From Angry Braves to Brave Leaders -- Phil Jackson Part II

Understanding anger is essential to good coaching.

It’s especially important to connecting with athletes who are anxious or have ADHD – or any type of wiring that brings anger on quickly and hijacks the controls. 

The anger rises on both sides of the coaching equation. 

The kids get angry.  And so do the coaches. 

Let’s be real – these are great kids, and they can become very accomplished athletes, but they’re not easy to coach. Your pitcher throws his glove and storms off the mound cursing because someone (maybe you) criticized him. Your point guard has no idea what play you just called because she was watching the practice on the next court the entire time you were talking.

This stuff is frustrating.  It disrupts your practice, or worse your game, and your heat rises.   

You yell.  You bench him.  Maybe you throw her out of practice.  Your control center isn’t at its best then either. 

And nothing is gained.

Instead, much has been lost in the long run. Your relationship suffers; the cycle repeats; the athlete’s performance slips; eventually he quits.  No one feels good, and no one wins.

But what can you do? How can you transform these potentially damaging emotions, in your athletes and in yourself, into the kind of intensity that marks champions? 

Phil Jackson, in his book Eleven Rings, offers insight from his experience dealing with Kobe’s anger while under indictment for alleged sexual assault:

“Managing anger is every coach’s most difficult task because the line between the aggressive intensity needed to win games and destructive anger is razor thin.  In some Native American tribes, the elders used to identify the angriest braves in the village and teach them to transform their wild, uncontrolled energy into a source of creative power and strength.  Those braves often became the most effective tribal leaders. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the young players on my teams.”

Angriest braves.  Wild, uncontrolled energy. 

These are our ADHD kids. 

Wired and impulsive with weak emotional control. 

But when taught and nurtured, powerful sources of creativity, strength and leadership. 

Jackson offers an example of how he nurtured these positive qualities in his players – how controlling his own anger brought out the strength in his team.

It was Game 3 of the conference championship in 1993, and the score was tied. Scottie Pippin wasn’t happy with the play that Jackson called, which had him inbounding the ball instead of taking the final shot. Pippin was so angry he took himself out of the game.

Jackson was shocked, especially from Pippin. He put in another player to inbound the ball, the final shot hit its mark and the Bulls won. But Jackson still had to deal with Pippin’s insubordination. 

He did so quietly. He didn’t yell. He didn’t suspend Pippin. In the locker room Jackson stayed in the background while a teammate told Pippin how disappointed the team was in him. Then Jackson led the team in its ritual Lord’s Prayer and left for a press conference.  Not another word.

Pippin apologized to Jackson the next day, once the emotion had settled (as so often happens with ADHD kids too, when they trust in the relationship). Pippin and the team had talked it out and, Jackson says, grew stronger as a result.

Jackson recognized that most coaches would have punished Pippin, but he didn’t think that would be useful:

“Rather than asserting my ego and inflaming the situation further, I did what needed to be done: find someone to throw in and go for the win. 

Afterward, rather than trying to fix things myself, I let the players solve the problem.  I acted intuitively, and it worked.”

Of course, tapping that calm intuition takes work.  And practice.  The anger is going to keep coming – yours and your athletes’.   

Jackson writes, as if describing OBA kids:

“Trying to eliminate anger never works. The more you try to suppress it, the more likely it is to erupt later in a more virulent form. A better approach is to become as intimate as possible with how anger works on your mind and body so that you can transform the underlying energy into something productive.”

That’s the key with Own Beat Athletes who need help controlling powerful emotions. 

1.     Recognize that they are struggling. 

2.     Avoid feeding the fire with your own emotional response. 

3.     Guide them to positive uses for all of that energy. 

A pillar of Jackson’s leadership style was to prioritize relationship-building (see Win-Win Coaching – Phil Jackson Part I), with benefits flowing to both the athletes and the coach. 

In writing about the 2008 championship, Jackson reflected the transformation that he witnessed in Kobe:

“The most gratifying thing of all was watching Kobe transform from a selfish, demanding player into a leader that his teammates wanted to follow. To get there, Kobe had to learn to give in order to get back in return. Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.”

Letting go of frustration and anger, and teaching your athletes to do the same, doesn’t happen overnight.  But in time the effort can transform a coach, an athlete and an entire team. Just ask Kobe.