Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

12.05.14Annals of Coaching: A Brief Reflection on Selflessness, Ego and John Wooden

I’ve been reflecting this morning on sideline behavior. My colleague Chris Condron, a coach and PE teacher in New jersey, was commenting on the culture of screamers among many college coaches–how there’s a culture that valorizes behavior on the sidelines that we should probably be able to see is counter-productive.

And, Chris posited, those behavioral norms then filter down to youth coaches–what elite coaches do is “normal.”

Image result for coach sidelines

The New Normal

Shouting, berating, negativity, there’s plenty of that, but also sometimes just too much personalized emotion.  We know from watching effective teachers correct behavior in the classroom that less emotion is better. When you bring your emotions into an exchange you add other variables–is he mad at me? why? does he get mad at others like this? does he play favorites?–that distract a player from thinking about his or her own execution.

It made me recall the comments that several of the US Soccer Federation instructors i worked with this week about how negative sideline behaviors were an epidemic.  They wondered aloud: How many coaches would be comfortable if a video of them on the sidelines appeared in the NY Times (at least on its website)? How many institutions of learning would link to a video of their coaches on their homepage? That’s a good test.

So if we can all recognize poor sideline behavior by other coaches during games, why is it so common?

One possibility is the corrosive effect of ego.  Good teachers have to learn to be selfless.

Often young teachers try to make themselves–their personality; their charm; their humor even–too central to the class’s functioning and have to learn to modulate that. They are funny.  The class laughs. That becomes like catnip.  The kids love the funny teacher and soon the  teacher needs to be funny- possibly even in situations where the focus should be more on students learning. The egotism of being the center of attention becomes a distraction.

Is there a risk of distraction caused by egotism for coaches? Probably. Do many coaches need to be an unmistakable visible part of their team’s success? Does it have to be visible? Obvious that the success was the coach’s doing?

How many coaches would be happy if their team played well and won and all the players grew but fans and parents said: “He doesn’t do much, does he?”

How many coaches need to be active or demonstrative on the sidelines to prove it

Image result for john wooden sidelines

Don’t Look Over at the Bench… Well, Maybe Just a Little

was them that made the success happen? To be seen as a causal factor? How many would trade some player growth if those people saying “he doesn’t do much” would instead say “he’s a crafty old bird, isnt he?” or  “Lord, he practically wills them to win.”

Lord knows with all the pressure on coaches to deliver short term results i

t would be easy to feel the incentive to make it clear that the W’s are emphatically your doing while the L’s come despite your vociferous efforts.  But reading Seth Davis’ biography of John Wooden puts that in a bit of perspective.


How’s this for a quote?

“Wooden believed it was his job to prepare his team to play. Once the game began, it was their job to show what they had learned. “Don’t look over at the bench when the game starts,” he told them. “Just do what you’ve been taught to do.” Practice was Mr. Wooden’s domain. The game was the players’ domain.”

Though interestingly, Davis also reveals that the notoriously disciplined and controlled Wooden struggled to manage his own sideline behavior and live by his own adage throughout his career. Ego is a difficult opponent.


Leave a Reply