Mark Uyl has been watching, coaching or refereeing Michigan high school sports for three decades. The hundreds of games he has seen, especially when they are played indoors where the spectators are close and the sound is magnified, have revealed at least one “absolute truth,” he says.
“That coach who is ranting and raving up and down the sideline, gesturing and emotionally reacting to calls and non- calls,” Uyl, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, tells USA TODAY Sports, “I can tell you 100 percent of the time, that tends to inflame that school’s fan base. “The way that coaches act,” he says, “has a direct correlation for how their spectators act.”
Uyl’s observation reflects two other truths as well:
One: We live in a sports world consumed with winning. It’s one in which college and professional teams feel the need to cheat to get an advantage and, even at kids games, parents are apt to rage over anything they feel could alter that outcome.
Two: Being a coach gives you more control of this world than you think.
In the state where Uyl has built his career, Jim Harbaugh runs a college football program that is under NCAA investigation for sign-stealing and for the banned practice of in-person scouting. Like parents in the bleachers, Michigan’s followers, as well as Harbaugh’s players, are closely watching his moves, looking for cues how to react.
As a youth coach, you have similar reach.
“A coach creates the culture on a team and every single thing a coach says and does will influence and affect the athletes,” says Asia Mape, founder of “I Love to Watch you Play”, a website dedicated to enriching the experience kids and parents share through sports.
“It will be the lens they view the team, themselves, and their future choices through. The power in that is awe-inspiring.”
Don’t let that last statement scare you off. We need you. Too many coaches have lost sight of the big picture by becoming too focused on winning, even when multimillion dollar contracts and national championships don’t hinge upon the results.
USA TODAY Sports spoke with several experts and officials closely connected with youth and high school sports about the awesome responsibility of a coach, especially in this world engulfed by a constant pressure to win. Before you give in to this culture where “success” is driven by wins and losses, consider these five ways you can manage it:
1. Be an example (and not Bob Knight)
As a college basketball coach from the 1940s through the 1970s, John Wooden learned how two crucial ideals – winning and learning – could work together to influence players’ futures. Wooden won 10 men’s basketball national championships at UCLA, but he is remembered as much by his players for being a teacher as for being a coach.
One of his first most poignant lessons came simply from his demeanor on the sidelines. He was often seated, and he was always in control.
Not only did that demeanor give his players confidence, but it put them at ease and relieved any pressure they might have felt to win the game. That way, the winning came more organically: Through executing what they learned in practice and the effort they put forth on the court.
Managing your on-court demeanor is a simple yet profound measure you can take as a coach. As seasoned coaches know, those parents who might furiously point their fingers – or worse – at the ref after a call are likely to follow your lead if you are respectful and restrained. The coaches who are furiously waving their arms after an official’s call, instead of calmly seeking an explanation for it, are only inciting their fan base and ramping up the pressure on their players to win.
“We need intentional coaching,” says J.P. Nerbun, an author and leadership coach who has extensively studied team culture, “and that intentional coaching means: What are effective ways that develop long-term change in the athlete? So often we’re sacrificing for the short term – I can get ’em to work harder if I yell or I can get ’em to work harder if I make him run.
“OK, that’s great. That’s fear-based coaching. It only lasts so long; it doesn’t build character (or) intrinsically motivated athletes that are responsible for themselves, aware of themselves and their own emotional state.”
The era in which Nerbun played basketball seemed to overtake the precedence of quiet influence Wooden set. Coaches began to behave more like Bob Knight, who loudly berated players in at attempt to get the most out of them. While Knight won, his tactic risked emotionally scarring his players.
Nerbun’s path to Division I basketball at South Carolina was through a verbally and emotionally abusive high school coach.
“Knight was let go (by Indiana) in 2000 and that starts to be that shift, like, ‘Oh, Ok, you can’t touch players, you can’t grab players by the jersey,’ ” Nerbun says. “Didn’t come fast enough for me. I spent the next four years in hell. And, honestly, that’s been a lot of work to kind of untrain some of that stuff and break free. It didn’t just shape my behavior; it shaped my identity because of those things that were said to me constantly, over and over and over again.”
When Nerbun went into coaching high school boys, he took on the same threatening persona because it was ingrained in him.
“I could tell you this right now. I look at my life and the No. 1 person in my life that’s helped shape me as a man was my dad and after that was my high school coach. And it wasn’t because he did a good job of it.”
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2. Be a communicator (like John Wooden)
Andy Hill, who played for Wooden from the late 1960s to early 1970s, chronicles a near-lifelong relationship between player and coach in the book, “Be Quick – But Don’t Hurry!” The story isn’t a fairy tale. Instead, it details their long history of conflict before Hill came to the realization that all of his important life lessons derived from Wooden. Those lessons form the basis for the book.
Wooden, Hill says, was no saint. Though he wasn’t a constant yeller (Wooden thought coaches who did that were “dictators”) he was a taskmaster in practice who demanded full attention of his players. He would angrily blow his whistle at players and even kick them out of practices if he felt they weren’t following along.
Wooden gave his starters more attention than his reserves, which particularly upset Hill. But, Hill admits, you always knew where you stood with Wooden because he was transparent. He made sure to dole out strategic compliments to everyone on the team, especially the reserves. That praise empowered them to play better.
Communication helps you get through to players’ parents, too. Send them an email reinforcing your expectations for their players – and for the parents’ behavior – before the season and keep reinforcing your philosophies about playing time.
“I think the most sort of toxic situations and uncomfortable situations, and where parents and kids alike are frustrated, is when they just don’t understand what the coach is thinking or what their plans are around a lot of different things,” says Mape, whose website has helped educate coaches, too.
Nerbun, who is based in Ireland and coaches his 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son at Gaelic football, applies his concepts across all sports. One of them is bringing parents into the coaching experience. At the youth level, that might mean occasional involving them in the last few minutes of practice or, at the high school level, letting them into the locker room after a big win or loss.
“Rather than saying, ‘Hey these are all the things I won’t talk about, we’re talking about the things we want to talk about,’ ” says Nerbun, whose new book, called “The Sports Parent Solution,” debuts next month. “So we’re creating open lines of communication and then we’re consistently communicating. ‘Hey this is what we’re working on as a team now. This is the kind of character skills we’re trying to develop in your kids’ (or) ‘Hey we hit some tough patches; this is how we hope your kids will grow.’ ”
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3. Be a teacher
“Athletics, when viewed as an integral part of a university’s goal of educating young men and women, must be about much more than winning and losing games,” Wooden wrote in the introduction to ‘Be Quick – But Don’t Hurry.’ “It must be about teaching those traits necessary for succeeding in life.”
Saying this perhaps disguised how much Wooden burned to win. He just approached how he would go about doing so unconventionally.
Unlike Harbaugh and just about every coach in today’s world, Wooden spent almost no time scouting the opposition. Instead, he constantly instilled his own principles – such as dogged man-to-man defense – in his own players to the point where they were so confident, they knew they would win, even when opponents knew what was coming.
Wooden didn’t like to call timeouts during games because he wanted to see how his players executed his plan and handled adversity. Wooden defined success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”
Going back to his days as a high school coach in Indiana, Wooden drew the most satisfaction from teams that came closest to fulfilling their potential, even if those teams didn’t win much more than they lost.
Overachieving alone can be self-empowering. Yes, Wooden stated, you need to have great players, but he took pride in any player who played up to his talent.
“You’re only as good a coach as the worst player on your team,” says Mape, who played a year of basketball at Coastal Carolina and coached her daughters in the sport up to middle school. “It was always my greatest joy to see the growth of kids who had never played the sport. And really the mark of a successful season is if they signed up to play the next year. That was what it was all about. But don’t get me wrong, I like to win but I believe winning and being a child centered, human-first coach can co-exist.”
4. Be aware that winning matters
Nerbun has an issue with the practice of not keeping score at kids games. He is all for it, even with young children, who generally play for the “fun of the game.”
However, if you’ve ever been to a game where the score isn’t officially kept, you know that after the game, the kids will tell you that they “won” or “lost” because they all keep score in their heads.
Nerbun openly talks about “the score” with his kids, even if it isn’t officially kept.
“The whole point is that the stakes are lower and so this is a great opportunity to teach kids good sportsmanship, to teach them, ‘Hey, losing does not say anything about you as a person,’ ” Nerbun says. “It says things about where they’re at and where you’re at.”
“I say, ‘Hey, tough loss there. It’s not a big thing, it’s not a big deal,’ but we just mention it.”
Keeping score at an early age also ensures it doesn’t become a surprise when it begins, often abruptly, when your kid gets to be 10 or so. The kids, as well as the parents, know how to cope with it.
“John Wooden recognized he didn’t need to talk about winning because he knew that it was up on the scoreboard and his players already cared about it,” Nerbun says. “So he was trying to shift their focus. I’m doing that by keeping score. I’m just saying, ‘Hey, tough loss there but now let’s focus on what can we do to get better.’ I’m not criticizing them because they lost or praising them because they won. It’s more about, ‘Where (was) the effort? What did we do well? What were we trying to get better at?”
5. Be aware of your profound influence over them (especially at Jim Harbaugh’s level)
“A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in an entire lifetime,” evangelist Billy Graham once said.
It’s a favorite quote of Mape’s. When her daughter was going through some personal issues, her volleyball coach took the time to sit and talk through those issues with her, which meant everything to Mom, too. Mape also shared a note from a coach to a friend’s daughter that emphasized her value as a reserve as a first-time water polo player.
“They’re sort of like a larger than life person in their lives who are in control of a lot of important things to the kids,” Mape says of coaches. “And when they lead with kindness and putting the athlete first in a transformative approach to their coaching, it does wonders for the kids.”
When a coach is outwardly or even passively unkind, negative and puts winning above all else, Mape says, “You just see an athlete’s confidence completely get shattered and it’s really hard, I think, especially for girls to rebound from that.”
Nerbun points to research cited, among other places, in Richard Reeves’ book, “Of Boys and Men,” about how the brain forms in the adolescent years, making kids especially impressionable from age 13 into their mid-20s.
Reeves points out how boys are particularly susceptible to the words and actions of the men in their lives. Those men can be parents and, of course, they can be coaches.
Nerbun thinks back to that volatile coach and his own early career as a high school teacher and coach when he began to emulate his so-called mentor.
In those days, Nerbun felt he was a good coach in terms of winning and that he was a solid human being. But he came to realize there was still a higher standard to achieve.
“I wasn’t cheating but I was like, ‘Man, I don’t think I really set a great example and I don’t actually know if I’m making a difference in any of these kids’ lives,’ ” he says. “I love teachers, I was a teacher, but I knew that I had a far greater reach and impact as a coach. It cannot be understated. We can help parents. We can help the system and the very difficult job of raising kids in today’s world.
“We can assist them as much as they can assist us in building a successful team culture.”