"I'm an old school coach." Those five words might make up the most destructive sentence to a young athlete.
In the profession of coaching, we have seen a philosophical bell curve of sorts. Around the turn of the 20th century, when sports were firmly implanting themselves as cultural mainstays, coaches were some of the most well-rounded individuals in society; equally adept at a black tie event as they were on the sidelines. They were masters of trades, renaissance men, and pioneers of their growing sports. Some of the greatest football coaches in history are names no one seems to know anymore: Amos Alonzo Stagg, Fielding Yost, and Knute Rockne. The reason these names should hold significance now is not because of their win-loss records, but because of how they coached. They were teachers, first and foremost, engineers of the game, not glorified cheerleaders or taskmasters. Their skills as people lent themselves very strongly to their skills as coaches. Rarely raising their voice or maintaining an authoritarian fist over their athletes, instead they empowered their athletes with autonomy through education.
Fast forward a half-century, and we see the crest of the curve taking shape, with "characters" like Woody Hayes routinely berating his players and manipulating them into submission. Bobby Knight's chair-throwing antics and intolerance of imperfection were widely known and somewhat bewilderingly, embraced. During this time period and into the late 1980s, the authoritarian coaching style was predominant and as more coaches found themselves in the media, young coaches naturally emulated their approaches. The justification being that if you were hard on a young athlete, but made sure to explain yourself after, all would be well. Despite being so apparently widely-respected, I have never had a lot of respect for this type of approach; it has always seemed to be an excuse for poor behavior and indicative of a lack of self-control, empathy, and cultural maturity.
As we are now well into the 21st century, there have been advances in the psychology of coaching, and in many ways, some of us have evolved backwards (not devolved). While there are far too many successful coaches who still negatively coerce their athletes and maintain their authoritarianism, there is a growing number of successful coaches who have embraced the truly "old school" (circa 1920) mentality of teaching and proactively coaching. Pete Carroll is a fantastic example of this mentality. Relentlessly, but not disingenuously positive, he exudes every quality he wants his players to exhibit. Ever the educator, if he raises his voice, it is in enthusiastic support of his players and coaches. Outside of the hyper-masculine realm of American Football, Dan Pfaff is another incredibly proactive coach. A world-class track and field coach, Pfaff's approach is so unique and unorthodox, that he is frequently referred to as an enigma. As the coach of 29 individual national champions and multiple Olympic Medalists, Pfaff is inarguably one of the most successful track coaches in the world, yet his coaching style is very heavy on education and empowerment; reminiscent of what we might imagine Socrates would be like.
As coaching continues to develop as a profession, I would encourage all coaches to embrace the psychological and philosophical components of coaching. Develop relationships with your athletes that demonstrate your concern for their well-being at all times, not just when you are off the field. Develop a proactive approach where you prevent problems from arising through communication and education as opposed to a reactive approach where you impulsively react to a problem irrationally. Positivity and proactivity are the two most powerful tools we have as coaches and we should use them constantly, not just when it is convenient for us. When I reflect back on my career, I want to be able to say that I was more like Knute Rockne or John Wooden than Woody Hayes or Bobby Knight.