I’m a big believer in positive feedback. I think it’s the best way to get the most out of your players. In practice I want to be demanding and positive, and I think it’s possible to be both. If I thought being negative, yelling and cursing at guys was the best way to get the most out of them, I’d do it for sure. I just don’t think it is. My opinion is too many coaches think that yelling is coaching, and they have to yell to prove that they are in charge. I think it’s easy for the team to turn them off if that’s all they hear.
Experts on behavior and the brain will tell you that to get the most out of someone, the positive-negative ratio should be 3 to 1. Three positive comments for every one negative comment. They also will tell you that if you yell someone a bunch of positive things but then finish it by yelling at them, they’re only going to remember what you yelled at them about. I believe the data on that, and I believe that in most scenarios that is the case. People want to hear positive feedback, and that’s the best way to get them to believe in you.
But that’s not the reality of the world we live in as basketball coaches. We operate in an intense environment that requires instant feedback. Often we need the behavior corrected immediately. When one of your kids doesn’t run back hard in transition defense, it’s hard to start with the last 3 things that he did well in practice before telling him he’s got to run harder. When your team doesn’t show up ready to play and gets their doors blown off, they need to know right away that the approach is not acceptable. You can’t really set up much positive reinforcement in that scenario. What you have to do is develop trust so your players are willing to accept your message no matter how you have to deliver it. Regardless of who your coach is and what his personality is, at some point you are going to get yelled at. There is a certain level that is not acceptable, and when you don’t meet the standard it needs to be made clear.
At some point, the behavior has to change. And that’s usually my question for the experts on behavior who talk about changing behavior – how do you change repeated, unacceptable behavior? The preferred way to change behavior is to show them the bad behavior, explain what was wrong, and make it clear how it needs to change. But we don’t always have that time. And we also deal with kids who repeat their bad habits – they reach in defensively all the time, they don’t run back in transition, they don’t go hard to the glass. Effort plays that can be corrected but they repeatedly screw up. It’s hard to stay positive and correct the same bad behavior over and over.
I think a big part of this comes down to the players. As a player, do you want to be coached, or do you want to be comfortable? There is a big difference. A significant part of being coached can make you uncomfortable. It’s designed to make you uncomfortable. If you constantly jog back on defense instead of sprinting, I need you to be uncomfortable with that behavior. You have to know that every time you do that, you are going to hear about it. I can’t correct that by saying “You are a great teammate, you do a good job sharing the ball, and you work hard in the weight room, but I really need you to sprint back on defense.” That’s not how you are going to change the behavior.
So when you get yelled at as a player, how do you respond? If you say “Man, coach is hot, I screwed that up, I better run harder,” it means you want to be coached. If it makes you uncomfortable and you think “Man, why is coaching getting on me like that? He doesn’t need to yell at me that way,” you probably don’t want to be coached. You want to be comfortable. Think about the things a coach might yell at you for. If he yells at you for taking bad shots you can think one of two things – him yelling at you makes you nervous, and now you don’t have any confidence and you’re not sure when to shoot. Or, man, if he’s getting on me like that, I’ve got to make sure I take really good shots. If getting yelled at makes you think about changing the behavior, then you want to be coached, and we can win with you. If getting yelled at makes you think about how you feel, and question the approach of your coach, then you are more concerned with being comfortable than being coached. And that is not a path to getting better.
Every player would love to hear positive feedback all of the time with minimal criticism. No one enjoys being yelled at. That’s comfortable. But that’s not reality on high-achieving teams. There are plenty of times when the message needs to be delivered loud and directly to make the point. And if you are concerned more about how the message was delivered than what you need to do to change the behavior, you probably like being comfortable more than you like being coached.
A team of players who wants to be coached can achieve great things. A team of players who wants to be comfortable will always point outwardly to explain the reasons why they aren’t successful.