By Rob Ficiur
We were Junior High Basketball parents again. We did not know a player on either team; we were there to cheer for the assistant coach (our son). The game was even through the first quarter. With four minutes to go in the second quarter the defining moment of the game happened … off the court. With the score basically tied, the other coach blew up at his players. I had not observed any obvious blunder on their part – but the coach gave those players on the court a piece of his mind. The players were on the court at the time. Were they supposed to stop playing and listen or keep playing and ignore the coach’s words of wisdom?
A minute later the coach blew up again; this time at the adult referee. Again there was not an obvious incident that led to meltdown number two. In a few precise words the referee made it clear to the coach (and everyone in the building) that he did not want refereeing advice from the coach. Those few strong words from the ref were enough to quiet the coach.
As the incident occurred I wrote down in my little notebook “We will win the game. These are 12-14 boys not grown-ups.” From that point on our team never trailed again. The game had been back and forth for nearly half of the game. The teams appeared to be evenly matched, but as the game went on we continually increased our lead until we won by more than 20 points.
Later in the game, our favorite assistant coach got frustrated with his players. He shouted instructions to them that could have sounded like the same explosion that we saw from the other coach. However, when there was a time out, our favorite assistant coach brought several players over. He got out the I-Pad and showed them how the other team was beating them over and over again with the same break out move. (Handy thing this technology instant analysis right on the bench). After he explained the problem and the easy adjustment we never heard from the assistant coach again.
Why was I able to so accurately predict our triumph? The pattern is almost as predictable as the sun coming up in the east not the west. When coaches or teammates start yelling at each other the game is all but over. As I have observed this I think there are three reasons that this is a predictable pattern:
1. When teammates start blaming the referee or their teammates they have an excuse for losing. Most sports are won and lost in the minds of the players. When they focus on the awful referee, players subconsciously think that there is no way they can win against this ref (or with this coach or with these teammates). With the excuse in place they play to the level of this new expectation.
2. Constant yelling diverts the players’ energy and focus. At first this may sound like number one, but it is a bit different. We can only put so much on our plate. When there is too much on our mental plate stuff falls off just like it does an over flowing Christmas dinner plate. Being yelled at by coaches takes energy from these young athletes. Even when the coach is yelling at someone else, players know that if they do something wrong it is likely that we are going to get it next (or soon). If a rebuke took up the 25% of a player’s energy – then he has that much less to put into a close game.
Our favorite assistant coach got his players’ attention and focussed on a specific problem. He showed them what the problem was, and then adjustments to make to get around the problem. Problem solving and coaching can build the athlete’s focus. The players knew they were having problems but while they were on the court, it can be hard to see the pattern and make adjustments.
3. Yelling + Yelling = Give Up. Coaches and teammates don’t yell at each other when they are winning. When the yellers start they generally don’t stop. The team is already struggling, how is making them feel worse going to make a bunch of kids play better? Eventually they give up.
Yogi Berra summarized all this when he said “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Especially since the math does not add up – Yogi made his point. There are physical skills and strategies that players need. That comes second (or third or fourth) after the players have got the right mental approach to the game.
When our children were playing sports we knew which coaches were yellers. Game after game, they would start in on their team and on the refs. Looking back, I am grateful that we never had a yeller as a coach for our children.