By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
March 2, 2015
Following a childish on-court tirade, in which he dropped “f-bombs” in a rapid fire manner and threatened to kill one of his own players, Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings said the player that was the target of his rant, Wade Baldwin, needs to grow up.
After watching Stallings’ behavior, I would say he needs to follow his own advice.
Immediately after Vanderbilt’s 73-65 win over Tennessee on Thursday night, Baldwin can be seen clapping his hands on the court. As a Tennessee player walks by, Baldwin turns toward him and keeps clapping. Stallings was told by a Tennessee assistant coach that Baldwin was clapping in the faces of Tennessee players (Which wasn’t literally true. Baldwin already was clapping and simply turned toward a Tennessee player walking by). Stallings then lost it, berating Baldwin unmercifully as the Vanderbilt and Tennessee players were shaking hands.
Stallings told the media later that sportsmanship is very important to the Vanderbilt program and unsportsmanlike behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in his program. That’s certainly commendable. I am a huge advocate for good sportsmanship at all levels, from the pros to the peewees. But it’s hard to imagine Stallings couldn’t have come up with a better way to teach that lesson to Baldwin and his teammates. He acted totally classless in front of his players, Tennessee’s players, coaches from both teams, and fans, media members and anyone else within earshot of the Stallings volcano.
Baldwin’s action was indeed inappropriate but hardly worthy of Stallings boorish tirade. In fact, it easily could be argued that Stallings’ outburst — including the location where it took place — was significantly more inappropriate than Baldwin’s — especially considering Stallings’ age and experience vs. that of the freshman Baldwin’s.
Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams decided not to suspend Stallings. But after talking to Stallings, he had this to say in a statement:
“We agreed that Kevin’s offensive and inflammatory language directed toward a student-athlete was inappropriate, regardless of the high emotions at the time. Coach Stallings and I agree that as head coach, he must exemplify the high code of conduct he expects from his team members.”
But this really isn’t about Stallings, or this incident in particular. I don’t have a big problem with Vanderbilt deciding not to suspend Stallings. The bigger issue is the on-going prevalence of boorish, autocratic, “kick-’em in the butt” style coaches in this country, especially at the high school and youth levels.
As a society, we’ve long accepted that effective coaches must be autocratic drill sergeants. Think of the sports movies you’ve seen. Aren’t most of the coaches portrayed in these movies Vince Lombardi types? Hollywood has bought into the “coach as drill sergeant” style and fed it back to us. So have sportswriters and broadcasters.
Nevertheless, the assumption that you need to be a Lombardi-style coach in order to be effective is increasingly — and thankfully — 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, the lead author of a report on the research.
The key finding 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 went too far and were de-motivating.
A lot of coaches have used methods similar to Stallings’ through the years. Because of that fact, some defenders of this kind of coaching behavior take the “that’s how it’s always been; if it was good enough for me it’s good enough for today’s kids” position.
I beg to differ. The autocratic, aggressive, and occasionally abusive, tactics employed by these kind of coaches should be unacceptable in this country.
Sport at the college setting and below is supposed to be an educational endeavor. Can you imagine classroom teachers using methods we allow our coaches to use? They would be fired, suspended, and if they went as far as former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, they might be jailed.
“Coaches, in many ways, are teachers,” says Mazer. “And if we hold teachers to high standards with respect to communication, we need to do it for coaches as well.”
Here’s former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight — in his classroom, the basketball court — talking to one of his players, as quoted in John Feinstein’s Season on the Brink:
“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 an inspiring educator?
It doesn’t have to be this way. John Wooden was selected as the greatest coach — for any sport — of all-time by The Sporting News. Wooden reached that level of success by treating players with dignity, rarely raising his voice and never swearing at his players. He won 10 national championships in 12 years at UCLA without resorting to a tyrannical coaching style. Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who recently passed away, used a similar coaching style.
“Coaches are psychologically frozen,” explains the Positive Coaching Alliance’s Jim Thompson. “They tend to coach the way they were coached and by the professional coaches they see on TV.”
As parents and fans, we’ve been conditioned too, by over-the-top coaches we’ve experienced ourselves or seen on TV. But it’s time to break the cycle.
The fact that this Stallings incident is getting a lot of attention from the media and in Twitterverse is a good sign that our sports society is progressing.
Hopefully, it’s another step on the road to holding our sports coaches to a higher, more “grown up” standard of behavior.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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