THE BLOG

It's Time to Bench Tyrannical Coaches

11/01/2013 05:49 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

"He treats us all the same -- like dogs." -- Henry Jordan, former Green Bay Packer, on Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi is arguably the worst thing that's ever happened to sports in America.

Okay, let me clarify that a little. Vince Lombardi's coaching style and the negative impact it's had on sports in America -- from the professional to the youth level -- is arguably the worst thing that's happened to sports in America.

Unfortunately, Lombardi's autocratic, kick 'em-in-the-butt coaching style (militaristic, controlling, screaming, swearing, degrading, etc.) has become the model for team sport coaches in this country -- even at the peewee level.

Yes, there were coaches that used the autocratic coaching style long before Lombardi stalked the Green Bay Packers' sideline, but Lombardi stands out as the coaching icon in American sports, the model for others to emulate. "Ya wanna win Coach? Then ya gotta treat your players like dogs, just like Lombardi did."

That's a sad commentary on American sports culture.

Undoubtedly, Lombardi was a successful football coach in terms of wins, losses, and championships. His Green Bay Packers teams are legendary. But were his methods the best way to treat human beings? Can't you be successful on the scoreboard and treat people with respect and dignity?

Well, of course you can. There are plenty of examples. But our SportsWorld culture perpetuates the myth that the head coach must be a macho drill sergeant in order to be truly effective.

For every Lombardi or Bobby Knight you give me, I can give you an equally successful -- if not more successful -- humanistic coach. For example, in football, Don Shula (who co-wrote a book about coaching from the heart), Bill Walsh, John Gagliardi (the all-time winningest college football coach whose only team rule was The Golden Rule), Tony Dungy, and Oregon State's Mike Riley come quickly to mind. In basketball, there's John Wooden, Dean Smith, and today, the Boston Celtics' Brad Stevens, who miraculously took tiny Butler to back-to-back men's Final Fours with a humanistic, people-centered approach to coaching.

Autocratic/Authoritarian coaches have a strong need to control others, they primarily see people as a means to an end. They believe players need to be motivated externally with the lure of rewards, or threats of punishment (despite multiple leadership studies that show threats of punishment decrease internal motivation).

Most sports coaches subscribe to the autocratic leadership style. It is the coaching style most generally seen by the public as successful and most often emulated by beginning coaches -- who if they know nothing else about coaching believe you must show up at the first youth sports practice with a clipboard, whistle and ready to scream. It is also called the Command Style or "do as I say" approach to coaching.

On the other end of the spectrum, the humanistic coaching style stems from the human relations school of management, which argues that productivity is related to job satisfaction. Humanistic leaders believe that work groups, or teams, that are characterized by a more democratic, consultative, and humanistic atmosphere will have higher levels of internal motivation, satisfaction and morale, and as a result, more commitment to the organization and greater productivity than those groups directed by authoritarian leaders/coaches.

Frosty Westering died earlier this year but he remains a humanistic coaching style legend. He is the all-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) wins leader in college football, with most of those wins coming at Pacific Lutheran. Westering focused on "put-ups" rather than "put-downs" when coaching his players. He built his coaching philosophy around one theme: "Be the coach you would've wanted to play for."

Throughout his high school and college playing career, Westering played for traditional, autocratic type coaches. He vowed that he would find another method if he ever became a coach.

"I always said I wanted to coach the way I would've wanted my sons or daughters to be coached," said Westering.

Contrast that approach to this tirade from the famous autocratic coach Bobby Knight:

"You know what you are Daryl [Thomas]? You are the worst f------ pussy I've ever seen play basketball at this school. The absolute worst pussy ever. You have more god---- ability than 95 percent of the players we've had here but you are a pussy from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. An absolute f------ pussy. That's my assessment of you after three years."

How's that for inspiring leadership?

"Sports when it's done right, is so beautiful," says Jim Thompson, the founder of a nonprofit called Positive Coaching Alliance (positivecoach.org). "And when it's not, it's so ugly."

Despite the success of Wooden, Shula, Dungy, Stevens, and others, our society has conditioned us to think that autocratic coaches are better coaches; that they win more often. It's a myth.

But it's a vicious cycle. Athletes are conditioned by autocratic coaches from Little League on. When they grow up and become coaches themselves, they model the behavior of the coaches they remember from their playing days. And on it goes ... unless we individually and collectively decide to stand up and stop it.

The great author James Michener, who wrote Sports in America, said coaches in the United States get away with forms of discipline that simply wouldn't be tolerated in any other activity.

Why are they tolerated in sports?