Is the ‘my way or the highway’ approach to coaching still relevant?

coach-yellingJust imagine, you enter a sporting facility, observe a training session, or follow a competition and see the following: the coach yells and screams at the athletes for incorrect performance; uses name-calling when criticizing and giving feedback; answers the questions ‘why’ with “because I said so”, demonstrates a general attitude of ‘I am always right’ or ‘it is either my way or the highway’, and intimidates those who speak against his/hers decisions; uses fear of failure as a basis for motivation and threatens athletes with punishments for any mistakes…

The picture I described might seem quite familiar to many. At large, all these examples link to characteristics of so called ‘old school coaching’, which implies that power of authority, a threatening approach and commanding discipline is the only way to achievements and good performance. In essence it is the logic of “pushing” performers with an “ends justify the means” rationalization. It is the belief that yelling at players will toughen them up. The description will also be familiar to everyone who has seen the Oscar nominated movie ‘Whiplash’, which portrays very well the image of a ‘tyrant teacher’, yet in the end leaves the audience wondering if that was for good in the long term. Yes, in the movie, there was an incredible performance by the student in the end, yet, was it all worth the preceding physical and emotional pain? Was it the only way to achieve greatness? More importantly, is it the right way to sustain greatness?

For many, high ambitions and the premise of necessary toughness in sports speak in favor of such an ‘old school’ coaching style. Indeed, there is no high level sport without sweat, discipline, self-control, difficult drawbacks, constant improvement and self-transcendence. The question is rather about underlying motivation and the means used for developing these characteristics and toughness in athletes. Coaches need to be tough, but does being tough equal being mean, intimidating, dictatorial and verbally or physically abusive? Do we tend to think that great coaching comes from being or using the power?

In spite of common wisdom defense for ‘old school’ coaching, current research points to an entirely different way of coaching, which is much more athlete oriented rather than leader oriented, as being far more effective. In fact, research (Rieke et al. 2008; Hammermeister, et al. in press) shows that athletes coached with this leadership style display higher intrinsic motivation, are more task oriented, are more satisfied with their sport, are “mentally tougher” and perform better than athletes coached by more traditional leaders. I am talking about the servant leadership style, which portrays a coach as a “servant-leader.”

You mean leader serves?

Yes, the leader serves…but, don’t be mistaken by the possible negative connotation associated with the word ‘servant’, and don’t take the image of servant-leader for “spaghetti spine” bending to every whim and urge of his athletes. Servant leadership is not about coaches’ blind serving to the rules created by athletes. What it actually means is that a servant-leader has a primary aim to serve his athletes’ needs: serving comes first, leading comes later. According to Robert Greenleaf, who developed the concept in an organizational context, ‘the servant-leader model is one based on teamwork and community, one that seeks to involve others in decision making, one strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and one that is attempting to enhance the personal growth of subordinates while improving the caring and quality of our many institutions’ (1977, cited in Rieke et al. 2008).

Putting this in terms of a sporting environment, a servant-leader would be a coach who listens to his athletes and welcomes their input, is approachable and fair, is caring for athletes beyond the sport and empathetic towards them, is oriented towards long-term growth rather than short-term results, creates a climate of trust, inclusion and openness. Apart from promoting trust and inclusion with athletes, servant leadership implies humility, so that the coach does not need to feel and act superior to athletes in everything, and does not put personal ego front and center. Finally, servant leadership is about willingness to make personal sacrifices in serving others.

Doesn’t such an approach make athletes soft?

If we tend to believe that a tough and autocratic approach towards athletes makes them stronger, then being respectful and kind with athletes should make them soft, right? Well, such an assumption is quite shortsighted and incorrect.

The coach as a ‘servant’ approach does not mean that rules or standards become lax. Quite the opposite, there is still vision and rules created by the coach, and athletes are given clear roles, so the job of the coach is to “serve” or help the athlete to execute those roles. As such, it is natural that coaches should still have a very clear vision, coaching philosophy and a culture, with a set of rules, which are known and understood by the athletes. The difference with ‘old school’ coaching comes rather from the fact that servant leaders use persuasion, values and beliefs – rather than their authority or power of fear – to encourage people to take action in the right direction. In other words, athletes should not be MADE TO act in a specific way, they should be supported to grow and develop into WANTING TO act in a specific way.

The study results by Rieke and colleagues (2008) suggest that the “keys” to promoting “mental toughness” do not lie in autocratic, authoritarian, or oppressive styles. In contrary, mental toughness appears to lie with the coach’s ability to produce an environment, which emphasizes trust and inclusion, humility, and service. In their study with high-school basketball players, researchers found that servant-leadership produced higher levels of mental skills, especially with goal setting, self-confidence, and commitment differing to the greatest degree, than non-servant leadership.

Why I believe in servant leadership?

I like the concept of servant leadership, because I believe in the idea of respecting the coach for who he/she is, not for the power of position, I believe in inclusive communication more than in obedience, I believe that better change is driven by arguments, beliefs and values rather than by extrinsic avoidance motives and being loud. I have experienced the differences myself. At one point in my athletic career I was being yelled at, scared to make mistakes and called stupid as well. Did it make me stronger? Not really. It only made me like the coach less, feel more anxious, and go to perform the gymnastics routine at the world championships with the only thought of ‘I just want it all to be over’. And today I see the same kids as I was long ago, who come to my sport psychology consultations to get rid of performance anxiety and improve their self-confidence. We always speak about their coaches… unfortunately, rather more often than not, these athletes feel intimidated by their coaches, lack positive feedback and, most importantly, wish it would be different.

I believe and I see that it can be different as well. There are very good alternatives to ‘old school’ coaching, actually, better ones. So what would it be for You?



Greenleaf, R.K., Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Paulist Press, New York, 1977.

Hammermeister, J.J., Burton, D., Pickering, T., Chase, M., Westre, K. and Baldwin, N., Servant Leadership 
in Sport: A Concept Whose Time has Arrived, International Journal of Servant Leadership, in Press.

Rieke, M., Hammermeister, J., & Chase, M. (2008). Servant Leadership in Sport: A New Paradigm for Effective Coach Behavior. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 3, 2, 227-240.

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