How to Fix College Coaching?

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Rutgers University fired Mike Rice – the head basketball coach – last Wednesday. This firing came about after ESPN released a video that showed Rice abusing his players. Such a video had already been seen by Rice’s boss at Rutgers in November, but until the video was shown to the public, Rutgers did not feel compelled to fire Rice.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley (author of Can I Keep My Jersey?) observed the following about the Rutgers case in a recent interview at HuffPost Live (around 13:30):

The thing that people don’t want to hear, but which is true, is that this is probably closer to the norm than not. 

Shirley goes on to note that he doesn’t think many coaches are actually hitting players. But he does note that coaches do tend to have a certain approach in conveying information to players (an approach Shirley describes in the interview).

Is this general approach to coaching effective?  To date, I am not aware of any study of the effectiveness of college coaching.  A study I co-authored with Mike Leeds, Eva Marikova Leeds, and Mike Mondello and published in the International Journal of Sport Finance (full PDF here) looked at 62 NBA coaches across thirty years of data. Across this sample, only 14 coaches were found to have a statistically significant and positive impact on player performance. So most NBA coaches do not appear to make their players more productive.

Of course, it might be different in college.  But establishing that college coaches can increase the productivity of their players would not establish that abusive behavior is effective.  And there is reason to think such an approach would not work.

Daniel Kahneman – who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 (for his work with respect to behavioral economics) – tells the following story in his autobiography:

I had the most satisfying Eureka experience of my career while attempting to teach flight instructors that praise is more effective than punishment for promoting skill-learning. When I had finished my enthusiastic speech, one of the most seasoned instructors in the audience raised his hand and made his own short speech, which began by conceding that positive reinforcement might be good for the birds, but went on to deny that it was optimal for flight cadets. He said, “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” This was a joyous moment, in which I understood an important truth about the world: because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.

So Kahneman argues that the improvement people see after abusive behavior is simply regression to the mean. The abusive behavior itself is not causing the improved performance.

But Kahneman is just an academic. Coaches “know” from years of experience that this works. At least, we suspect at least some coaches think abuse works, since we suspect Rice is not the only coach to engage in this behavior. 

Although it might work in general, even the most enthusiastic supporters of this approach has to suspect it wasn’t working for Mike Rice.  Across the past three seasons at Rutgers, Rice posted the following won-loss records: 

  • 2010-11: 15-17
  • 2011-12: 14-18
  • 2012-13: 15-16

Clearly this is not a record of success.  And given the approach Rice believes works to elicit better performances from his players, what action should the president and athletic director have employed to improve the basketball program at Rutgers? 

This answer is obvious.  Someone should have called Rice to their office and thrown a basketball at his head!  This should have been followed by a great deal of abusive yelling and screaming. If this was done often enough, Rice would have improved as a coach.  And Rutgers would have won more games in the court.


Clearly this didn’t happen.  And had someone tried this with Rice – or any other coach who thinks abusive behavior works – we suspect those coaches would object. 

But why?  If abuse works to motivate and improve the performance of college players, why shouldn’t it work to motivate and improve the performance of college coaches? 

Of course I am joking (sort of).  The abuse of players, though, is yet one more problem with college sports (not having a free market for players – I would argue – is another). 

So how can we fix the problem at Rutgers and other places where such behavior occurs?  We know the athletic director and president were aware of Rice’s behavior and were only willing to remove him from this position when they discovered that other people had the same information.  This suggests that the people charged with supervising the coaches have a problem. 

The career of Bobby Knight illustrates this issue. Knight’s documented behavior was often like what we see from Rice.  Unlike Rice, though, Knight’s teams were consistent winners.  And although Knight’s behavior eventually led to his dismissal from Indiana, Knight did not have a hard time landing another position.  And one suspects, this is because Knight’s teams tended to win.

As long as schools place winning – and the ticket sales winning generates – above the welfare of the students, it seems unlikely we are going to see athletic directors and presidents alter their behavior. 

If only, though, there was some way to change the motivation of these individuals…

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  1. Enter your name... says:

    > Someone should have called Rice to their office and thrown a basketball at his head! This should have been followed by a great deal of abusive yelling and screaming. If this was done often enough, Rice would have improved as a coach.

    I think this is a great example. People who dish it out ought to be willing and able to take it, and I’ll bet that most of these coaches would quit if they were treated anything like what they treat everyone else.

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  2. James says:

    I can’t help but wonder how it is that a coach who hits his players – who are in the main younger, larger, in better condition, and in many cases from pretty rough neighborhoods -manages to survive a week without serious bodily injury.

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    • Armando says:

      These kinds have their entire lives riding on that scholarship. No one wants to be the one who steps out of line, loses the scholarship, loses the chance to play in college, maybe even the pros, and the ability to get a free education at a university where there is a chance they otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Also, the coach is an authority figure. The players don’t beat him up for the same reasons that abused teens run away from home rather than hitting back when they are big enough to do so with effect. They’ve been socialized into the idea that they deserve to be treated this way.

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  3. Michael says:

    That story from Kahneman is just fascinating. Love those interesting and revealing odd ways of looking at things.

    My experience has been that being yelled at will motivate me very strongly to be good enough. Being praised will motivate me a moderate amount to excel and go beyond good enough. Punishments have a stronger effect than rewards if I’m underperforming and know it, but very little impact if I feel I’m already doing as expected of me. Rewards will make me push beyond expectations.

    No idea how that applies to coaching and basketball. That’s one of those sports things, right? o.O

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    • James says:

      My own experience (Parris Island) is that while being yelled at may indeed cause a temporary increase in performance, due to adrenaline release, it does little if anything for improving learned skills.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        And it does nothing at all for things you haven’t learned yet. No amount of abuse will make a person know something that he hasn’t been taught.

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  4. jsessing says:

    Isn’t this at least partly attributed to the fact that coaches are wildly overpaid when compared with the players. These coaches begin to believe they are that much more gifted than everyone around them, but clearly (based on the shakey links between coaches and optimal performance) this is not the case. Since the NCAA refuses to allow player pay situations like this manifest.

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    • Joe D says:

      ^ This. Same with CEO salaries. When you get paid six (or more!) times what the top academic faculty receive (or, in the case of CEOs, four hundred times the average productive worker), you are constantly having your own obvious superiority reinforced. Rewards, indeed, work better than punishments.

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  5. Erik Jensen says:

    There is a huge power imbalance between coaches and players at this level. If a coach doesn’t like a player, he can abuse him mentally, make him “ride the pine”, demand torturous physical labor, and make his future in basketball very difficult. All the player can do is quit which hurts both the coach and player. Maybe it is “rational” for the player to put up with some abuse or maybe there is Stockholm syndrome.

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  6. Impossibly Stupid says:

    Here’s a radical idea: how about the public at large collectively decides to stop pay attention to these silly little ball games? They are a pointless drain on the economy, and foster an environment of power that leads to abuse by everyone involved. How about Freakonomics lead by example and stop covering sports-related “news”?

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  7. Ryan says:

    it is regression TOWARD the mean, not to the mean…

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  8. Philicia says:

    I think what Rice did was awful. He should have been fired immediately instead of being suspended at first. Student athletes should not be treated in this way.

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