Coach K Got it Right

Anyone who follows college basketball (and lots who don’t) will recall last year when Mike Krzyzewski took considerable flak for suspending his standout junior guard, Grayson Allen, for only one game following what appeared to be Allen’s third intentional tripping incident in two seasons. Duke haters had a field day.  (Full disclosure: I’m a former Blue Devil.)

Since his return, Allen has been a model player, until last week’s ACC tournament semifinal, when he got a technical foul for “bumping” – basically sticking his rear out to block or trip up the guy running behind him.  This time Coach K disputed the call, and the incident passed with much less fanfare.

But the bump call, legit or not, raised the questions again, even among the non-haters:

Did Coach K get it right the first timeShould Allen have received a harsher punishment, a longer suspension?  Will he ever learn?

As a former athlete, coach and teacher and an advocate for effective and appropriate discipline in sports, I think Coach K did get it right.  And it’s important for coaches, parents and athletes to understand why.

Tripping is dangerous, especially on a hardwood court.  It’s also bad sportsmanship.  These are among the most important lessons that we strive to teach young athletes – play safely, play fairly and, win or lose, be kind and gracious. 

The question is how do we best teach these lessons – and make them stick.

Many coaches think that they must come down hard on kids to make a lasting point. Or they can’t control their anger and deliver harsh punishment out of frustration. Or they don’t want to appear weak, whether to their team or to the parents or to the public.

Whatever the motivation, punitive discipline never leads to long-term positive change. The kid might (or might not) stop the behavior in the short-term, but punishment doesn’t teach – unless the lesson is to be afraid and to feel discouraged and anxious. Moreover, any change in external behavior comes at the high cost of lasting damage to the coach-athlete relationship and to the athlete’s well being.

But if not punishment, then what does work?

What’s tricky is that the answer is different for each kid.

Too often, coaches adopt a one-size-fits-all style, and that extends to how they discipline.  Maybe they worry about the appearance of playing favorites, or they find it easier to have one standard set of tools and responses.  Whatever the reason, they fail to appreciate that what works for one kid is a disaster for another.

This is particularly true for the more than 10% of kids who have ADHD or a similar weakness in executive functioning – skills like memory, organization, self-control and planning.  All kids and adolescents are still developing these skills, but ADHD brain development commonly lags by as much as three years, significantly compounding the gap in executive functioning that already results from ADHD brain chemistry. The young athlete with ADHD therefore struggles way more than his peers to maintain control, respond appropriately and learn from past experience.

One hallmark of ADHD is a lack of emotional control; another is oversensitivity.  When under stress, an adolescent with ADHD might have a meltdown that seems inappropriate for his age or lash out in what appears to be, but most often is not, intentional defiance (think Grayson Allen last year on national TV). These kids mess up all day long, and they know it.  They are their own harshest critics.

The oversensitivity and weak executive functioning also cause kids with ADHD to respond differently to reprimands and consequences than other athletes. Even a softly spoken lecture, especially from a respected coach, can sound through the ADHD filter like a yelling tirade. The negative feedback goes straight to the heart and stays there, replaying for days in the anxious ADHD mind, causing self-reproach and often worse behavior.

So what is a coach to do?  

How do you let the athlete know that his actions are not okay without crushing his spirit – or worst case turning him away from the sport all together – for behavior that he cannot yet control?

The skilled coach knows all of her athletes well enough to see behind the behavior; to sense what caused the incident; to understand what the athlete was feeling and what motivated the response; and to discern what is within the athlete’s current measure of control. The coach is then equipped to use the experience to teach, not to punish ineffectively.

Coach K plainly gets it. He saw that the issue was not whether Allen’s tripping was wrong (or what the press would say), but rather what response would be most effective – meaning that Allen would grow from the experience, learn to play fairly and safely and develop sportsmanship skills. 

Figuring this out can be tough and can take time – both the long-term investment in building and maintaining the relationship and unpacking what happened in the moment. This is likely why Coach K, whose skill at teaching and connecting with young athletes is undisputed, initially gave Allen an “indefinite” suspension, which ended up being one game.  Coach K needed time to absorb and to think, and that’s just fine.  Most situations do not demand an immediate reaction. Pushing pause is not a sign of weakness but rather of wisdom and strength.

After surely hours of discussion with Allen and others and thoughtful consideration, Coach K assessed Allen as a well-intentioned kid who lacked control and needed guidance, not a defiant young man who intentionally flouted the rules.

But it is important to note the second and more lasting aspect of Coach K’s discipline. In addition to the one-game suspension, Coach K stripped Allen of his captain position. This telegraphed to Allen that he had failed to lead by example and to live up to Coach K’s standards, and he lost an honor that was a source of great pride. As a natural consequence of (not a punitive reaction to) his behavior, Allen would have to work very hard, both internally and with others, to earn back Coach K’s, the team’s and the fans’ trust – and very likely his trust in himself.   This is the sort of consequence that works without demeaning, promotes growth without self-hatred.

By all appearances, Coach K’s natural consequences worked. Allen was motivated, not degraded or discouraged, in a way that empowered him to do the hard work to regain his self-confidence and others’ trust. He emerged this year as a more mature, calmer and repentant young man.  He appears to relish his status as the team elder and as a captain in every sense of the word. 

What about last week’s bumping? Was that evidence that Coach K’s philosophy failed? Not at all. I don’t know if Allen has ADHD, diagnosed or not, but his inability to control his tripping last year and his complete meltdown on the bench afterwards both smack of immature executive functioning skills. Yet, when he got the bumping call, there was no tantrum on the bench, no outsized reaction. This shows that with Coach K’s positive, yet firm, discipline and support, Allen is learning to control his still-developing brain.

Grayson Allen has had to make his youthful mistakes on a very big stage, but he is at heart, and brain, no different from other developing young athletes. Each has a unique chemistry and views the world through a different lens. It is the coach’s job to recognize this and to figure out how to reach and teach, not to punish and discourage, every athlete he or she is lucky enough to coach.