I related to how that Morehouse State University basketball player felt as his coach, Sean Woods, screamed in his face from a few inches away during a game last week on TV.
More than three decades ago my high school hoops coach pulled the same stunt on me many times. I remember those berating experiences as some of the most difficult episodes of my life. There I was, a 16 and 17 year old kid, getting bull-dogged and roared at by a 60 year old gray haired, pink-faced man who had monumental psychological and functional power over me. He wanted to win. He wanted to motivate me because I was one of his better players. He wanted to get me so angry and tired of his hollering in my face that I would play better, score more points, grab more rebounds, take more charges. All so he could add to his career wins total.
What I remember most about him getting in my grill was that I couldn't say anything back to him-or risk everything. I had to swallow without retaliating all the insults and chastising he hurled. If I talked back, I might be benched and was haunted by that threat. I desperately wanted to win a college basketball scholarship. Being a starter and getting lots of playing time were paramount to achieving that goal. He had the power to make me a starter or a benchwarmer at his whim. So I took his screaming like a puppy, listened to it, tolerated it, wondered about it, wondered about him, and wondered about myself.
Why me all the time? I wondered. He shrieked at other players, no doubt, but I received an inordinate amount of it, it seemed. I thought about getting shouted at by my coach almost every day during my three high school basketball seasons, during classes, during practices, during games. The man scared me then, though if I saw him on a street corner today I would ignore him rather than fear him. He isn't worth my time. He's lame. When I went to practice, I hoped I would get through the grind without him staring and unloading into my face. Most of the time I didn't escape.
When he did this, he made me feel stupid. He excelled at firing condescending darts. When he did this, he made me feel untalented, which perplexed me because I was one of the team's better athletes and overall players. When he did this, he made me feel inferior. He made me believe--truly, honestly believe--I wasn't a very good basketball player, which is what I wanted so desperately to be. He convinced me I was incapable of learning from my mistakes, that I had developmental issues. During these tirades, he often asked condescendingly "who dresses you in the morning?"
When he clamored, he made me wonder whether playing basketball was worth it. When he did this, I felt like a loser or that, for some reason, he just didn't like me that much. Truthfully, I don't think he cared for me all that much coming from a nice suburban town. He grew up in a less nice suburban town. He would never say so but I could kind of tell he had disdain for me. What he did say, which I will always remember because it stung so much, was this: "The only reason you're a starter is not because you're any good; it's because we don't have anyone better."
To this day I don't believe I was a very good basketball player and yet, objectively, I was. This is what mental abuse does a person's brain.
During one post-season tournament game junior year, I snapped. After scolding me again in a way that I thought was singling me out unnecessarily, I had had enough. During a time-out while the four other starters and me sat on the bench, I asked: "Why are you always yelling at me?" I was frustrated but also genuinely wanted to know. I was curious why he incessantly barked at me. What drove him to do it? He never answered my question. More than thirty years have passed. So I suspect he never will-he's about 90 years old.
After I snapped, he commanded that I get off the bench and stand with the benchwarmers. He put in another player. I didn't play the rest of the game. This was unusual because the altercation erupted in the second quarter and I routinely played the entire game. To my surprise, my teammates did not support me. They made fun of me and said it was basically uncool to whine about getting yapped at. I was made out be a wimp who couldn't take the heat. The criticism came mainly from the benchwarmers who, I assume, figured they could tolerate getting yelled at more in exchange for more playing time. Not one teammate supported what I did partly, I suspect, because like me they were afraid of the coach and didn't want him yelling into their faces from inches away. Who likes that? How could the coach think a kid would benefit from that? We were too young, immature, na??ve and fearful to sort through the motives and actions of this man.
The ultimate question about all this is whether getting hollered at routinely in high school basketball had long-term positive or negative affects on my life. The answer is both. On the positive side, I use criticism of me at work, like I did while a player, as hot lava motivation. By ridiculing me, my coach drove me to put forth even more effort; he won the game he created and dictated. I am accustomed to people giving me a hard time at work. When they do, I often want to prove them wrong. My competitive streak, fueled by anger at anyone who criticizes me, comes out and helps me professionally as it did as a player. The more I get screamed at and/or criticized, the harder I work and the more determined I get. If you want me to achieve great things, insult me at work. .
On the negative side, by barking at me my coach shattered my belief in myself, that I was a good player. He succeeded in making me believe I wasn't smart or talented. It took decades of hard work in college, graduate school and in the workforce before I overcame those demons-for the most part. My coach made me think I wasn't a worthy human being, one to be respected, a person with talent, worthy. Although I now know that I am, I don't give him a scintilla of credit for that. I credit all the other people I've met along the way who have given me confidence, told me I'm a competent and valuable human being. The last person I would credit is him.
Do I wish he had been more positive with me and built up my ego? Yes. I think it would have helped me play better with less fear and more freedom and joy. Sadly, there was not enough joy in high school basketball and it's because of his coaching style; he controlled everything we did, everything we thought, every shot we took. The whole gig was about him, his wins, his universe, his legacy. Am I blaming him for everything that has gone wrong in my life? No. Am I blaming him for how he treated me? Yes. He should have been much more positive.
After hoops ended, had my coach been more upbeat I could have used positive feedback to perform better academically and professionally. Instead, he introduced doubts about myself, convinced me of my unworthiness. I don't appreciate him now and didn't then. What he did to me was wrong; it's the wrong way to treat kids. He was small, mean-spirited and manipulative. Winning games mattered more to him than building up the self-esteem of an impressionable high school kid. He didn't care what long term affects his tirades had on me or the other players at whom he screamed over his 40 years in coaching high school hoops. His concern was doing whatever it took, no matter the psychological consequences on me, to get me to play his way and help him win games so his ego could get stroked some more, so his reputation in the high school hoops community got bolstered.
The debate about whether the Morehouse State coach was right or wrong for yelling close to the face of his player continues and is worth thinking through so more. He deserved at least a one game suspension because he yanked at the player. When you touch a player, you cross a line that in today's society mandates punishment. That's correct. My coach never did that, per se, although I remember when he would shove me around to different positions on the court; teammates got that treatment as well. It was all about him and his scheme. His players were mere pawns as he got his jollies playing chess.
What happened to us once we no longer were eligible to play on his team did not matter in the slightest to him, I sensed. He never made a phone call on my behalf to any college coaches who might be interested in offering me a scholarship. The one offer I received had nothing to do with him: I earned it playing on an All Star team after my senior year season playing for a different, opposing coach who saw me play against his team. He could not have been more positive, more of a contrast, from my high school coach. The result: I played my best high school basketball ever. He told me I was a very good player, and I played very well for him.
I don't think yelling in someone's face is a good idea. It's poor form and inhumane, indecent and cruel. Sometimes people lose control, as I have, but you can't do it regularly. I know it's a popular technique in the military and among many high school, college and professional coaches. Tough discipline has its place in limited circumstances such as Navy Seal training; it does tend to force people to do what you want them to do and that can be crucial in matters of U.S. national security and defense.
But does all this face-to-face abuse build a person's self-confidence? For the most part, no. Does it make them feel better about themselves that they can tolerate being abused? For the most part, no. This treatment infuriates human beings, makes them spiteful and full of rage. That's how I feel about my high school coach. He enraged me. Fury and resentment rages in me 33 years later. Let it go. I know. To a significant degree I have but obviously it looms large in my life still. I suspect I'm motivated still today in part to prove him wrong about me, knowing full well he couldn't care less who I am or what I'm doing. Witness the Morehead State coach in tirade conjured up my high school hoops journey.
What I've learned over the years is that the more effective method for motivating people and bolstering their psyches is to give continuous and genuine positive feedback. The more effective technique is to make people feel good about themselves, to get them to envision how much they can achieve because they have so much to offer, possess so much talent. The should be reminded repeatedly how great they are and how much greater they can become. This isn't rocket science; it's common sense. It works. Making people do things by ensuring they fear you is obnoxious and manipulative. It's not how people are supposed to treat each other. It builds resentment, not character.
In explaining his tirade last week, the Morehead State coach used the excuse that he loves his players, which is why he yells at them. He knocks them down to build them up. He cares about them so much that abusing them is part of how he does it.
Bull. He knocks them down to scare them and force them into doing what he wants, which is to win games so he can keep his job, so he can feed his wife and kids, so his university's athletic program makes more money, so they can buy new buildings and offer more scholarships and associated benefits to more athletes, so they can keep their jobs. The coach knocks them down to control them, to control his own destiny, not theirs.
I suspect that he's not nearly as interested in building them up as he is building himself up. He's probably more like my high school coach, a guy I don't respect and never will. And I'm suspicious that he, like my high school coach, couldn't care less what I think of him because it's always been all about him anyway.