I’m not sure we have the right approach to body language. I just don’t know that we should be making a big deal out of it. I get it, it doesn’t look good, it’s not a positive thing and you don’t want to show any sign of frustration or weakness. I just don’t know if we should really be making that big of a deal out of it. I’ve always been more concerned with the response to the negative action that caused the body language, and not the body language itself. I want to coach the behavior, not the response to it.
I’ve coached some great players who exhibited bad body language. They were great competitors and they got frustrated when things didn’t go their way. I’m not saying this is how I wanted them to respond. Sure, I’d love it if everyone was always calm and composed and never showed any sign of frustration. But not everyone has that kind of make-up. If they then respond with a bad play due to frustration, that is what I have a problem with. It’s the next action I’m concerned with, and I’m not sure the body language really dictates that. A lot of guys get frustrated when they come out of games and they’ll slump on the bench or put their head down for a second. Even though it might not be the response that you want, it’s part of caring and competing. We all show some sort of reaction when things don’t go our way. If you aren’t putting that guy back in because he showed bad body language on the bench, and he can help you win, I think you are making a big mistake.
I also feel there is a hypocritical element to this as coaches. If you filmed the head coach during a close game and examined his body language, I’m pretty sure he’d have the worst body language of anyone in the gym. Most coaches react emotionally to negative things that happen in the games. Would the body language you exhibit during a game be acceptable to you if a player did the same thing? If body language really matters to you and you are going to police it, you have to start with yourself. A lot of coaches hate the “palms up” reaction from their players when something doesn’t go their way, but don’t the coaches do the exact same thing all the time? If the body language of your players is important to you, your own body language better be important to you as well. If not you are just setting yourself up as a hypocrite.
I’ve always found the way we deal with body language as coaches to be subjective. I know when I was a young head coach I was a lot more vocal about a young, immature back-up who exhibited bad body language than if one of my best players did it. If one of my best players showed bad body language we would say he’s just really competitive, whereas when someone else did it we’d say it was unacceptable. When a great player reacts poorly we tend to make excuses so that the body language doesn’t have to be addressed. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think we are that good at evaluating body language, and half the time our response probably has more to do with how we are feeling at that moment than about the outward show of frustration from our player.
Think about Tom Brady. Might be the greatest athlete of our time, certainly in the discussion as the best football player to ever play. He might be the greatest competitor I have ever seen. Forget that he’s Tom Brady for a second and just look at his body language. He complains to the officials – verbally and demonstratively – often. He shows outwards signs of frustration with his teammates when they screw up. He gets animated on the sideline, and when he gets frustrated you can see it in his face and his entire body. Is his bad body language a problem? If an average quarterback did the exact same he’d likely get killed for it. When it’s Tom Brady we call it leadership.
I’ve had this conversation with friends about great players in any sport. Tiger Woods sometimes slams his club and curses. He certainly shows outward signs of disgust when he hits a bad shot. Lebron James complains about fouls and is very visible with his displeasure. That might not necessarily how we want them to respond – or how they want to respond themselves. But the point is, these are great players who show outward signs of bad body language pretty regularly.To me, that is part of who they are, part of their personalities. Would they be the same player if their coaches were so focused on toning that body language down? I’m not sure that they would be. And honestly, I’m not sure why their coaches would want to spend their time worrying about it. If it’s not having a negative affect on performance, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on it.
There’s actually one thing I like about body language. At least I know what I’m dealing with. Body language is a great cue as to what your team needs. Sure, you don’t want to see a lot of frustration, but when your kids react negatively you know you’ve got to bring them back. Just like when your kids get a little too excited and you want to calm them down. I’d prefer the kid who gets a little emotional on the court than the one who is completely flatlined. Sometimes those kids are hard to coach because you aren’t sure what they need or how to get them going. It takes me a little longer to learn how to coach the kid who never shows any signs of emotion.
Your team gets scored on, gives up a lay-up. It was way too easy. You are upset. Your guys just kind of turn and run up the floor on offense. Have you ever said – in that scenario – “Hey guys, one of the problems is we just gave up a lay-up, and it doesn’t really look like anyone cares. It didn’t matter to anyone.” I’ve heard this a lot in dealing with players individually, showing them film, trying to get more out of them. Heck, I’ve done it myself. But if you say that as a coach, what are you hoping to get out of them? Do you want to see some outward sign of frustration or disappointment that tells you they are upset about it? What would give you an indication that they care? It would likely involve some sort of bad body language.
I’m not saying I’m a fan of bad body language. It’s not like I enjoy seeing it. I just think as coaches we make too big of a deal out of it. We try and evaluate it too much, and often we want to use it to fit our own narrative about our players, as opposed to seeing it objectively.
If I a guy shows me a sign that he’s frustrated through his body language I may take him out of the game for a few minutes to try and calm him down. I absolutely think you have to know your players, and you have to understand what their verbal cues mean. But I’m much more concerned with the physical and mental response on the next play than I am any outward sign of emotion. I will tell you this – if I look down the bench and see a kid who looks a little frustrated on the bench, I sure as heck am not leaving him there just because I don’t like his body language. If we need him in the game, he’s going in the game before I have a chance to analyze what a scowl on his face or slumped shoulders might mean.
I’m a big believer that you have to let the kids be themselves to get the most out of them. That doesn’t mean they do whatever they want. But if they get a little frustration and show some outward negative emotion, I’m not going to overreact. I think it’s a natural part of being a competitor.
If a kid reacts a certain way and needs a little time to shake it off, I’m okay with that, as long as he’s ready to go on the next play. If he can’t respond correctly on the next play we have to correct that, not his body language.
Coach the behavior, not the reaction.