By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
April 21, 2014

Joe Maddon doesn’t believe in a long list of draconian rules. In fact, he has only two rules for his players: 1) Run hard to first base (play hard); and 2) Have fun.

“Rules can’t take the place of character,” says Maddon, the manager of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Maddon also has a non-traditional attitude when it comes to his players’ mistakes on the field. He’s very tolerant of physical mistakes, and in fact, encourages his players to take risks.

“I don’t want my players afraid of making mistakes,” says Maddon, who wants his team taking the field focused and relaxed.

Maddon emphasizes two things that each of his players can control: effort (including preparation) and attitude.

“Attitude is a decision,” says the consistently positive Maddon. “And when it comes down to individual effort, it takes absolutely zero talent to play hard every day.”

Maddon also believes having a good time is a key ingredient to success. He wants humor and laughter to be a major part of his team’s culture. His spring training camps are efficient but laid-back. During the season, he has several themed road trips each year. One such trip had the Rays dressed in black in honor of Johnny Cash. They dressed as nerds on one trip, had a pajama party theme on another, and wore college letter sweaters on yet another.

In addition, Maddon regularly brings exotic animals into the clubhouse to loosen things up and will occasionally make homemade hoagies or pasta for players and coaches.

“When we win, I want us to have the best post-game celebration. And, then on the other hand, I want us to lose hard for 30 minutes, and then leave it.”

When it comes to discipline, Maddon is the anti-Lombardi, the anti-Bobby Knight.

“Discipline doesn’t come by hollering and screaming,” says Maddon. “It’s the result of consistency.”

Maddon believes that if you consistently treat people the right way, embrace and respect individual personalities and differences, promote camaraderie and unity, and give players a lot of freedom, you’ll get loyal and disciplined athletes in return.

In academic terms, Maddon has a humanistic approach to management. His people-oriented, positive approach to coaching is in the minority in a field that traditionally celebrates the authoritarian, “kick-’em-in-the-butt” coach who operates with a military mindset.

Authoritarian coaches have a strong need to control others, they primarily see people as a means to an end. They believe players can only be motivated by rewards or threats of punishment. They are characterized by a belief in strong discipline, rigidity of rules, and an impersonal attitude toward their athletes.

The cycle of authoritarian coaches is a tough one to break. Athletes are conditioned by authoritarian coaches from Little League on. When they grow up and become coaches themselves, they typically 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 work to break the cycle.

The assumption that you need to be an authoritarian coach in order to be effective is increasingly being questioned today.

In research published in the International Journal of Sport Communication, negative tactics, including verbally aggressive language, were found to be less effective in motivating athletes than coaches with a more affirming style.

“This study shows that extra amounts of verbal aggression in the coach-athlete relationship is a negative thing — it’s not productive, and many athletes find it to be unacceptable,” says Joseph P. Mazer, an assistant professor of communication studies at Clemson University and the lead author of a report on the research.

One of the key findings from the study is that verbally aggressive language doesn’t work as a motivator, even in sports environments where athletes have been conditioned to expect it. Players said coaches who used profanity and other berating language and tactics went too far and were de-motivating.

That’s why it’s important to make coaches — at every level — aware of successful coaches like Joe Maddon, who use a positive, humanistic style to lead athletes.

Maddon’s a winner. He has been named the AL manager of the year twice, in 2008 and 2011. After years of being Major League Baseball’s laughingstock, Maddon guided Tampa Bay to the World Series in 2008, followed by multiple playoff appearances in the years since. The Rays have won 90 or more games -long baseball’s mark of excellence — in five of the past six seasons.

Our sports culture needs to evolve from the dark ages and transition to more meaningful humanistic coaching styles that enhance the overall experience for athletes while still striving to win games.

Joe Maddon has been doing that at a very high level the past six years — with a payroll that’s a fraction of the budgets of American League East rivals, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

The Maddon Way serves as a great model for coaches everywhere. Spread the word.

There’s a different — and better — way to coach athletes.

Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans

Follow Ken Reed on Twitter.


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