coaches should be relatively the same:

  1. Teach your players the game and the correct way you think they should be playing it.
  2. Be a positive influence on your players or a role model, if you will.
  3. Win.

In my opinion, those should be the goals – and they should be in that order. Understandably, the higher level of coaching you get to, the more emphasis on winning there is. Whether that’s fair or not is a different debate.

When it comes to coaching, there are many different techniques to get your point across to your players. Some coaches have a style and they are going to coach that style no matter what players they have. Some coaches (the better ones) understand that different players learn in different ways, so they adapt their techniques for each player.

The title of this blog brings me back to the two main coaching strategies I have witnessed as a player and as a coach. Fear-based coaching, and teaching-based coaching. Most coaches mix a bit of these two things into their style. What has caught the national headlines attention has been the former, fear-based. People mask this coaching style as “passion” but to me that complete horse poop. Personally, I’m not a fan of this technique.

Fear-based coaching can be seen in many different ways. Yelling, grabbing players, dis-respecting officials and players, and blatantly ignoring feelings of others on the coaching staff, players, officials and fans. Most coaches that use this strategy have a win-at-all-cost mentality. Early in my coaching career, I fell directly into this category. But I don’t take full blame for it. It was all I knew. My high school coaches for football and basketball constantly had my teammates and I in a state of fear. Run the play correctly, do what I say, don’t mess up or you’re coming out… these were the type of things that were running through my head most of my HS career. For basketball, I felt like I never really learned the game until I was in college and started surround myself with coaches that actually teach.

The most famous coaches that come to mind with this type of coaching are Bob Knight, Frank Martin, and more recently in the news Tom Izzo. I think all of these guys are great coaches. They are very knowledgable about the game but in watching these coaches work and in interviews with players, I noticed something else – fear. Again, this might be something that works for some players. The fear of messing up might help them perform better. I think there is a better way.

For me, caring about what the players actually learn about the game is far more important than how they perform, especially at the levels I was coaching at. For middle school and high school students, learning the little nuances of the game they are participating in is hard enough without playing and practicing in a state of fear. Teaching. That’s what needs to be happening.

I had the biggest breakthrough in my coaching career when I started working with Drew Catlett at St. Francis three years ago. I look at him as my biggest mentor in coaching. When I came on staff, he already had a few state championships, league titles, close to 100 wins, and several former players in college or the professional level. Cat was a real teacher of the game. He never let a drill continue in practice unless it was done correctly and everyone understood WHY we were doing it. That was huge. As a player, I remember doing countless drills and never understood how it translated to the game.

The biggest example of Coach Catlett allowing his players to learn was my first year when we were making our playoff run. It was the Elite-8 game and we were on the road in a tiny town near Augusta, Georgia. The entire town was at that game and we maybe had 15 people there supporting us. We were getting trounced in the first quarter. Coach never called a timeout, even when we were down 18-4 with about 3 minutes left in the first. He leaned over to the staff as we were begging for a timeout and told us, “They have to figure out how to get out of this.” He wanted them to learn how to overcome adversity. And by golly it worked. We ended the first quarter on a run and pulled within 7. Ended up winning the game by 15 and that coaching decision in the 1st quarter will always stick with me.

Don’t get it twisted, Coach Catlett is no push over. He holds his players accountable at each practice, during each drill, and during every game. The difference between accountability and fear, however, is the teaching factor. Any time he pulled a player out, he wanted one of us to explain to that player why. Why it was affecting what we were trying to accomplish. Why it went against our game-plan. How can that player do it differently when he went back in. Quite the opposite of what I experienced in high school. When we got pulled out of the game, sometimes I didn’t know why at all. Or if I was ever going back in. Or if my coaches were pissed at me. I never learned.

So what point am I trying to make here?

Teaching is important. Accountability is important. Fear has no place in coaching. There might be a million coaches out there that disagree with me but this is my blog so my opinion is the only one that matters.

My last point brings all of this back to parenting. I’ve learned over time that fear is not the best way to raise my kids. My daughter is going to turn 5 this year. I want her to respect her mother and I. She should be held accountable for her actions. If she does something wrong, she shouldn’t be scared to be punished or afraid to make mistakes in the future. I want her to understand the why it was wrong and the how to get better. Coaching has shown me so many new aspects of life, but this may be the biggest most important lesson I’ve learned from it.

Just like the players I’ve coached in the past and the ones I will coach in the future, I don’t want my kids living in fear of their parents.

I want them to learn.

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