It was not surprising to see coaches and ex-players universally defend Tom Izzo’s treatment of freshman wing Aaron Henry last week, nor was it surprising to see most of college basketball’s non-coach/player media either stay silent or support Izzo. This is a college sports tradition. In this case, the most common defense seems to be that Henry himself didn’t object to the treatment, therefore criticism should be off limits.
I would guess Henry is sincere here. After all, his path to an NBA career can be greatly helped by Tom Izzo. And having complete faith that his coach knows what he’s doing is understandable given Izzo’s track record. But it’s also true that is would be career suicide to publicly criticize a legendary head coach in the middle of the NCAA tournament. So even if Henry has second thoughts, he really doesn’t have a choice but to be supportive given that Tom Izzo is one of the most powerful men in basketball and Henry is, well, not.
If we take away the Henry defense, then what’s the next most-common defense? It seems to be something along the lines of “this is always the way it’s been done.” People who defend the behavior often say they’re “old school“. But that’s weak. There have been plenty of awful things that have existed for a long time simply out of tradition. Just because your pops went through it doesn’t in itself mean the next generation should.
If we take that defense away, then defenders fall back on the notion that it worked. Izzo even mentioned it in his post-game press conference. Henry played well the rest of the way against Bradley and played better in the Spartans’ second round game as well, so the ends justify the means. I’ve written about this fallacy before, but to summarize: Almost any person, after doing something poorly, is going to do that thing better the next time whether they’re getting berated or not.
Take that defense away, and people (including Izzo) seem to be saying that everyone that wants to succeed should also want to be held accountable. That’s certainly true, but one can be held accountable without being charged at by a yelling supervisor. I suspect that most people prefer that.
Not that what people prefer is the only consideration here. The ultimate question is what works. It strikes me as odd that the only place this behavior is excused is in college basketball and college football. If it’s so effective to hold people accountable in such a public and aggressive way, why aren’t these tactics used elsewhere? Like in biology class, or at a piano concert, or in any other workplace. Maybe basketball’s different. In such a highly-competitive environment, maybe this is acceptable. But then why is it much less frequent in professional basketball?
The other common belief to defenders of this behavior is that the current generation is soft. That, perhaps, is the lamest defense of all. This generation may be particularly soft, who knows. But what we do know is that it’s been a tradition since literally the beginning of human history for adults to complain about the mental fortitude of the generation that follows.
I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but if there’s one thing we know with some degree of certainty about these youngsters it’s not that they’re soft. It’s that it won’t be long into adulthood before they forget that they were once in the “soft” generation. Heck, Aaron Henry may well end up coaching and if he does, I’d bet that eventually he’ll complain about the softness of the generation being born today. Please bookmark this page for that occasion.
Maybe this is the first time all season Izzo has lit into Henry. But if not, it’s worth asking if the tactics are working. If Henry is still not giving the effort expected by the coaching staff, maybe there’s a better way. It is, at the very least, worth questioning.
Obviously discipline is needed for a team to succeed, and to some extent yelling is a necessary means of communication on a basketball court. Basketball gyms tend to have poor acoustics and with all the dribbling basketballs, measured chit-chat can be impossible. And it’s worse during an actual game when piped in music makes conversation difficult even for adjacent fans.
Coaches want every edge possible, so I’d think they’d want to know if antagonistic yelling really helps their players. It’s odd that this is the one aspect of coaching that is framed as some sort of generational battle, without any discussion of whether it’s actually effective. Izzo has obviously had a bunch of success, and so maybe there’s little need for him to look critically at this approach. And hey, perhaps his success is directly due to his motivational tactics. Dan Wetzel thinks so.
But by this logic, every attribute of a successful leader can be defended. However, anything is worth questioning. If Izzo doesn’t foul up three or adjust to an opponent’s defense or play Jaren Jackson enough minutes, at least a few people express critical thoughts as to whether those tactics were appropriate. Even while understanding that Izzo gets that stuff right a lot more than he gets it wrong.
For whatever reason, his motivational tactics are off limits. Maybe his success is due to game preparation, skill development, and most importantly, recruiting some of the best basketball players in the country. It is possible the occasional outbursts are holding him back.
Anyway, it’s a weird thing that a coach’s behavior on the court should be off limits to criticism. After all, we don’t give a pass to people that defend all sorts of outdated basketball strategies simply because they’re “old school”. And we shouldn’t do it when coaches yell in a players face, either.