Advertisement
Baltimore Sun

Commentary: When is it better to be respected than liked?

It was while performing research for an upcoming feature article that I began thinking about this week's subject of coaching styles. During this research, which consisted of several long phone interviews with members of a Harford County High School sports team (I don't want to give away too much), a mental picture of the team's coach started to form in my head. The coach, universally respected by his players, was an old-school, tough-customer, no-apologies type of leader who employed some motivational tactics that would probably get him run out of town in this day and age. He demanded an awful lot from the young men in his charge, but he got results, and that's the idea, right? Once you get past middle school, all of the "just have a good time," nonsense gets thrown out the window; you're there to win games.

Pointing out that the coach in question would not be allowed to do now what he did during the era in which he coached was not a judgment call on my part, just a fact. I'm 18 years removed from the beginning of my high school sports career, and things have changed so much since then that my own coaches, were they still using the same politically incorrect training techniques, would either be out of a job or giving apologetic press conferences. Also, the question about winning being the point was firmly rhetorical. You should be learning the game and having fun in high school athletics, sure, but winning is the most fun you can have. I believed that as a player, and I still do.

Advertisement

A few proper non-rhetorical questions at this point would be: If you're a coach, what is the proper ratio of love to respect that you want from your players, and at what point is winning games not worth what you're putting your team through? Personally, I don't have the answer to either, largely because I'm a terrible coach. I learned, during my time at the helm of four Harford County indoor rec league teams and as an assistant on a few Little League baseball squads, that I'm way too soft to be an effective coach. That one of my indoor soccer teams won a league title was a testament to how lucky I got with that year's talent draw. As a one-game, substitute head coach for the Perryville High boys soccer team a few years back, I had a player tell me, "I don't feel like going back in the game, because we're going to lose anyway," and rather than blow my stack I let the kid sit. Like I said, I'm a terrible coach.

If I was on the violent side of the coaching spectrum, then over in the red would be my high school soccer coach, for whom I played through my junior year, when he stepped down to take another teaching post. I remember coming to tryouts in late August before my freshman year began, and him announcing to the assembled aspirants, "don't even worry about kicking a ball today. You're going to run until your legs fall off." His idea was that the best-conditioned team would win more often than not, and that getting everyone in line with his system of play would come faster than making sure his team could run for 110 minutes if it needed to, so we ran first. We did long runs around the school property, Indian sprints around the soccer field, tether runs around the track (that's where you tie yourself together with three other guys, and the team that comes in last has to run four extra laps), jog-sprint-walk drills, and, worst of all, something coach called, "six-12-18-50-18-12-six," which required you to run from the end line to the six-yard box and back, to the 12-yard hash and back, and you get the rest; a lot of guys quit during that drill. I can say now that I did not like my coach. He was fair, but inflexible to the point that a lot of his players lost respect for him, and he nearly had a coup on his hands at one point. That said, when we won a county title, though we were certainly skilled, we could run circles around any other team in the county. I cursed his name in the mornings when I rolled out of bed for the first half of two-a-day practices, but I think that's what he wanted.

Advertisement

Even more extreme than my own high school coach was the man he emulated, a coach whose name should not be tough to figure out when I tell you his accomplishments. I attended one of this guy's summer camps between my sophomore and junior years, and he employed the military method of breaking down players' psyches through extreme physical exertion, then building them back up so he had, for lack of a better term, soccer machines who would do his exact bidding. He supposedly once told my coach, "give me your toughest player, and I'll make him puke in 10 minutes." He was not a likable guy either, from my limited experience, but he won eight Maryland state soccer titles in 18 years.

You'll have to ask his players if they respected him, but I bet they did.


Advertisement