Yelling Isn’t Coaching

Let’s start with a funny story, told by strength coach Matt Reynolds, detailing the absurdity of how Baylor football players are “coached” during their strength and conditioning.

Here’s the link to the clip (timestamped at 18:25), and the transcript of what was said:

Matt: I went to Baylor … Baylor’s a big school – football. And their strength and conditioning program was 47 dynamic movements as their warm up, before they actually worked out. Forty-seven different movements! You know how much they were coached? They all lined up on a line, they blow the whistle, they fire off, right, and they let’m do it … and if a coach didn’t like the way they did it, they’d blow the whistle again and say, “You stupid motherf****r, you don’t deserve to wear that shirt that says ‘Baylor’ on it; turn it inside out, get back on the line and do it right.”

Rip: Now that’s coaching!

Matt: There’s no coaching! Football coaches do this all the time. I was a football coach for 10 years, right, guy runs out for a pass, turns, tries to catch the ball, misses – coach says what? “Catch the godd*mn ball!” That’s not coaching … Don’t you think he was trying to catch the ball? It’s not coaching.

Why Coaching by Yelling Doesn’t Work

Some tennis coaches, unfortunately, often employ a similar style as the Baylor conditioning coaches: yelling at a student, merely informing a student that they’ve done the movement wrong, in lieu of actually helping the student improve.

I’m not going to psycholanalyze the coaches who “teach” this way. Some might feel they won’t be respected unless they are sufficiently “tough” on their students. Others might think that punishing a student for doing the wrong thing really is the best way to fix it. No matter why coaches feel the need to yell instead of coach, the fact remains – it doesn’t help their students.

The role of a coach is to teach their student how to move. A coach is successful if, after the session, their student is moving more accurately than they were before the session. Let’s discuss a few specific reasons why yelling at a student does very little to accomplish this goal.

1. There’s No Actual Coaching Occurring

Matt did a great job illustrating this in the Baylor story – there isn’t actually any coaching taking place during the yelling. A student performs a movement pattern incorrectly. The coach then yells at the student that they’ve done it wrong. After this interaction, the student quite literally has no better idea of how to perform that movement than they did before the supposed “coaching” took place. Whatever they did wrong the first time, they’re probably going to do it wrong again.

A good coach will add an explanation of how the movement was performed wrong and how to go about fixing it. You know – they’ll coach.

A good coach fills the gaps in their student’s understanding. Understanding gaps cause incorrect movement, and so by filling those gaps, a good coach teaches their student to move correctly. Yelling at a student doesn’t get them any closer to a new understanding.

Sometimes, a student is unaware they they’ve performed the movement incorrectly, and in that case, they really do need to be informed of that fact. Good coaches certainly do sometimes tell students that they’re doing something wrong. Immediately after that, though, a good coach will add an explanation of how the movement was performed wrong and how to go about fixing it. You know – they’ll coach.

2. Overuse of Negative Emotion

Negative emotion should be seen as a limited resource in any interaction, and a coach-student interaction is no exception. The amount of negative emotion that each participant has to spend varies from relationship to relationship, but, no matter what relationship you’re in, the negative emotion you’re allowed to create is limited.

Every time you make your student feel negative emotion, you spend a little bit of this resource. If you make them feel a little bad, you spend a little, and if you make them feel really bad, you spend a lot. If you try to overspend the amount of negative emotion you have available, your student will shut down. Not only will they not enjoy the lesson, but they may associate the entire game of tennis itself with the negative emotion you’re providing – a tragedy indeed.

No matter what relationship you’re in, the amount of negative emotion you’re allowed to create is limited.

In tennis coaching, when your student does something wrong, you’re probably going to have to use up at least a little bit of this valuable negative emotion resource. Nobody likes to be wrong; nobody likes to be corrected. As coaches, in order to do our job properly, we must correct, so, inherently, we’re always walking a fine line between being effective in our position, and keeping our students happy and positive.

Yelling has no place in this balancing act, because yelling spends negative emotion pointlessly. When a student does something wrong, it’s often a good idea to correct them, but that doesn’t mean you have to yell. You might have to make the student feel at least slightly bad, but it’s your duty create as much benefit as possible while tapping that negative emotion. Make the (benefit to the student) / (negative emotion created) ratio as high as possible.

When you yell, that ratio is 0. You’ve made your student feel bad, spending some of your allowable negative emotion, but you haven’t actually used that resource to improve their understanding in any way. You’ve just… made them feel bad.

Vapid Negativity vs Vapid Positivity

I refer to the coaching described in Matt’s Baylor story as “vapid negativity.” The coaching is vapid – it’s hollow and surface level – and it’s also clearly negative. Vapid negativity serves no function. It spends negative emotion while gaining nothing in return. It’s a destructive form of coaching that should be avoided.

Even Yelling Shouldn’t be Vapid

There are some niche cases for which a coaching style that resembles yelling may be appropriate. The most common one is when a student is clearly not putting in enough effort. But even here, vapid negativity is wrong. You don’t yell at this student to, “Do it again you motherf****r” (of course). Instead, you yell, “Do it again, and put in some effort. Push, push, push! I want to see you bent over and out of breath by the end of this. If you can still talk when you finish, you’re doing it a third time.”

Don’t yell at the student to, “Do it again you motherf****r.”

See the difference? Even in a situation where yelling and intensity are appropriate, in the second example, the actual issue, in this case the student’s level of effort, is still explained. Further, the fix is also explained. The student has been made aware of the appropriate level of effort – they should be completely out of breath by the end of the exercise. So even though, stylistically, the above two yelled corrections seem similar – both are negative, intense, and involve having the student repeat the exercise – with respect to their instructive content, one is vapid while the other is useful.

Vapid Positivity is Fine

Vapid positivity is the analogous type of instruction on the positive side – statements like “great shot,” “nice movement,” “awesome get.” These kinds of statements have just as little coaching value as “catch the godd*mn” ball, and yet they are far more productive to a lesson environment than vapid negative statements. The difference?

Vapid positivity doesn’t spend negative emotion.

As I mentioned above, in most relationships, you have a very limited supply of negative emotion you get to create before your counterpart shuts down. Positive emotion, on the other hand, is almost unlimited. You can throw in many, many vapid positive comments before they lose their effect.

If you really overdo it – if you throw out a “nice shot” after every forehand your student hits, it may start to mute the effect of your compliments. You still want your student to take your compliments seriously, after all; if you say “great shot” after every shot, then your student will quickly learn that “great shot” actually means nothing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use phrases like “great shot” quite frequently. If your student strikes five perfect forehands in a row, and you say “great shot” after each of them, and then they miss one, and you remain silent, that’s perfectly fine. “Great shot” constitutes vapid positivity, and as such, it need not be avoided.

Positive Reinforcement

We’ve established that vapid negativity is completely pointless, but even useful negativity is still nice to avoid whenever possible. Instead of correcting when the student does something incorrectly, try reinforcing when they do something correctly.

For example, we’ve discussed at length the role of the hips during the forward swing on the forehand. The swing starts with a twist of the hips back towards the target, and if the hips fail to get all the way back around by contact, the swing loses a great deal of its fault tolerance.

Instead of correcting when the student does something incorrectly, try reinforcing when they do something correctly.

Let’s say your student has a bad habit of keeping their hips under-rotated. When you first explain this to them, there’s no need to include the “you’re doing it wrong” part. Merely explain to them the correct way to move, and then leave it at that. Then, when they do it right, compliment them on it. “Perfect hip rotation there.”

When they do it wrong, just be silent. You spend far less negative emotion with silence than you do with a correction. Further, if there is something, down the line, that you really feel needs to be directly addressed and fixed, then all the positive energy you’ve built up will allow you to do that. Your negative emotion resource hasn’t been tapped at all, so you should be able to spend a little without ruining the student’s emotional experience of the lesson.

Wrapping Up

In general, positive trumps negative. The overall tone of any lesson should be overwhelmingly positive, with occasional negative corrections mixed in to ensure the student is on the right path. The best negative reinforcement occurs when the student clearly knows they messed up and is clearly experiencing frustration as to why. That’s where your correction is actually *solving* a problem the student has – they’re curious why they messed up, and they *want* to be told what to do differently.

In order to provide useful instruction, coaches themselves have to clearly and completely understand the movement patterns they’re attempting to teach.

Every student wants to be instructed a different amount, and you’ll just have to gauge, with each one, how much that amount is. Some students barely want any correction (these kinds of students often don’t really want to get better either). If that’s the case, that’s fine. Just be sure to give them the fun, positive, enjoyable experience they’re paying for. Other students will always be pressing to try to find what they can improve, and with these students, you might be able to make constant corrections without them being bothered by it. Again, it really varies from relationship to relationship.

One thing is for certain though – no matter who your student is, *yelling isn’t coaching*. Vapid negativity is pointless. If you’re going to cash in some of your valuable negative emotion resource, ensure that your student is getting something valuable out of that. This is the more difficult form of coaching, of course. In order to provide useful instruction, coaches themselves have to clearly and completely *understand* the movement patterns they’re attempting to teach. That’s not an easy task. It takes study, practice, and discipline, but great coaches put in the work to attain the level of mastery required to produce quality instruction no matter how their student is messing up. You can, and should, put in that work.

Or, if you’re lazy, you can just yell at your student to “catch the godd*mn ball.”

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