Mon, April 22, 2024

Should you be a ‘players’ coach’?

As we are in the middle of the college football and NFL seasons, and with the recent start of baseball’s post-season, there is a lot of discussion of the effectiveness of coaches and managers and their effects on the success of their teams. This is an area I have examined very closely, starting as a player through high school and having coached youth, club, and intramural teams. While at Kennesaw State University, I was also highly involved in the athletic programs, having participated in about a half-dozen coaching searches and being involved in the startup of football there.

Throughout my life, I have seen many different coaching styles and also seeing seemingly similar coaching styles lead to very different results. In today’s column, I would like to examine what appear to be the two ends of the coaching style spectrum, look more closely at their differences and often overlooked similarities, and then apply these styles to the business workplace.


The two ends of the coaching spectrum are the disciplinarian coach and the players’ coach. I grew up in the era of the disciplinarian coach and at that time, I do not remember there even being any of the so-called “players’ coaches.”

The disciplinarian coach, above all, is known for his or her toughness and is driven by rules and respect. Probably the prototypical disciplinarian coach of my youth was the late, great Vince Lombardi. It is probably no accident that more than one of Lombardi’s players has been credited with the famous quote, “He treated us all the same…like dogs.” You might think that such a coach would have difficulty leading his players to success and you might also think that there was little love for such a coach and those like him, such as Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.

In a 1997 op-ed column in the New York Times, one of Lombardi’s great former players, offensive guard, Jerry Kramer, explained how and why his teams were successful and that his players loved him even more after their playing days were over. He taught them the importance of doing things right and being accountable. He pushed them to do well. The reason so many of them loved the man even more, was that so many of them were even more successful after football than they were during their football careers, in which their teams won many championships and many of them went on to individual accolades like being selected to the Hall of Fame.

However, as time has gone on, we have seen the disciplinarian coaching style have more mixed results, and as society has changed, players have become less tolerant of that style. So, over time, we have seen more and more examples of the other end of the spectrum, the “players’ coach.” The term came from coaches who are more lenient than disciplinarians, giving their players more latitude, and trusting them to police themselves.

The players’ coach appears to be more friendly with his players and more empathetic to what they are experiencing. A prime example of a players’ coach would be the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll who has experienced outstanding success both in the NFL with the Seahawks and in college football with the University of Southern California. Carroll is seen as more of a “rah-rah” type coach who relates to his players more as a peer than the disciplinarian-type coach of the Lombardi era.

However, as times have changed, players’ coaches have not been universally more successful than disciplinarian coaches nor vice versa. There are at least a couple of reasons for that. First and foremost, is that often the successful disciplinarian coach and the successful players’ coach are really not as different as they seem on the surface. They both pour themselves into their players, but they show their love in different ways. With the disciplinarian, it is typically done through “tough love,” doing what is best for the player in the long run, but not always nice about it, while the players’ coach is more nurturing in his love. In addition, both types of coaches know that they must hold their players accountable for what they need to do. However, the disciplinarian is going to make that accountability more loud and painful than the players’ coach.

The other important determination as to whether a team needs a disciplinarian or a players’ coach is the composition of the team. Is the team mature enough to “handle its own business?” If so, a players’ coach may be preferred. What is the temperament of the team collectively and individually? I noticed that when my younger daughter started playing lacrosse, she would not respond positively to a disciplinarian coach. She needed a players’ coach to build her confidence. While she never preferred disciplinarian coaches, she was able to perform better with such coaches when she was more confident in her abilities. On the other hand, my older daughter who played volleyball, always preferred disciplinarian coaches who forced her to get the most out of her talent.

Clearly, there are parallels between coaching in sports and leading/managing in business organizations. Both disciplinarians and players’ coach-type managers can be successful as long as they are invested in their employees and understand the collective and individual makeup of those who work for them. Typically, most of us have to adopt a hybrid approach of disciplinarian and players’ coach to be most effective, and determining which end of the spectrum we need to be closer to depends on both being authentic to who we are and the needs of our organization.

Oftentimes, you will see disciplinarian coaches/managers replaced by players’ coaches/managers or vice versa, because those being replaced typically were too close to the end of the spectrum. As you watch coaches and managers lead their teams, see who is successful and see what and how you might adopt from their style to help lead your team.

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