This March Madness, one the most talked about moments was this exchange between Michigan State Tom Izzo and Aaron Henry during a timeout in the first-round game. Thanks to CBS, ESPN, and social media, this exchange has become viral, with many people challenging Izzo’s behavior as “crossing the line.”
The criticism of Izzo is unfair. This is normal Izzo; his players were surprised people made a big deal out of it! Not only was this normal for Izzo, but this is also normal for millions of coaches in sports at all levels around the world.
When this incident blew up, my phone also blew up — with messages from coaches and others, asking if I felt it crossed the line.
I was a yell-aholic for over 10 years of coaching, and I would often ask myself if I was crossing the line. When we ask this question, we can usually come up with justifications, like:
The question of whether we have crossed the line is irrelevant. The question we need to ask as coaches are, “Is there a better way?”
That question changed everything for me, as I was a coach whose default response was yelling. Suddenly, it wasn’t about whether it was right or wrong. It was about the best way to lead because I wanted to be the best coach I could be!
I started to really reflect and study. Was yelling the best way to motivate, show I cared, and hold them to high standards? I found logical and scientific reasons for why I shouldn’t yell, and when I started to train alternative responses, I experienced some other reasons, too.
People claim yelling is just “coaching them up” and toughening up their players, but for most of us, yelling at our players is our default reaction! It is way harder to stay in control of our emotions. It’s hard to be demanding without being demeaning. It is harder to hold someone accountable without using fear. It is way harder to focus on the next play and put the bad play behind us. When we just react with our emotions, we are not being intentional or skilled. Coaching is a skill that requires intentionality and training.
So that we can understand human connection and performance, we need to first understand how the brain works. The brain can be broken down into two different parts: the right and the left. In his book, The Whole Brain Child, Daniel J. Siegel calls it “Emotional Right” and “Logical Left”. Now, we want the right and the left to work together, so we can be at our best. So, when a player makes a mistake, they get angry or experience frustration, and they start to work from the “Emotional Right”. So, we need to help them integrate the “Logical Left”, so they can be balanced. We can’t help them connect the left and the right by being highly emotional and yelling! Instead, we must connect with their emotions and help them redirect their thinking. Not only is this more beneficial in the moment, but it literally helps strengthen the connections! We are training their brain to become stronger, more balanced people!
The brain can also be split into upper and lower sections. The upper brain is higher-order thinking, such as reasoning and critical thinking. The lower brain takes care of the very basic functions needed for survival, like breathing, blinking, fight-or-flight response, and strong emotions, like anger and fear. The trick — especially in the undeveloped brain (brains aren’t fully developed until our mid-to-late 20s) — is to activate the upper part of the brain. We want them to think on the field or the court — not just react! When we yell, we trigger the amygdala in the lower part of the brain, which is known as the “fear center”. When the amygdala is activated, it cuts off the connection between the lower and upper parts of the brain. We go into survival mode! This is great if we are running from a tiger in the jungle, but when we are trying to pick apart a defense, it’s not so helpful!
The bottom line is, do you want your players to run hard, listen, and have a good attitude because you said so? Or, do you want them to run hard, listen, and act right because it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right type of player, it’s the right experience they want to create for the team, and it’s in line with the outcome they desire? If you are a transformational coach, you want it to be the latter. You want them motivated intrinsically, not extrinsically. When we motivate extrinsically by yelling, we will always miss out on the opportunity to build character and encourage personal accountability.
Some argue if you aren’t yelling, you don’t care, and you don’t have high standards. My parents never yelled, but rest assured, if I didn’t get my chores done, didn’t make good grades, or was disrespectful, there were consequences — no practice, no games, and no TV! No yelling was ever needed, just a conversation explaining how my choices led to these consequences and the loss of privileges. Now, I’m sure they felt like they wanted to yell — and maybe they even would have been justified if they had yelled at me — but it wasn’t helpful or the best way to practice tough love.
Do you value player leadership? Do you want to be a player-led team? Well, if you believe you have to resort to yelling and screaming to hold people accountable, you are a long way away from being a player-led team. You have some serious failures within your culture if that is the only way you can get players to work hard.
I don’t care if you work at the Washington Post, McDonalds, or Goldman Sachs; if you yell at your employees in front of other employees and/or your customers the way that some coaches yell at their players, you’ll get fired—or sent to anger management!
You wouldn’t allow your players to speak to each other this way. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even let your assistants speak to your players in this manner. At some point in history, people came up with the idea that it’s a coach’s job to criticize, yell, and tear people down, and everyone else’s role is to build them back up. That’s simply a double standard, not a positive example.
Should Coaches Be Allowed To Curse At Their Players?
Many people claim yelling is being tough on players and preparing them for the real world. Once again, you can’t speak or treat people like this and survive as a leader—or as a parent. If I yelled and cussed out my child in the grocery store, Child Services would be called. The real world does not tolerate this type of behavior. Secondly, the real world needs more leaders who lead with love, not fear. It needs leaders who are demanding and hold people accountable in a way that is supportive, not demeaning.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, shared this powerful question with me: “What are the chances the first way I learned to coach is the best way to coach?” Yelling is how most of us were coached. It’s what we see all around us. Does that make it the best way? Absolutely not!
So, if you yell as a coach, are you a bad coach? Absolutely not; you are just human! When I came to believe I shouldn’t yell as a coach, I still yelled. It’s a long process of growth to retrain ourselves as coaches and develop the skills we need to lead without yelling.
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