Assistant Coaches and Studies on Obedience

“Old school” coaches are not a thing of the past.  This is evident from the recent news about coaches behaving badly – Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt – lines were crossed, but these instances only remind us that the “old school” coach is not nearing extinction.  It can even be argued that discipline, high standards, and a little yelling and screaming is o.k. at certain levels of sport.  Leaders come in many shapes and sizes – the strong and proud leader is a cultural icon (“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”).  It would be naive to think that head coaches do not go to great lengths to exert their power and maintain the image of absolute strength.

During a recent dinner with a sport science colleague, our discussion turned to a college coach that was relieved of his duties at the end of the past season. This leader of young men had a fiery personality, quick temper, and rode his players hard.  A good basketball mind, but his approach lost many players over the years and likely cost him his job.  As we discussed this “old school” coach, the conversation turned to assistants.  Let us be clear that head coaches are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make regarding the welfare and development of their players.  Yet, a reasonable thought put on the table was that assistant coaches may have an important role in protecting the “old school” coach from himself (not to mention the players as well).

When “old school” coaching gets out of hand and assistants stand by idly (or even complicitly), classic studies of human obedience come to mind.  In particular, consider Stanley Milgram’s seminal work in the 1960’s and 70’s. Milgram found that study participants would act outside of their moral compass and inflict harm on others when ordered to do so by an authority figure.  Sports coaches whether they be high school, collegiate, or professional have become legendary figures in their communities.  Considering this, one can imagine assistant coaches and other athletic personnel knowing when things are out of hand, but following the leader nonetheless.

Some reasons posited for this thoughtless following of orders are:

  • The assistant coach sees himself as an agent for carrying out the head coach’s wishes, therefore feels no longer responsible for actions.
  • When one is told by an “expert” that something is correct, it likely is, even if it does not appear so.
  • An individual does not feel that he has the expertise to make effective decisions, especially under stress.

Whichever the reason, there are certainly valid psychological causes a to why assistant coaches can fail to speak up when things seem astray.  Whether it be loyalty to the coach, inexperience with tough decisions, or simply the fear of losing one’s job, it is “easy” to “forget” to speak up.  This being said it is a critical skill for an assistant coach to develop and use.

Head coaches ought to be respected, revered, and, even sometimes, feared by young men and women.  However when assistant coaches fear and over-revere, bad decisions can be made, harm can come to athletes, and all suffer.  A coaching “team” is critical for high performance and ethical coaching.  The coaching team must have a leader, but all its members must have a voice.  With this in mind the assistant is not simply a follower, but an independent voice that aids the head coach in navigating the challenges of molding athletes towards success.


1 Response to “Assistant Coaches and Studies on Obedience”

  1. 1 John McCarthy January 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    This points to a greater issue in sport in general that of overconformity. Certainly, to be part of a team one must learn to give up some degree of personal control to function in a team environment. And when team members resist becoming part of the group usually very little gets accomplished. But our present sport culture the end justifies the means. So coaches will outrageous things to achieve those ends. Our culture rewards the winners.

    If coaches and assistant coaches would look to other outcomes (i.e. attainment of educational goals, service goals, pro-social behaviors ) to justify their work they would probably better be able to sense when they are getting off-track.

    John McCarthy Ed.D.
    Director, Institute for Athletic Coach Education
    Boston University

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