My high school basketball coach’s temper was legendary. He would pull players out of the game when they made a mistake, and then rip into them right in front of a packed gym. But, even more legendary to his players were the verbal barrages he would unleash upon the team at half-time and the end of the game. As a junior, I had come to understand and accept this was just how my coach was, and I could expect that from him every game.
I remember a game in my junior season when he wasn’t himself. He wasn’t doing a whole lot of yelling, and we weren’t playing well, either. Something was up.
When we made it to halftime, as I headed to the locker room, we all were very unsure about my coach’s reserved first-half behavior. He hadn’t said much during the game, but he looked redder and more pissed than ever, ready to come undone. Before we could even sit down, he slammed the locker room door, and the volcano exploded.
“I tried! I tried to be nice and encouraging!” he said. “People tell me I am too hard on you boys, and so I try to not to yell, and what happens? You go out there and screw around! You play like a bunch of lazy bums.” As he paced around the room, suddenly, his eyes set upon me. “And you play scared! You play like a p***y!”
I knew his comments were directed at me, the “weak boy” who couldn’t handle the screaming and criticism. My head wanted to drop between my knees, but I knew losing eye contact would only result in more anger and fury.
“Well,” he continued, “I am done trying to change. I can’t change; this is who I am! So, you’d better learn to toughen up and man up, because it isn’t going to get any easier.”
He was right. It never did get any easier.
Anger: The Emotional Tip of the Iceberg
Psychologists often use the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate anger. 90% of an iceberg’s mass is under water. Anger is just the tip of the iceberg; underneath the water is something a lot bigger, some other physical or emotional pain. Before we feel angry, we feel something else—the primary feeling. Anger is the secondary feeling or emotion.
Coaching is an emotional profession. We experience a lot of emotions; one being the very powerful feeling of not being enough. As I have mentioned in past articles (The Coaching Identity Crisis), many of us easily find our identity and self-worth in our team’s achievement and performance, so when things don’t go well, they are making us look bad.
Our default response to these feelings of inadequacy, shame, and unworthiness is anger. We choose anger because it is how we have been coached and parented into reacting. We have to intentionally retrain our response to better serve people and be more authentic in who we are.
This Isn’t Who You Are; You Can Change
My high school coach’s statement, “I can’t change; this is who I am,” is problematic for many reasons:
- Unwillingness to Grow: “I can’t change.” If you are unwilling to learn and grow—unwilling to change, like my coach was—then how can you expect your players to change? The irony of my experience as a player was that my coach wanted me to change, be mentally tougher, be more in control of my emotions, and be a better communicator. All the while, he had this unbridled anger he would use to lash out at young men.
- Cycle of Destructive Behaviors: The other sad part of my experience was I fell into similar behaviors. While I was never “as bad as he was”, that became a justification for my behavior as a coach. Coaches love to talk about how easy players have it today, and how, in their day, they got it way worse. This talk is just unconsciously justifying their anger and poor treatment of players.
- False Authenticity: “This is just who I am.” We hear this a lot from people who provide excuses for their behavior. When I would get angry and lose my temper on the sideline, I would excuse this as just being myself. I thought, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I felt I was being authentic, but just like my coach, I used anger to mask the real emotions I was feeling. I was far from presenting an authentic and true version of myself to the team.
When I am authentic and true to myself, I will never become less than my best. When I am authentic and true to myself, I won’t do anything that will harm myself or anyone else. In fact, when I am true to who I am as a person, I help myself and everyone else become better versions of themselves.
“Our culture has taught you that, as a young man, you can never authentically show any feeling other than anger. Unfortunately, anger is a secondary emotion. It always comes from something else. But, showing anything else is seen as weakness. So, your two choices are to be seen as weak or to get angry.”
This article isn’t meant to be a counseling session; rather, it is an encouragement to do a few things:
- Ask: “Where is this anger coming from? What is the primary feeling or emotion?”
- Remember: “I am coaching people, not objects. These people have wants, needs, and desires that are no less important than my own.”
- Act: Respond in accordance with your principles and values, not your feelings or circumstances.