Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Yelling & Yellers

In one of the schools where I taught and coached, a story fairly well-known to students and some of the coaches circulated about one of the coaches.  At halftime, during one game when the team was not playing particularly well, they received a verbal lashing, all-too common from that coach.  When his rant reached its apogee, the coach became so apoplectic in his rage that he picked up a folding chair and threw it, catching one of his players in the forehead and causing a deep cut that required attention from one of the trainers.  Players collaborated in squelching the event and in contriving the fiction that the injury had happened during game time.  The incident was never discussed publicly and the coach was never censured for an event that conveniently never happened.  I bring this story out of my past for several reasons.  For one, it has always amazed me how the abuser gets protected by the system, and how a group under the thrall of an abuser colludes to keep the abuse a secret.   For another, I have always been perplexed and dismayed at the problem of yelling, a pathology at any time, but one that is particularly malignant in parenting, leadership and coaching; that is, when there is a power imbalance between the yeller and his target.  I hope that with the very public firing of the Rutger’s University men’s basketball coach more people will feel empowered to take a stand against the yeller in their life,  but I have my doubts that the fate of Mike Rice will start a national campaign to eradicate this sickness.  In this post, I’ll give you some reasons why all coaches (parents, bosses, people) should seek to eradicate yelling from their communication repertoire.
    The Pygmalion Effect.  Separate from the locution I coined in my last parent post, psychologists have discovered a phenomenon that shows that if you demand a higher standard, you can get it.  That is, if you have high expectations of people, you will get more out of them than if you don’t.  Yelling is an egregious misunderstanding of this concept.  Yelling, physically abusing them or hurling homophobic epithets at them will definitely have an effect on them, that is, of triggering their fight/flight/freeze mechanism.  So, while some players’ fight response might engage, you are just as likely to have players feeling more timid and even freezing in the face of performance challenges.  Coaches are much more likely to elicit peak performance by setting high standards and by giving more attention and praise when their athletes achieve those levels and by simply paying less attention to gaffes, misses and miscues.  In a team that identifies and rallies around high standards, mistakes are taken in stride and no one needs to get excoriated, singled out or put in the penalty box of shame, from which best results are rarely achieved.
    The Messiah Fantasy.  All groups fall prey to the fantasy that the leader will lead them to the promised land (more wins, greater profit, increased safety from external threats).  The successful leader will always seek to thwart this fantasy by communicating to his group that achieving those gains falls on everyone’s shoulders.  Harnessing the power of the group will always be more effective and reality-based than by having everyone believe that they are following some invincible Magus.  Furthermore, the truly empowering leader will forefront his or her players’ hands in victory and downplay his or her own, but (s)he will always take blame for defeats.  The yeller misunderstands these basic tenets by communicating--through their dysregulation--that their players will succeed only through their obedience.  For the yeller, it is all about him.  For the coach, it is all about the group.  The yeller communicates to his players that they will sink or swim because of the coach, and that they should never forget that.  Whereas the coach communicates that they will sink or swim through the collective efforts of the group and that the coach will do everything to help them swim.
Cohesion.  So, as you can see from above, team cohesion is really the holy grail of successful team play.  The yeller and abuser shatters cohesion because (s)he will split the team’s allegiances between those players who agree with those methods, perhaps because they had a yeller for a parent, and those who think (s)he’s insane and should be overthrown.  But mostly, the yeller creates a code of silence, evidenced by the team I referenced above, where open communication is shunned in part because it is not tolerated, and in part because no one wants to step out of line and feel the capricious wrath of the lunatic in their midst who mistakes himself for a visionary.  Finally, and perhaps most tragically, players will simply ignore the coach during yelling jags, retract their heads into their shells, thus missing important opportunities to process mistakes, clarify misunderstandings, and learn & cohere as a group.
       If history hasn’t then psychologists certainly have taught us about the wages of obedience for the sake of obedience.  They have also echoed the lessons of history in how quickly and easily power is abused.  So, coaches should set their bar much higher than mere obedience and should be much more circumspect about how they use their tremendous authority.  Which is not to say that they can’t reprimand, give consequences or even deliver impassioned lectures about what does and does not float on their particular squad or why that particular drill was not performed well.  Setting high standards and providing the road map to achieving them is a far cry from yelling.  The difference can almost invariably be seen in the results.  Mike Rice’s Rutger’s team didn’t break .500.  The team I referred to above wasn’t even close to .500.  And as for that team’s coach?  He was hired away by a more prestigious institution with a more storied program.

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