Taming The Rage Monster

We had just come back from the locker room when a woman nearing middle age came walking across the gym making a beeline for our bench. The face was a familiar one from one of my first team’s when I was just a young coach who knew nothing about coaching. 

It had been nearly 20 years since we last saw each other. She played three years for me in the early 2000’s before a back injury forced her into early retirement. After finding our team page on Facebook this season, she made the hour drive to introduce her daughter to her old high school basketball coach.

Her description was a little jarring.

“This is Coach Sanderson. It wasn’t always easy to play for him because he was tough on us, but he made us better.” We shook hands and chatted for a few minutes before they left, but that phrase stuck with me long into the night.

“He was tough on us, but he made us better.” 

I wondered what stories she told her daughter on the way home. Surely, she talked about my love affair with the baseline. At the time, I believed it to be the single greatest teaching tool I had at my disposal. Understand, I became a head coach just as the movie Miracle came out in theaters. With no coaching or organized playing experience prior to getting the job, I was drawn to Disney’s portrayal of Herb Brooks. I bet you can guess what my favorite scene was… I watched it again and again.

There were other influences that fed the rage monster within. A friend introduced me to Bob Knight’s epic locker room tirade prior to Indiana’s game against Purdue in January, 1991. In the audio recording, Knight drops 16 f-bombs in 80 seconds threatening his team because he was “sick and tired of losing to Purdue.” I am embarrassed to admit that for a time, I listened to that rant before every game to get myself in the right frame of mind.

With few other examples to draw from, it was my belief that the baseline could fix anything - from lack of effort, to lack of communication, to lack of execution, to a lack of focus - whenever we lacked we ran, and whenever we ran, I yelled.

In my early years, we ran down-and-back for just about everything. It became a form of penance for bad behavior. We ran for turnovers, for trash left on the bus, and for swear words uttered in practice. We ran for being late. We ran for disrespecting teachers. We ran for poor performance, one time suiting up for practice after getting back from a road game that we won by 19 points! But mostly, we ran when I was angry, and in those days, I was angry a lot.

I was a rage monster who once put a marker through a white board during a particularly fiery timeout. I simply didn’t know any other way. 

If this former player were to describe the tyrant she played for to our current team, they would be bewildered. In three seasons at Mount Vernon, our players have never run for bad behavior, have never picked up the pieces of a clipboard, or heard my voice raised in anger.

This begs the question, how did we tame the rage monster?

I Found New Role Models

My organized basketball career came to a screeching halt following my participation on the 8th Grade C Team at Southeast Junior High. Consequently, I had no personal experience with good coaching. This made me particularly susceptible to what I saw in popular culture and on TV. However, my eyes were opened when I started reading about successful coaches like John Wooden, Mike Kryzewski, Phil Jackson, Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick, and many others. I became a glutton for coaching biographies that helped me understand how these coaches approached their work.

In today’s social media world you can follow coaches with the press of a button, and can connect effortlessly with coaches across the world. That wasn’t the case when I started 20 years ago. My earliest exposure to a better way of coaching was attending camps and watching how more experienced coaches taught the game and interacted with their players. I attended workouts at local high schools and colleges, and spent weeks at Point Guard College as an observer. While this connectivity may seem second nature most today, it was crucial for me to broaden my perspective as I watched other coaches use tools I clearly didn’t have yet.

We Started Asking, What Would Pow Do?

During the first 10 years of my career my fuse gradually got longer. Rather than snapping at the drop of a ball, I started to take notice when the rage monster began to bubble up inside. That still resulted in plenty of outbursts, but the awareness of my simmering temper allowed two important developments.

First, it created space between agitation and explosion. In that space I found time to decide how I wanted to respond, rather than just reacting. As I learned from observing other coaches, I realized there were dozens of other ways to respond to players that were more effective than anger. This newfound space gave me time to look through my proverbial coaching toolbox to choose the most effective response to the situation.

In those moments, one of the most effective strategies has been to let the players have a chance to fix the problem first before the baseline takes its turn. Our current players can thank one former captain in particular for that.

The 2014 senior class featured one particularly courageous member, a young lady affectionately known to all in the basketball family as Pow.

Pow had a fun-loving personality and an infectious laugh, and nothing was going to prevent her from having a good time at practice. She was a hard worker, and through four years of trial and error, she found the right balance between being playful and playing to win. By her senior year we developed a good relationship. When she became a captain, she had a request. She wanted me to check with her before “blowing my top.” 

“Maybe I can do something about it before you go ballistic,” she said with a smile. And with that our mantra for the year was born.

What Would Pow Do?

The players wore this phrase on wristbands as my temper became something made fun of. By this time, my outbursts were far less common than when I first started coaching, but I was usually good for a couple doozies each year. However, now before I sent the team to the baseline, or tried to fix a problem on my own, I could wander over to Pow and ask her, What would Pow do?” and she would go to work.

Pow taught me that our team leaders could get us back on track every bit as well as the baseline, if I gave them the chance.

When They Haven’t Learned…

John Wooden once famously said, “You haven’t taught until they have learned.” It took me a LONG time to understand what he meant. The rage monster was always quick to blame and hold players accountable for what I thought they should know, or should be able to do. 

I could not accept the fact that they did not know how to do something because they had yet to be taught effectively. The environment in practice has shifted dramatically over the years as I learned to take responsibility for them being taught.

For example, during our trip to the state tournament we took the team out to dinner together at a respectable restaurant. After ordering I looked down our long table and found every single player on their phone. The rage monster inside of me stirred.

However, instead of lashing out or saying something sarcastic to make my point, I simply observed the situation and wondered to myself why I reacted in this way. What was it that stirred my anger?

Upon reflection, I realized that the teams we had taken to state in previous years had practiced how we eat together. We had discussions with those teams about restaurant etiquette, our phone policy, how to treat the wait staff, etc. It was important to us, so we coached it. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that these players never had that conversation. They had never been taught, and therefore they could not know the expectations that were echoing in my mind. 

Today I am hyper-sensitive to the word should. Usually it reveals an unmet expectation that can trigger my anger, but it also reveals something we do not yet know, something that needs to be taught better. Whenever I hear someone say…

You should know this by now!

We’ve been over this a thousand times!

A varsity player should be able to… 

I now know that uncovers something they have not learned because I have not taught it effectively enough for them to understand. Rather than rage, I take responsibility first and ask for grace as I make another attempt. 

The results of this transformation have been dramatic over the years. That 30-something former player would probably be just as bewildered by how our current players describe their experience today.

In a recent exit interview, a senior was asked, “What’s it like to be a player in our program?” Her answer proves the rage monster can be tamed.

“It’s stress free - you never feel like you’re being watched or targeted. Practice is structured so that we can try and fail and learn from it. We don’t get yelled at. Players comprehend everything better that way. It makes it enjoyable to come to basketball, and I think that’s really important.”

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

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