Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

November 1, 2013

Coaches grapple with line between discipline and abuse

(Continued)

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman believes the topic demands a serious conversation - not just in her conference but nationwide and in all sports, from youth leagues to pro.

"As a coach, to find the right balance between 'kick-'em-in-the butt because they're dogging it today' and going too far is really hard," said Ackerman, who speaks from the perspective of a lawyer as well as a former CEO and a basketball standout at Virginia. "What's the tipping point? I don't think there is an easy answer here."

College coaches aren't the only ones wrestling with rapidly shifting boundaries when it comes to language and behavior. In many facets of society, what was once deemed acceptable is now banned outright or increasingly rejected as inappropriate.

Much of it boils down to common sense, in the view of college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a member of Duke's 1986 NCAA runner-up team. "If you're an adult and you don't understand that homophobic or misogynistic terms are inappropriate and unacceptable in today's society," Bilas said bluntly, "then you're not very bright."

In coaching, Bilas believes the key distinction is "being demanding without being demeaning," borrowing a phrase from former NFL coach Tony Dungy.

"I never heard my high school coach curse, but he was demeaning," Bilas said. "My college coach [Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Mike Krzyzewski] cursed a lot, but he never was demeaning. He challenged us. He used some blue language. But he never was demeaning."

 Coaching styles vary. But the best coaches boast a full repertoire of tactics - personalities, even - to coax, cajole and demand the best from athletes. They know when to play the role of cheerleader, tyrant, nurturer or taskmaster. And they know which players respond to a verbal kick in the rear and who needs a comforting ear.

 To be effective in all those roles, they first must establish trust. And it troubles Marquette Coach Buzz Williams, who spews emotion like an open fireplug during the heat of games, that those who critique coaches don't see the time and energy invested in building that trust off the court.

"If the only time that you're dealing with your kids is when you're in practice, no matter your tone, no matter your words, if they don't trust you, it won't work," Williams said. "I think you have to be a relationship specialist."

Added St. John's Coach Steve Lavin: "Once that trust is established, and it's genuine and authentic, and players believe you have their best interest at heart, they allow you to teach, coach, motivate, inspire and discipline them."

Lavin spells out his expectations for players, as well as the consequences for unacceptable behavior - whether that's running sideline-to-sideline sprints, getting booted from practice, getting suspended or getting kicked off the team. Still, he admits there are times he flat-out "loses it" with his players in a way that would shame his own mother.

It's a lot like parenting, he added, or managing employees: Unrelenting screamers may get results for a while, but they lose their effectiveness if that's their only move.

That's the message of the Stanford-based Positive Coaching Alliance, which is supported by basketball coaches Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown and Brad Stevens, among others."It's not good coaching," said Jim Thompson, its founder and chief executive. "You do not get the best out of players by grinding them down, by defeating them. You want to have high expectations for your players because people rise to expectations that are set for them. But you don't want to terrorize them."

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