Timothy R. Clark: The 'tell-yell' model of coaching

Published: Wednesday, April 9 2014 10:24 p.m. MDT

Coaches occupy uncommon status in American society. Because a large swath of humanity worships at the altar of sports, we confer on our coaches both the expectation to win and the mandate to lead. But the mandate to lead is not in the collaborative sense of the word. We often give our coaches — at least this has been the historical pattern — permission to mislead.

I can’t think of another place in society where we so willingly give people dispensation from what is socially and morally acceptable. We’re so used to the traditional “tell-yell” model of coaching in America that it often doesn’t register with us when a coach is behaving badly.

There are many great coaches. There are also many who scream, belittle, demean and manipulate those in their charge. More than we’d like to admit, we witness coaching behavior that would qualify as bullying behavior. It’s ironic that we have fine-tuned our sensibilities to bullying in recent years, and we are quick to correct it, but we tend to give our coaches a pass — in the exalted name of competition. For example, I saw a coach the other day at a soccer game who impersonated a foghorn. His players were terrified.

The public typically reacts if a coach engages in physical abuse, as in the case of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice Jr., whose rants and physical assaults were caught on video. But there’s still a category of demoralizing behavior that we countenance.

Athletics are emotionally charged, and that’s our excuse. But if we could see the hidden damage, if we could measure the sting, if we could quantify the discouragement of those on the receiving end, we would put a swift end to our double standard. When our “screamer” and “head gamer” coaches notch victories, when they win championships, we not only turn a blind eye, we lionize them. We build them shrines and give them treasure.

Consider the origin and meaning of the word coach. It comes from Middle English and refers to a horse-drawn carriage that was used to convey a person from one place to another. In time we applied the word to describe a tutor who was charged to convey a student from one level of learning to another. Ultimately, the word found its way to the magisterial world of sports. And here it has found its home. A coach is a tutor who conveys athletes and teams from one level of performance to another.

Coaches convey athletes and teams through instruction and inspiration. Instruction includes both skill development and game strategy. Inspiration is the breathing in of desire and motivation. The coach must convey the cognitive, affective and motor skill dimensions of performance. And yet we trot out the tell-yell approach to get the job done — telling for instruction and yelling for inspiration?

Mountains of educational and behavioral research testify that telling is the lowest form of instruction. It shifts learning into first gear, breeds dependency and fails to transfer ownership to the individual. It is the vertical principle of hierarchy in all of its glory and the lateral principle of collaboration on sabbatical.

Notice how the prevailing coaching model changes when we reach a world-class level of performance. Regardless of the activity, telling is replaced with asking. A questioning model built on collaboration takes over for a directing model based on hierarchy.

We don’t tell great athletes what to do. We have conversations. We discuss and strategize. We ask questions. Watch Phil Mickleson on the links, Maria Sharapova on the court, or Lionel Messi on the pitch. The tell-yell model is nowhere to be found. What’s our problem?

Peter Drucker, the great management thinker, once observed, “The leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”

When we tell and yell, we are compensating for a lack of skills, character and impulse control. Great coaches know this. I think we all know this.

Timothy R. Clark is founder of TRClark & Company, a leadership development organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and recently released a new book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset" from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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