I got into an interesting discussion with Gary Parrish on twitter this week about the difference between motivation and abuse.  He had written this article about the situation at the College of Charleston with Doug Wojcik:


Our twitter conversation went like this:


I don’t know Gary Parrish.  I enjoy reading his stuff because unlike many reporters, he gives you an honest, unfiltered take even if it’s unpopular.  I got to know Doug Wojcik a little bit when I was at Providence and he was at Notre Dame with Matt Doherty.  I don’t know him well.  As I made clear in the conversation with Parrish, I have no idea what went on at the College of Charleston.  My reaction had nothing to do with either Gary Parrish or Doug Wojcik and what was going on in Charleston.

My reaction was simply about the idea that there is a fine line between motivation and abuse.  The example Parrish used was a coach telling a player to “stop being a bitch and rebound the fucking basketball!”  He asked me whether that was motivation or abuse.  I get that stuff like that is said in gyms all over the country, I’m not arguing that point.  But in what forum is being cursed at and called a bitch really considered a motivational tactic?  What players, when given a chance to be honest, say “I really get motivated when my coach calls me a bitch and curses at me?”  Now I’m sure there are plenty of players who would accept that coaching as motivation, but do you really think that is motivating them?  Or are they the players who are being coached that way, and what are they supposed to say?

When coaches say stuff like that to their players they usually aren’t thinking about motivating them.  They are pissed off.  That is usually just an expression of how a coach feels, not something that he thinks the player needs.  Basketball is intense and competitive and it’s easy to get emotional.  Every coach does it, I’ve certainly done it at times.  It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion.  But let’s not try and pass this off as motivation.  It’s usually just an emotional reaction by the coach to something he doesn’t like.  Afterward we use motivation as our cover.   When we tend to lose it a little bit, it’s better “coaching” to say we were trying to get our guys fired up.

I understand there is an approach of motivating through anger, where you might try and get one of your guys pissed off at you to get him to produce.  Admittedly I’m not a big fan of that approach in general, but we’ve all had players that you need to somehow light a fire under to get them going.  I’m not condemning the approach.  But when we take that approach we should still be a long way away from abuse.  You can make the point with “I’m tired of watching you get pushed around and end up with no rebounds!  Make a decision if you want to play.  You either rebound our you don’t.”  You can light a fire, you can agitate, you can motivate, without coming even close to abuse.

There is a lot of bad behavior in athletics and coaching that is explained away under categories like “motivation” and “intensity.”  A lot of stuff that would never be accepted in any other arena is accepted in athletics – screaming, yelling, bullying, intimidation.  I understand there are plenty of different ways to motivate.  I recognize the need at times to rattle your teams cage or get after a player for not performing, and maybe even get under his skin a little bit.  We’ve all done it.  But that doesn’t need to become abusive, and doesn’t really need to even get close to that line.  If it does, something isn’t right.

We are smart enough to know when our behavior is abusive or heading in that direction.  And it’s a long way from what we are doing to try and motivate.  We may not want to see it for what it really is, and we may not have people around us willing to tell us the truth.  And one of the reasons for that is we continue to use buzzwords like intensity and motivation as covers for bad behavior.

There are plenty of different ways of leading, of team-building, and of coaching, and I’m not trying to condemn someone’s approach.  But to say that the line between motivation and abuse is a fine one is just giving coaches an excuse for bad behavior.  If the line really is that fine, then we as coaches need to look a lot harder at our techniques for motivation.