Are Mean Coaches Effective?

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Head coach Mike Rice of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights was fired for yelling and physically intimidating players.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The firing this week of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice put a spotlight on bully coaches. They're not new. From Vince Lombardi to Bobby Knight, the sports world has seen its share of authoritarian, abusive, sometimes violent coaches who have also propelled their teams to victory. There are also the mellow men, coaches like UCLA's John Wooden or the Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson who seek to inspire, bond or mind-meld their players to many years of championships.

So which one works better? Experts says that the days of physical abuse toward players may slowly be coming to an end for two big reasons. We live in a more litigious society, and almost everyone has a cellphone with a camera. It's those videos of Rice kicking and shoving his players that did him in -- at least when they aired on ESPN.

In fact, Rice's abuse may have backfired with his players when they got on the court, according to Kristin Dieffenbach, assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University.

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"If someone yells at you, it creates a culture of fear or anxiety to please," said Dieffenbach, who also coaches cyclists and long-distance runners. "But in the long term it's not appropriate for development of elite athletes. A culture of fear inhibits athletes and they will hold back their best performance for fear of giving a bad performance. If you are afraid of getting yelled at or kicked in the pants, you're not committed 100 percent in your performance."

Not all abusive coaches are neck-grabbers or butt-kickers, nor are they all men. At Oregon State University, for example, women's basketball coach LaVonda Wagner was fired in 2010 after she allegedly pressured her team to play despite serious injuries, threw a chair in the locker room, forced players to go to Weight Watchers and was kicked off a plane after refusing to turn off her cellphone, according to the Portland Oregonian. During her four seasons at Oregon State, 23 players and assistant coaches quit.

One reason for bad behavior may be the pressure that collegiate coaches are under to win. The NCAA has become a quasi-professional league, according to many observers, and victories lead to more money and career stability for head coaches.

"Anyone who enters into collegiate athletics understands that there is a professional model in sports where winning is critical," said Chris Carr, a sports psychologist at the St. Vincent Center for Sports Performance, and a consulting psychologist to the Indiana Pacers and Indiana University athletic department. "You can be successful by doing it the right way."

Carr said coaches need to be given on-the-job training not just in how to play and win the game, but how to communicate with players and handle the stresses they are under. He said there's no scientific research that shows that yelling or hitting works, but some coaches resort to it because of anecdotal evidence of some winning coaches who may have done it in the past.

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"From a science standpoint no, there's nothing that shows this behavior works to motivate or correct learning skills," Carr said. "But the culture of sport is sometimes slow to change."

One group is making an effort to change the culture, at least for younger athletes. The Positive Coaching Alliance has trained more than 50,000 high school and college coaches across the country in how to motivate without being a bully. CEO and founder Jim Thompson said the program emphasizes respect for one's self, the opposing players and refs, and the game itself.

"Who wants to go and play for a coach who throws a ball at you when you aren't looking?" Thompson said. "If you are filling people's emotional tank, they will play better."