Coaches who yell, and those who don't
Why some combustible coaches help teams keep their cool -- and some don't
IT BEGAN WITH BOXING OUT. Man, you should've heard the old coach blow. It wasn't so much what he said -- "Box out" -- as how he said it: "BOX OUT!!!" There was a physical quality to the order, simultaneously filling you and surrounding you, like a powerful prayer. This was in 2007, during West Virginia sophomore small forward Da'Sean Butler's first practice under his new coach, Bob Huggins. Butler had grown accustomed to the gentle instruction of his former coach, John Beilein. In a calm, reassuring way, Beilein could make Butler believe he was the next Magic. But Beilein left to coach at Michigan, and West Virginia replaced a soother with a screamer. Although Butler's high school coach yelled a lot, the 6'7", 230-pound player had never heard anything like Huggins, who was a walking subwoofer. In that first practice, whenever Butler missed a board, Huggins' forehead would turn purple, his lips blue. His head, already large, seemed to inflate. His voice echoed as if he were in a tunnel.
Amid the noise, Butler had just one thought: How is this going to make me better?
You can pretty much define coaches in any sport as either yellers or coaxers. One howls from the sideline, the other presides; one always seems on the verge of losing control of self and situation, the other is too professorial to sweat. Nobody has ever figured out which style works best. A ballbuster like Bill Parcells was replaced with the nurturing Wade Phillips; now, Cowboys fans are calling for a disciplinarian. The Cubs ditched laid-back Dusty Baker for hotheaded Lou Piniella, who was succeeded by even-keeled Mike Quade. Gentle Mike Davis took the reins from the raging Bob Knight at Indiana, but was later followed by the screaming Kelvin Sampson, who was replaced by Tom Crean, a hybrid. "Every coach has a different style," says Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti. "It's one of 1,000 things we go through in the hiring process." This past spring, Pernetti brought in Mike Rice, a yeller, to replace the explosive Fred Hill as basketball coach. Says Pernetti: "The job calls for people who have a fire in their belly and are very vocal."
Does having a fire in your belly automatically equal being a screamer? Hard to say. All coaches yell. But to some it's a last resort, while to others it's the first step in any teaching process. NFL and college football coaches typically delegate serious dress-downs to assistants, but coordinators and position coaches don't want to alienate players who could one day endorse them for a head coaching gig. Many hockey coaches and baseball managers choose to sit a player rather than yell at him. "The bench screams," as Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said recently.
In the NBA, weak leverage prevents most coaches from blowing up, since player contracts are guaranteed and coaching jobs are not. Which brings us to college basketball. Nowhere, it would seem, is yelling so prevalent as in the cacophony of college hoops. In a vortex of chaos created when screaming intersects with the whir and hum of fast play, it's up to coaches to prepare players for the bedlam. As Rice puts it, "I want to create that intensity all the time."
He's not the only one. Marine lieutenant Scott Villiard, a former drill instructor, admits he used to yell "all day, every day" during the three years he trained platoons. "If I keep up the level of energy," he says, "the recruits feed off it." Behaviorists call this type of influence "emotional contagion." Explains Roderick Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford: "Emotion spreads through groups. Yelling can raise the energy level."
It definitely can get an athlete's attention. But does it enhance performance? Depends on the screamer and the player. In some cases, screaming can be incredibly effective. Under pressure, some athletes become lost in their own heads, thinking about the task at hand. Such stress wastes precious resources that could be turned to solving the problem. "That's the essence of choking," says sports psychologist Michael Gervais. A well-executed yell, one that gives clear direction, can help athletes snap out of their panic. That's why flight attendants are taught to scream and, if necessary, cuss at passengers during emergencies. The same principle of shocking the system applies to sports. As Gervais says, "That's the beauty of yelling."
But Kramer stresses that the decibel level matters far less than the content of the yelling and the personality of the yeller. Yelling works best if the content is positive and if the yeller cares about his audience. But if the bellowing is abusive, if it's meant to tear into self-esteem, it often has the opposite effect. "You want to arouse a sense of confidence with yelling," Kramer says. In other words, yell out of love.
Alas, few coaches are so psychologically aware. Many cite genes and upbringing as their reasons for yelling, saying that's how they were raised. Others try to emulate old-school heroes like Knight. Most, though, try not to analyze it at all. "I don't know why I yell," says Kansas State's Frank Martin. "I'm just loud."
Of course, "loud" can often lead to "lout." Last season, TV cameras caught Martin hitting senior guard Chris Merriewether on the arm after the senior turned the ball over. Rice, meanwhile, had to be restrained on the sideline in last spring's NCAAs when a series of calls went against his No. 15 seed Robert Morris team in a near upset of Villanova. But Rice still got the Rutgers job, and Martin's Wildcats are the favorites to win the Big 12 this season, which suggests that yelling is an issue only when the team is losing. Which might be just fine. Despite appearances, shrinks say there's no evidence linking shouting and violence -- quiet types are just as likely to get physical as those who howl -- so why not let loose? It feels good to blow up. But if yelling is an emotional release, it can exact a physical toll, from long-term problems like high blood pressure to short-term challenges like a lack of energy. Rice, who says he rarely raises his voice in the off-season, begins to yell as soon as fall practice begins. After the first few days, his voice is scratchy, his throat is raw and his body is sore, as if he'd just hit the weights after not lifting for many years. As the season progresses, the 41-year-old remembers to yell from his diaphragm, using his abs. Still, after a practice or game Rice must veg out on the couch for a half hour. A trainer will bring the coach Tylenol and antacids, but nothing really works. "I should just stop yelling so damn much," he says.
Yes, well, there is that option. At a late-October practice at Army, hoops coach Zach Spiker rarely raises his voice. When senior forward Jeremy Hence misses a layup during low-post drills, Spiker shakes his head and calmly points Hence back to the block to try again. Later, Spiker whispers instruction in Hence's ear, as if they were in a library. It seems ridiculous. You would think that cadets at West Point, where the bombastic Knight first tried out his tirades, would be mother-effed up and down the court. But Spiker was hired last year to replace Jim Crews, a Knight protégé, in no small part because he relates to players instead of constantly berating them. Says the 34-year-old: "The days of the old school are going by the wayside."
Kevin O'Neill has witnessed the trend first-hand. In the 1990s, while coaching at Tennessee and Northwestern, O'Neill yelled constantly. Then he spent six years as an assistant and head coach in the NBA, where yelling didn't work and emotional manipulation fell flat. He learned that pro ballers respect one thing: schematic intelligence. They want to be in the right position at the right time to make the right plays -- and, eventually, more money. In moments when a player dogged it, O'Neill had to fight the urge to tear into him. "In the NBA, it's more like, 'You mind running back on defense?' " O'Neill says with a laugh. But the mentality stuck. Now head coach at USC, O'Neill rarely raises his voice. "I can get the same point across without popping a blood vessel," he says. "Yelling negative things is counterproductive in this day and age."
A similar refrain is heard on more and more campuses across the country -- players today don't take well to screaming. Some coaches say players are too soft, pampered or mentally weak. But mostly they say kids are just numb to it. "So many AAU coaches stomp and act crazy," says one Division I coach. "By the time kids reach college, they can't take any more yelling." And let's face it, being singled out for verbal abuse in front of the team can be embarrassing. At close range, it can also be painful. The loudest coaches reach a level where their voices literally ring in players' ears. And Buzz Williams, Marquette's howling coach, often gets so close to his players that, as senior swingman Jimmy Butler says, "I have a mouthful of his spit."
But as West Virginia's Butler learned, yelling also can be funny. By his sophomore year, Butler had become one of the team's best players. In a midseason game against Oklahoma, he had a free look at the basket. But instead of firing, he passed to a wide-open teammate, Jamie Smalligan. Wrong move. During the next time- out, Huggins stared down his star, his face seemingly tie-dyed, his eyebrows arched like the Rockies. "Why the f--- did you pass to him? He hasn't made a jump shot since Moby Dick was a minnow!"
Butler literally had to bite his lip. Outside, he was appropriately attentive. But inside he was busting up. Smalligan, meanwhile, knew better than to take it personally. "He wasn't attacking me," he says. "He was just trying to make Da'Sean the star he was supposed to be." Huggins, of course, says that he never thinks about mixing tirades with humor. But he knows he's funny, and he knows his players can't laugh. Butler eventually figured out what most of Huggins' players learn, that the coach isn't yelling to smother their self-esteem, it's simply his way of teaching, for better or worse. It worked out for Butler, who was drafted by the Heat last June.
In the Big East tournament last March, West Virginia led Notre Dame, 53-51, with 37 seconds left. Huggins called timeout. If ever the coach were going to dog-cuss his guys, Butler figured this was it. But in the biggest moment of a season that would magically lead to the Final Four, Huggins pulled aside Butler and quietly told his senior star to address the team. Huggins figured that this was Butler's last chance at the Dance. He had the most to lose. Any instruction would sound best coming from him.
Butler leaned into the huddle. He knew the Irish would have time for one shot. West Virginia had to get the board. "If we don't get the rebound," Butler yelled, "we lose! Box out!!!" A few moments later, Irish guard Tory Jackson fired a three and missed. The ball ricocheted into the lane, up for grabs. Mountaineers forward Wellington Smith crashed the paint and wrapped his arms around his prize. Ball game. Within seconds, Butler and his teammates were wrapped in a full-team mosh pit on the court, hooting and hollering -- the kind of yelling every player lives to hear.
ESPN The Magazine: November 15, 2010
Check out ESPN The Magazine's November 15, 2010 issue -- the Loud Issue -- below.