In March 2019, the #2 seed Michigan State Spartans were struggling against the #15 seed Bradley in the first round of March Madness. The Spartans Head Coach Tom Izzo was not a happy individual. His 18-year-old freshman forward Aaron Henry wasn’t hustling on defense or fighting for rebounds at the level at which Tom Izzo’s teams had become known for. Izzo had been the Head Coach of the Spartans since 1995. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. He was also renowned for his temper, and, in that very moment, Aaron Henry felt his wrath.
As Henry came over to the bench during a time-out, he was met by Izzo, who got in his face, screamed, and continuously jabbed his finger at his face. Multiple Spartan players had to jump in between the exchange and restrain Tom Izzo. Yet, only moments later, Izzo exploded again during the timeout on Henry, and, once again, players had to restrain him.
This type of moment wasn’t uncommon for Izzo as a coach, but because of the timing, the CBS footage of the event caught the entire country’s attention. Even to this day, when I rewatch the exchange on YouTube, it’s uncomfortable to see a grown man so emotionally out of control that he must be held back by a bunch of teenagers.
This type of behavior crossed the line. Unfortunately, not only is this type of reaction common for Izzo; it’s also common for coaches all around the world, at all levels, and it’s even a line that I have crossed as a coach more times than I can count.
When we lose our cool, react with anger, and yell at our players, we are crossing the line between demanding and demeaning, the line between short term effectiveness and long-term benefit, and, most importantly, the line between fear and love.
As coaches, we try to justify our behavior by calling it “tough love”. So many people—even former players—came to Tom Izzo’s defense in the wake of criticism, saying things like, “That’s just his way of showing he cares.”
As coaches, we justify our behavior by talking about how it was harder in our day, and we survived it. Often, people will credit this type of treatment from coaches or parents as “the reason they are the person they are today”.
The reality is our good qualities are there despite this treatment, not because of it. Not only that, but our less-than-desirable qualities can often be attributed to this type of upbringing.
These types of behaviors and reactions from coaches aren’t what makes a coach tough (https://thriveonchallenge.com/what-makes-a-coach-tough). What makes a coach tough is being in control of their emotions, not just reacting from their default personality.
For over a decade as a coach, I tiptoed on that line, and anytime a fellow coach, parent, or player challenged me, I was quick to defend and justify my actions. Why? Because they were vital to me as a coach. I thought my intentions were good; I just wanted to push my players.
What changed for me and for so many coaches was that we just stopped asking, “Does this cross the line?” Instead, we replaced that question with, “Is there a better way?” And the answer was a resounding YES! Yes, we can be demanding and tough and still care for our players without yelling. We can be authentic as coaches and true to ourselves without yelling at our players. There is a better way.
Here are 10 reasons why yelling is not the best way to hold our players accountable.
10 Reasons We Shouldn’t Yell
1. Tough coaching is intentional. People claim that yelling is just “coaching them up” and toughening up their players, but for most of us, yelling at our players is often our default reaction! It is more challenging for us to stay in control of our emotions. It’s hard to be demanding without being demeaning. It’s hard to hold someone accountable without using fear. It’s hard to focus on the next play and put the bad one behind us. Coaching is a skill that requires our intentionality and trained responses. When we just react with our emotions, we are not being intentional or skilled.
2. We want to connect with the person. In a nutshell, our left brain (i.e., logical left) is logical and wants order. Our right brain (i.e., emotional right) is emotional and cares about meaning and feeling. We don’t want to be emotionless human beings, but we don’t want an overabundance of emotions, either. Balance is healthier for individual performance and interpersonal relationships. When we experience a flood of emotion, it is not helpful for people to disregard it and try to intervene with logic, but it’s also not helpful to submit entirely to emotion. Primarily using body language, posture, and tone, we can help someone who is experiencing a flood of emotion feel seen and heard. So often, when we try to intervene, we only focus on the other person’s behavior (i.e., what’s happening on the outside), and we ignore what’s happening on the inside. By connecting with what’s happening on the inside, we can create a deeper connection. Just think about this: Our deepest relationships and connections with others can come from moments and events that are emotional and filled with inner and/or external conflict.
3. We want athletes who can regulate their emotions and think. At the same time, if we want an individual to be logical and practical, then an overabundance of emotion is not helpful. Connecting with them in those moments will not only help deepen our connection, but when we recognize these emotions, our left brain will make a connection. We will start to make sense of the experience. So, if we want to reflect on an experience with an individual and help them learn from it, then we need to first connect with the emotional right. The brain is also split into the upper and lower sections. The lower brain oversees the basic bodily functions needed for survival, like breathing, blinking, and strong emotions. It is the trigger for our fight, flight, or freeze response. The lower brain reacts. The upper brain is the thinking brain, and it’s in charge of decision-making, emotional control, empathy, moral reasoning, and self-awareness. The upper brain responds. It’s vital for our character and performance to not only develop but gain access to the upper brain. However, when our amygdala (i.e., a small, bean-shaped center of our lower brain known as the “fear center”) is triggered by something stressful, it cuts off the connection to our upper brain. This is vitally important from an evolutionary perspective. For example, when we see a tiger in the jungle, we don’t need to think; we need to run! But when it comes to athletic performance, it doesn’t help to be in a constant state of high emotional arousal.
4. We want to motivate our players intrinsically, not extrinsically. Do you want your players to work hard, listen, and have a good attitude because you said so? Or because it’s the type of player and teammate they want to be, and they know it’s going to help them achieve their goals? The former is extrinsically motivated; the latter is intrinsically motivated. Yelling is a form of extrinsic motivation that many coaches default to when working with athletes. The more we motivate extrinsically, the more we miss opportunities to develop intrinsic motivation within our players. Developing intrinsic motivation takes time, intentionality, and specific tools, such as leading with questions (https://thriveonchallenge.com/4-steps-of-transformational-discipline/).
5. We want to lead with tough love, not fear. Some argue that if you aren’t yelling, then you don’t care, and you don’t have high standards. My parents almost never yelled, but rest assured, if I didn’t get my chores done, make good grades, or be respectful, then there were consequences: no practice, no games, no TV! My parents weren’t soft or permissive; they were stern and assertive. There was no yelling needed, just a conversation to explain how my choices led to consequences and the loss of privileges. Now, I’m sure they felt like they wanted to yell—and sometimes, they even would have been justified if they had yelled at me—but they knew that it wasn’t helpful, nor was it the best way to show their love.
6. We want to develop player leadership. If we value player leadership and aspire to create a player-led program, then yelling at our players is a step backward, not forward. When an individual on your team is not meeting the standards that you have set, then stop seeing these as moments in which you must hold them accountable, but as opportunities to work with them to hold themselves and each other accountable. Developing these skills and this type of culture takes time, intentionality, and tools, such as resets and do-overs (https://thriveonchallenge.com/how-to-never-have-a-bad-practice%ef%bb%bf/).
7. Yelling is unacceptable in any other profession. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo told reporters who questioned his treatment of Aaron Henry, “I get a kick out of you guys. You get after me because I’m trying to hold my players accountable. I don’t know what kind of business you’re in, but I tell you what: If I was a head of a newspaper, and you didn’t do your job, you’d be held accountable.” If you share that perspective, then you don’t know how today’s workplace works. I don’t care if you work at the Washington Post, McDonalds, or Goldman Sachs; if you yell at your employees in front of other employees and/or customers, you’ll get fired—or sent to anger management!
8. We want to set an example and a standard for how people should speak to each other. Most coaches wouldn’t allow their players to speak to each other this way. In fact, many wouldn’t even let their assistants speak to their players in this manner. So, when did we get this messed-up idea that it’s a coach’s job to tear people down, and then “build them back up”? We need to be the example because we want to create an environment where people support each other and respectfully hold each other accountable, not dehumanize each other.
9. We want to prepare them for the world. Many people claim that yelling is “being tough on players” and “preparing them for the real world”. However, in the “real world”, you can’t speak to or treat people like this and expect to survive as a leader—or even as a parent! If I yelled and cussed out my child in the grocery store, then someone would call Child Services! The “real world” does not tolerate this type of behavior. Additionally, the “real world” needs more leaders who lead with love, not fear. It needs leaders who are demanding and hold people accountable in a supportive way, without demeaning them.
10. There is a better way. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, shared this powerful question with me when I interviewed him on my Coaching Culture podcast (https://podcasts.apple.com/ie/podcast/coaching-culture/id1286560192?i=1000421832596): “What are the chances the first way I learned to coach is the best way to coach?” Yelling is how most of us were coached. It’s what we see all around us. Does that make it the best way? While yelling can sometimes be effective at getting what we want in the short term, it’s not effective at getting what we want in the long term. Research shows that yelling has many negative long-term effects, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, increased physical and verbal aggression, and increased risk of bullying others. Obviously, we don’t want to contribute to those outcomes for any individual within our program!
The Better Way
So, if you yell at your players, are you a bad coach? Absolutely not! You are just human. When I recognized that I shouldn’t yell as a coach, I still yelled. It’s a long process of growth to retrain ourselves as coaches and develop the skills we need to lead without yelling.
Too many coaches think they must address any behavioral problem right in the moment it occurs, but often, they’re too upset to do so rationally. It’s often the worst time to intervene because in moments like these, we only have access to their lower brain, so we react instead of responding. When this happens, our options are limited to fight (e.g., yelling and shaming) or flight (e.g., withdrawing or shunning). It’s impossible to think rationally and act intentionally, so we end up making mistakes and hurting people. While we can’t always take a timeout, it can be helpful to just move on and make a mental note to address the behavioral problem later, when everyone is calm.