An important opportunity was missed in last week’s Mike Rice coaching scandal at Rutgers. At first the headlines were about the viral video of the out-of-control antics of Rice. Then the headlines turned to the firing of Rice, followed by what the Rutgers’s athletic director and president knew and when they knew it. Sports radio has been focused on whether Coach Rice’s methods went too far. Some commentators have defended Rice arguing that American society has become “wussified” and that the outbursts of Rice were intended to motivate his players.
Missed in the ensuing coverage was a challenge to the assumption that players will only be motivated by harsh methods. Rice was an unsuccessful coach at Rutgers; and yet, his boorish antics, although extreme, are all too commonplace in sports. Was this simply a case where Coach Rice went too far? Perhaps a more important principle was demonstrated here: boorish behavior demotivates rather than motivates. It is time to question whether colleges are spending millions of dollars a year on coaches that demotivate.
To be sure, athletes at any age might need discipline; but discipline can be accomplished, without histrionics, by simple rules that are evenly and fairly applied. A few examples of simple rules: “Show up for practice on time.” “Learn the team’s playbook.” “Stay physically conditioned.”
In his book Stillpower: The Inner Source of Athletic Excellence, Garrett Kramer observes that even the common-place motivational pep talks are counter-productive: “Revving up a player serves to bind performance rather than enhance it. It always leads to errant decisions and, thus, results in missed opportunities and poor performances.”
Why would this be the case? The answer: You can’t think your way into the zone or a state of flow that athletic excellence requires. Think of the last time you had clarity of mind in any endeavor. Your clear mind is not busy. A larger intelligence is working through you when you get your thinking out of the way. As anyone who has ever played a sport knows, the second you even have a thought “Wow, I’m really in the zone today” is the moment you lose your edge.
The sad truth is that an athlete who plays well for a ranting and raving coach is doing so in spite of the coach, not because of the coach. Some colleges are indeed wasting millions of dollars a year. We would be wise to learn from the Mike Rice example at Rutgers.
In my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I explain how John Wooden, perhaps the greatest coach of all time, relied on teaching instead of “coaching.”
John Wooden was the coach of the legendary UCLA basketball teams that won seven consecutive national championships. Many consider Wooden the greatest coach of any sport in history. High praise indeed! But if you examine his record, his coaching philosophy, and how he conducts himself, it would be hard to argue with this assessment. By his own example and his coaching philosophy, Wooden taught somebodies to be nobodies. A poem about teaching, written by an anonymous author, is a favorite of his:
No written word
No spoken plea
Can teach our youth
What they should be
Nor all the books
On all the shelves
It’s what the teachers
Over the years, Wooden noticed a decrease in team play even while individual talent increased. Unhappily, he observed that a growing number of coaches had forgotten that first and foremost their job, simply and purely, is to be a teacher. In a tribute to Wooden in the New York Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “He was more a teacher than a coach. He broke basketball down to its basic elements. He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”
Former UCLA player Andrew Hill also observed that Wooden was “more likely to talk about ‘teaching’ a team rather than ‘coaching’ them.” Hill goes on to say that Wooden’s greatest gift was “not what he taught us, but the fact that he really taught us how to learn.” And in teaching others how to learn, Coach Wooden placed high value on being a learner himself. “If I am through learning, I am through,” he is reported to have said. Teaching and learning—and leading and following—begin with our own example.
Wooden “did very little coaching once the game started; the players knew exactly what was expected of them and how they needed to perform,” recalls Hill. Once the game started, Wooden believed his job was essentially done; he encouraged his players not to look to the sidelines for guidance. During the game, he sat attentively observing the play. Contrast that with the histrionics we see with so many contemporary coaches who over-control the flow of the game by making themselves the center of attention. Wooden’s gentle demeanor on the bench was not weakness.
Coach Wooden’s gentleness came from being firm in his own purpose and principles and yet understanding that, whatever the outcome, it was not about him. The outcome Wooden sought was not to make himself or his players into bigger somebodies. For example, one of the talented players Wooden worked with was Sidney Wicks. When Wicks first came to UCLA he was not a good team player. In his book Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry, co-written with Coach Wooden, Andrew Hill relates the story of when Wooden banned Wicks from the starting lineup in favor of Lynn Shackleford. Wicks asked Coach Wooden, “Aren’t I a better player than Lynn Shackleford?” Wooden responded, “Why yes, you are, Sydney, and when you learn to play with the team, you will start, but not before then.” It took Wicks a full season to go from being a special somebody to becoming a great team player. In college, he was named national player of the year; and in the NBA, he was rookie of the year.
By emphasizing teamwork rather than specialness, Wooden allowed the great individual talents of UCLA to be developed and expressed. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls, “His drills emphasized fundamentals, unselfishness, and the mental aspects of the game.” Jabbar admits that he could have been a “one-man show” in college, “but what I learned about the game in college and how to mesh with my teammates made it possible to achieve the success I had as a professional.” In other words, if Wooden had encouraged the development of the ego of each player, Abdul-Jabbar may have been an even bigger somebody at UCLA at the expense of his future pro career.
The winning records of Coach Wooden’s great UCLA teams will probably never be equaled. Wooden taught excellence through hard work and sportsmanship; paradoxically, his purpose was not winning. Winning was a by-product of the principles by which Coach Wooden led his players. By his example and by his teaching he provided the circumstances for others to make their own choices, not from their ego but from their True Self. There is a profound gentleness in facilitating others to bring out the best in them, not by building up their specialness but by showing them they are part of a whole.