What Makes a Coach Tough?
The most popular criticism of modern athletes is their inability to play through mistakes, negative body language, and selfish attitudes. Yet, you don’t have to look far to see where they get it from. It’s jumping, stomping, veins popping out, and foaming at the mouth on the sideline.
As coaches, we love to talk about toughness. We want tough players. We probably have a good vision of what toughness looks like for our players, but do we know what toughness looks like for us coaches? When I reflect on my own coaching, or even when I turn on the television, I see a lot of moments where we as coaches lack the very same toughness we preach to our players.
Back in 2009, ESPN College Basketball Analyst Jay Bilas wrote an article titled, “How Does One Define Toughness in Basketball?”. In the article, he shared what he believed toughness looked like in a college basketball player. The article was popular, and many coaches shared it with their players. It led to a much longer-form article titled, “Toughness”, and eventually a book, sharing the lessons Bilas learned as a former All-American at Duke, a lawyer, and an ESPN analyst for the game.
As coaches, we appreciate two things, both of which Bilas articulates well. First, he addresses the misconception that many athletes have about what it means to be “tough”, and his assessment is spot-on:
“I would watch games and see player upon player thumping his chest after a routine play, angrily taunting an opponent after a blocked shot, getting into a shouting match with an opposing player, or squaring up nose-to-nose, as if a fight might ensue. I see players jawing at each other, trying to ‘intimidate’ other players. What a waste of time. That is nothing more than fake toughness, and it has no real value.”
Second, he outlines very specific behaviors that he believes a truly tough player will demonstrate—behaviors that would never make the ESPN Top 10 Plays of the Week. These are things like talking on defense, taking a charge, or “showing strength in your body language”.
Like many coaches across the world, I shared Bilas’s message with my team to get them to play tougher. I know it’s had a big impact on many players, including my own. But what impact did it have on us as coaches?
Many of the tough behaviors that Bilas outlined are player-specific, but others can be applied universally. The problem is, when it comes to our own behavior, we seem exempt from the standards we hold our players to.
As a coach, I’ve gone minutes without focusing on the current play because I am too caught up in my anger at a bad call by the referee. I’ve wasted entire timeouts and halftimes complaining about what just happened, instead of what we were going to do moving forward. I’ve thrown my jacket, clipboards, markers, and towels in frustration over missed shots, turnovers, or mistakes my players have made on the court. I’ve motivated through anger and fear by demeaning and harshly criticizing my players.
I often lived by the old saying, “Do as I say and not as I do.” And you know what? It is an absolutely garbage way to lead! John Wooden said it best: “Handouts and discussion were meaningless, unless team members could see lots of evidence of the Pyramid in my own behavior as a leader and a coach. Your own personal example is one of the most powerful leadership tools you possess. Put it to good use: Be what you want your team to become.”
8 Ways to Be Tough as a Coach
If we want our players to be tough, then we have to be tough, too. Below are just eight of the many ways Jay Bilas defined “toughness” for players. I’ve decided to share what that looks like for us as coaches.
1. Take Responsibility for Your "Teammates"
After a game—whether it’s in a press conference, at the bar with our staff, or at home with our spouse—how often do we place blame on our players for their lack of talent, leadership, or toughness?
A tough coach starts by accepting responsibility after a game. Coach Dave Odom taught me this at the University of South Carolina after we lost to Pitt in a close game. He didn’t yell, scream, or blame the lack of execution on the players; instead, he admitted that he had failed to prepare us to execute down the stretch.
2. Take and Give Criticism the Right Way
Most coaches wouldn’t allow or encourage their players to yell and scream at each other for making mistakes. But many of us do it as coaches! We do it because we know it is sometimes effective in the short term to “motivate” them to do what we want them to do.
When it comes to “motivation” and “teaching”, many of us will use anger, sarcasm, shame, or whatever other tools we can. “It’s not personal,” we say. And when players don’t take the criticism well, we call them “uncoachable”.
A tough coach understands they are coaching a human, not just an athlete. They are demanding and they tell the truth, but they do so in a way that respects the person. They want to build intrinsically motivated players who don’t rely on external “carrots and sticks” to stay motivated.
A tough coach also allows their assistant coaches and their players opportunities to criticize their coaching and give them feedback. They are more concerned with what’s right than who’s right. They set the example of taking and giving criticism the right way.
3. Show Strength in Your Body Language
I’ve put players through countless film sessions wherein we put their body language under a microscope.
“What’s this telling your teammates?!” I’d ask.
Granted, it was horrible body language. But after nearly a decade of coaching, I was challenged to put my own body language under a microscope, and I asked myself, “What’s this telling my players?
The truth was not pretty.
Just turn on the television today and watch the coaches. You don’t need to hear them to know what they are telling their players.
Research from Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA has shown that the majority of our personal communication is through body language 55%, with only 7% through the words we use and 38% through the tone we use to say those words. This has become known as the “7-38-55 Rule”.
Tough coaches are intentional when communicating with their players through their body language. When players look to the bench, they see a coach who believes in them, is present in the moment, and emotionally in control.
4. Concentrate and Encourage Your Teammates to Do the Same
We as coaches can dwell on things that are not within our control. A big one is what other people do. We can’t control the referees, parents, administrators, or even our players! And yet, the things others do are so often at the center of our thoughts.
Tough coaches are hyper-concentrated on the things that are within their control. They can block out or quickly move past the uncontrollables. They encourage their players to concentrate by quickly learning from their experiences and moving on to the next step.
5. Take Responsibility for Your Actions
We all make mistakes as coaches. I don’t know of many coaches who would claim to be perfect! But how often do we take responsibility for our actions?
In The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, SEAL Team Six leader Dave Cooper shares that he believes the four most important words a leaders can say are, “I screwed that up.”
Tough coaches are not afraid to walk into the room and say, “I screwed that up.” And then they work their tail off to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen again. They know it not only sets a powerful example of personal responsibility, but the team will gain greater respect for their willingness to take responsibility for their mistakes.
6. Move on to the Next Play
How many times does a referee make a bad call, and five minutes later, we are still arguing with them or complaining to our staff? I’ve seen coaches regularly use the majority of their time in a team huddle rehashing the mistakes that each player made. Sure, I’ve been one of those coaches!
Tough coaches don’t dwell on mistakes or bad calls; they help the team learn, adapt, and move on quickly.
7. Be Hard to Play Against and Easy to Play With
It doesn’t really matter what we were trying to do or say; it matters what others feel and hear. Good intentions don’t make great leaders. We like to defend our actions by saying, “That’s not what I meant,” or “I never meant for them to feel that way.” But that doesn’t invalidate what others heard, or how they felt.
Tough coaches understand that everything they say or do impacts others around them, and so they are intentional and thoughtful in what they say and do. They create a challenging and competitive culture that everyone enjoys being a part of.
8. Get Better Every Day
Too often, we get so caught up in preparing to win the next game that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick expressed this best in an interview the season after winning his sixth Super Bowl:
Interviewer: With all that you have accomplished in your career, what are some of the things left that you still want to accomplish?
Belichick: I'd like to go out and have a good practice today. That would be at the top of the list right now.
Interviewer: What's after that?
Belichick: We'll correct it and get ready for tomorrow.
Tough coaches measure success in growth, not outcomes. Before every practice and game, they set 100% controllable success criteria for their team and for themselves. Then, just like Belichick, they review those success criteria, then move on to the next day.
Early in my coaching career, I respected the coaches who were “tough on their players”. As long as the players got on their players, it didn’t matter much to me how it was achieved.
With the help of my own failings and some great mentors, I came to realize being a tough coach is more about my own choices, and the personal example I set for my team. I am a naturally emotional person. I wear my heart on my sleeve. But I can’t ever use that as excuse for my actions.
We can be true to ourselves while being in control of our emotions and intentional in our leadership. It’s the process that my friend and Vice President of Equilibria In Sports, Lynn Kachmarik, describes as “moving from our personality to our character”. Moving from our personality to our character is tough. It’s hard to retrain our default response. But that’s toughness—intentionally responding, not reacting.
A lot of coaches talk about toughness. But few coaches coach with toughness.
- Toughness by Jay Bilas
If this article resonates with you, send me a message, I'd like to hear your story.
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