One of the toughest challenges of leadership is to evaluate and handle the emotion of a situation. As coaches we have to deal with it all of the time. The intensity of practice every day, the pressure of the games, the scrutiny of results and the public scoreboard all contribute to an emotional environment. Sometimes right or wrong isn’t as important as handling the emotion you are faced with.
Early in my career as a head coach I learned this lesson, even though it’s still not easy to recognize and deal with. We had one player I coached at RIC who was very talented, cared a great deal about success, but also had a hard time dealing with things that didn’t go his way. He wasn’t very mature or mentally tough when things started to break down, but he was a terrific talent who did help us win. But I had to learn to manage his emotional intelligence.
We were playing our first league game of the year at Eastern Connecticut in a very intense environment, and this kid was struggling. He missed a couple of easy shots, and then he went to the basket and got hit pretty hard, with no foul called. He got frustrated and jogged back defensively, shaking his head. Our team all saw him jog and was pretty upset, as was I. When I took him out of the game he continued shaking his head and bitching about the missed call. I responded by yelling “stop making excuses and play!” at him as he sat down, in front of the whole team. He had stopped competing because he was unhappy with what happened to him, and that was unacceptable. I had every right to say what I said to him.
What I didn’t factor in was how emotional he was as a player, and how my comment – and the way I said it – would add to the emotion in an already intense environment. It didn’t help the situation. Now the player was on the bench even more upset, and useless if I wanted to put him back in the game. You can say he has to grow up, and it’s on him to handle the situation better – and I wouldn’t disagree with you. But my job as the head coach is to understand the personalities of the players and how to best handle them. Making that point at that time, the way I did, only added fuel to the fire. It made the situation worse.
Fast forward to the conference tournament that same year, with us involved in a tough semi-final game and the same player getting a little emotional. He was struggling on the court, shaking his head and showing visible frustration with the officials. He had only been in the game for a minute, and I took him out. However this time, I didn’t say anything to him as he walked off the court. I let him sit down, and I told my assistants to coach the team for a minute. I walked down the bench, knelt down in front of him and just talked to him. He was shaking his head and frustrated, wondering why I took him out. I explained in a calm voice that when he got frustrated like this, he wasn’t helping the team. I took him out simply to let him catch his breath and calm him down. I wanted to make sure he was okay and that he wasn’t going to let the emotion take him out of his game. I told him we needed him to win the game, but we needed him at his best. When he took a deep breath and said “I got you Coach. I’m good,” I put him right back in the game.
The right time to coach him on how to better handle his emotions wasn’t in the middle of an intense game. It was talking to him off the court and pointing out examples during practice – calmly – where his emotions were starting to impact his play. During the game, when he got emotional, adding more emotion to the situation was never helpful. Even if the point I was making was the right one, with the added emotion he wasn’t getting the point. The message wasn’t getting across because I was making the situation more emotional with my response.
Recognize the emotional level of a situation as the leader, and think about taking a measured approach. Don’t add emotion to an already emotional situation. If you do, you won’t often get the response you want.