It is not uncommon to see coaches yell and scream, but what effect does leading through fear and intimidation have – especially with kids? Does the intimidation approach provide better overall outcomes, including improved on-field performance and stronger emotional and mental states? Or has the yelling, screaming coach prototype who scares his players become an antiquated way of coaching, one that actually causes more harm than good? While coaches are tasked to build winning teams, it’s important to examine the means in which positive outcomes are attained — as well as what approaches lead to problems.
Does fear and intimidation actually work?
When it comes to coaches who use fear and intimidation to maximize team results, assessing whether the approach works is a nuanced question. For example, you might see an immediate spike in motivation when kids fear their coach (suggesting intimidation is “working”), but how long will a performance boost last when it’s driven by fear and scare tactics? And even if the team performs well because they fear being humiliated if they fail, is this the right way to lead a team?
There are a number of important questions to ask when using fear/intimidation approach to coaching, including:
- Is it safe to lead kids through fear? Are kids more at-risk for physical and/or emotional damage because they feel bullied and intimidated by their coach?
- Is leading by fear the best way to improve performance? Or are there other more positive, constructive, and effective ways to lead?
- Are there other negative issues and problems (sometimes unforeseen) that commonly develop when leading kids through fear? Do kids develop increased anxiety always working to please the coach and steer clear of being humiliated?
Active and passive aggression
When coaches deliberately use active intimidation and fear tactics (i.e. yelling at a kid in front of the team) there are potential negative consequences (outlined above). But what about coaches who engage in passive-aggressive leadership techniques? These subtle, less obvious coaching moves might include deliberately not playing an otherwise deserving player, or replacing a player with a reserve when there was no reason to do so. While these decisions seem tame compared to active fear tactics, they deliver a very similar result for kids in that there is always the threat of losing playing time if you don’t ascribe to the coach’s philosophy and decision-making. In fact, it can be argued that passive aggression can be equally, if not more damaging to kids when they feel like their every move is being examined and scrutinized, sometimes leading to a paralysis of anxious thinking and behaving.
Kids, especially when they’re young, are vulnerable to quitting sports when they experience a coach who thinks fear and intimidation is the best way to lead. While yelling, screaming, and playing subtle passive aggressive games might seem to “work” when you witness short-term success, there are many negative, long-term consequences that may occur as a result. Youth sports should be fun, and when kids feel as though the fun has been replaced with an intimidating atmosphere where kids are regularly humiliated, it should be of no surprise when efforts decrease — and some kids simply quit. From my own experiences I find that people respond much better to positive reinforcement and support rather than fear and intimidation, and this approach works especially well with kids.