The Art of NBA Ego Management
One of the great challenges in professional sports involves managing the egos of the modern day professional athlete. The sense of entitlement and the power afforded the players as a result of multi-million dollar salaries presents a challenging scenario for even the most seasoned NBA coaches.
As proven last week by the Los Angeles Lakers, how hard a coach works or his knowledge of the game is not enough for him to keep a job. I had the good fortune of being coached by Mike Brown during a summer camp some years ago. During our brief time together, it became readily apparent how much he knew and also how hard he worked.
Of course, when he coached me he was simply coaching a group of promising high school players. Coaching a star-studded roster as a member of arguably the NBA’s most storied franchise proved to be a completely different challenge.
As a psychologist and consultant to NBA teams and other athletes and coaches, ego management is now something that fascinates me and occupies a great deal of my time. While the Lakers decided to pass on Phil Jackson (perhaps the greatest ego manager of all-time), it’s still timely to discuss eight principles that distinguish the best ego managers from the rest of the pack.
1. Don’t treat everyone the same – It can be alluring as a leader to begin with the notion that all people should be treated the same way. “Old school” coaches in particular have often uttered such sentiment. The problem with this approach is that not everyone is the same in terms of their physiological and neurological compositions.
We know that people perform best when they have a moderate level of anxiety. Too little anxiety doesn’t push people to wake up in the morning and be productive, whereas too much anxiety is often paralyzing. For example, some players have a naturally higher level of idle anxiety. For these players, constantly “getting on them” or yelling at them will have an adverse effect. It pushes their anxiety levels too high and has an adverse impact on performance. Conversely, players with a lower level of idle anxiety often need the proverbial “kick in the butt” to get them moving. By getting on these players, it raises their anxiety level from low to the optimal moderate range. In order to do this well, a coach must know the individual physiology and psychology of each of his players.
It is worth noting that many NBA players do not necessarily show high levels of anxiety in stereotypical ways. They may act out with anger or engage in passive-aggressive interactions when they get anxious. They may also shut down and just stop communicating. Understanding what underlies these behaviors can be crucial as opposed to just assuming that the player is being insolent.
2. Know what buttons to push and when to push them – Each of us has certain buttons that can be pushed that will lead to increased motivation or emotional arousal. In more behavioral terms, we might refer to these as “situational hedges.” A good example of a situational hedge comes from the Back to The Future trilogy. The main character Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) is normally a calm and likeable guy. However, whenever someone calls him a “chicken,” his entire demeanor changes and he feels an almost instant and uncontrollable urge to be confrontational.
Knowing what your players’ buttons are and when to push those buttons, and perhaps more importantly when not to, is crucial information for any NBA coach. A classic example is when Phil Jackson coached Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles. Often, Jackson wouldn’t say anything to O’Neal. However, two or three times a season he would take a jab at Shaq in the media. The jab was often subtle, but he made sure Shaq caught wind of it. The end result was O’Neal going on a two or three week rampage through the rest of the league. Jackson understood that verbally undressing a sensitive superstar like O’Neal on the court and publicly embarrassing him would not be an effective strategy. Yelling at him in the locker room would likely have been equally ineffective. Simply put, Jackson understood what Shaq’s buttons were and when to push them.
3. If you are the smartest person in the room then you need to hire some new people – Sometimes people in charge like to surround themselves with people who tell them how great they are. While this might feel good to one’s ego, it is also a recipe for long-term failure. The best NBA coaches hire assistant coaches, advisers, consultants, etc., who have different strengths than they do. Moreover, these coaches also hire assistants who aren’t afraid to challenge them and assert a strong difference of opinion.
It is disconcerting how argument has become a dirty word in Western culture. Arguments and disagreements, when done skillfully and civilly, are what lead to innovation and improvement. If everyone in the room already agrees with you, there is obviously nothing to argue about. When NBA coaching staffs find themselves agreeing all of the time it often means there is too great a separation of power between the head coach and his assistants, and the assistants don’t feel safe expressing their opinions. Even though the head coach is ultimately the guy who has to pull the trigger on any decision, a dictatorship is not the optimal model for sustained and championship-level success.
4. Be willing to lose a battle if it will help you win the war – Here we again find a place where “The Zen Master” is second to none. Jackson has been notorious for not calling timeouts when things are going wrong on the court, especially in the regular season. The message has always been a simple one: you better figure this out because I’m not going to bail you out.
Jackson has also been famous for inserting young players into crucial situations in the regular season with an understanding that failure will be the likely outcome. Some will note that Jackson has earned more “coaching capital” than most coaches and can therefore afford to engage in such experiments with no threat to his job security. While this may be true, it still demonstrates that he is willing to give players the space to fail. Heck, he actually wants them to fail so that they can have the resultant learning experience.
The old adage Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl likes to use from coaching legend Dean Smith is especially applicable here: “Losing is a better teacher than winning.”
5. Get input from your stars – It takes a great deal of security with one’s self for a coach to solicit input from his players. In today’s NBA, it is an absolute necessity. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers comes to mind as a coach who does this brilliantly. Don’t confuse “getting input” from star players with kowtowing. Great coaches are confident in the basic structure and philosophy of what they do, but they also maintain sufficient flexibility. In essence, star players become co-creators of the team’s approach. What this also does is it places a certain amount of responsibility on the shoulders of the players as opposed to having all of the responsibility placed on the coaching staff. When done successfully, it creates a joint ownership of the basketball enterprise.
6. Don’t talk too much – Over the last few years, I have had the great fortune of watching literally thousands of basketball practices at both the NBA and collegiate level. One striking pattern has emerged: the best head coaches do not speak very often. What this means is that when these coaches do speak, players listen. The players come to understand the coach is not just speaking to hear himself speak or to demonstrate his importance in some way. Instead, he is speaking because he has something important to say.
Great coaches also delegate responsibility. I was struck by how very successful head coaches let their assistants run most of the practice while they simply stood on the sideline and observed (this is also validation of the third point I made above of the importance of hiring quality assistant coaches). The head coaches would only interject when they had something truly important to say.
Often when a coach is on the hot seat we hear media members say something like, “The players have tuned him out.” A big reason why certain coaches are susceptible to this is that they speak too frequently and without purpose or direction.
7. Understand when to draw attention to yourself – It is impossible to remove ego completely from any person. It becomes even harder when a person is incredibly successful at what he does, such is the case with NBA head coaches. That said, what the best coaches do is minimize their role in wins and instead give credit to the players. However, when something goes wrong, the best head coaches take genuine public responsibility for it. Players recognize this sort of behavior and appreciate it. Coaches can also then serve as a model for their players to defer credit for successes and take responsibility for failures. For this to be effective, though, it is worth pointing out that it must be done consistently over time. Players will quickly notice that a coach is not genuine if he is inconsistent in what he says to the media or the team.
The idea of taking a technical foul to defend a player falls into this category. In such a scenario, a coach is publicly drawing attention to himself in support of his player in a way that is appreciated. Contrast that to a coach who is running up and down the sidelines waving his arms and screaming most of the game. While this approach may appeal to shallow fans who believe it shows the coach “cares” or “is doing something,” players often roll their eyes at such histrionics and view it as a sign of insecurity.
I remember sitting next to a close friend of mine who has been in the NBA for over 25 years watching a young coach during an NBA Summer League game. It was obvious this young coach wanted everyone to take notice of him given his demeanor on the sidelines, so much so that it was distracting from the action on the court. My friend and long-time NBA veteran turned to me and asked, “Does he understand what a fool he looks like right now?”
8. Talk more than just hoops – Given the status NBA players are afforded in our celebrity culture, it can be easy to forget they are human beings and that human beings are social creatures. NBA players desire relationships with people just like everyone else. A coach who can take some time to connect with players away from the basketball court will often reap huge benefits down the road.
The key to doing this effectively is for the coach to be himself. For example, Phil Jackson is not going to be able to connect with his players around hip-hop music. However, by handing out books to players as he has done for years, he has just demonstrated that he cares about them. While some of the players might find the vehicle to arrive at this destination a little goofy, the message of “I care about you” is received.
Talk to some of the players that have played for “old school” coaches like Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich (and I have), and they will tell you that they knew their coaches genuinely cared for them.
To be clear, communicating you care is not enough for an NBA head coach. They also have to make sure that communication, at least to a moderate degree, has been achieved.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.