The Two Inner Coaches

Billy Schroeder was absolutely exhausted. He was a few days into a tortuous 10-day marathon practice in West Texas that was being run by Texas A&M’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. There were no regular water breaks and no medical personnel on hand to help these student-athletes cope with the temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees. Having given everything that his body and mind would allow him to give, Schroeder collapsed. He was going in out of consciousness. His leader, Coach Bryant, promptly walked up to Schroeder … and kicked his limp body. He ordered him to be dragged off the field and resumed practice. Schroeder was taken to the hospital by fellow players, where is life was narrowly saved. According to all sources, Bryant was unfazed by the incident.

Ten years later, in another city and another sport, UCLA Bruins basketball player Bill Sweek had just found out that Coach John Wooden had decided to not start him in an important game because of strategic reasons. Sweek, who was young, head-strong and accustomed to being one of the five best on the floor, walked off the court prior to the game. After the Bruins won, Coach Wooden’s first order of business was to seek Sweek out and confront him regarding the incident.

Wooden, who lived by a set of moral principles such as “keep your emotions in check” and “patience is part of progress,” was furious but “sought first to understand.” After a heated exchange, Wooden came to understand that Sweek’s insubordination was a breaking point of sorts, resulting from the perception that Wooden showed preferential treatment to certain players who conformed to the coach’s image of a “wholesome All-American boy,” characterized by rural-America and Christian values. Sweek, outspoken and more reflective of the changing culture of the late 1960s, apparently did not fit this mold.

The next day at practice, players expected to hear of Sweek’s dismissal. Instead, the team meeting was based around not only Sweek abandoning his team, but also on whether other players shared the same perception that Coach Wooden gave certain players preferential treatment. It was confirmed that others did, in fact, share Sweek’s opinion regarding Wooden showing favoritism. At the end of the meeting, Wooden stated, “None of us is too old to change … I’m going to try to understand you all better from now on.” Sweek apologized for his insubordination and the two shook hands.

The star center, Lew Alcindor, said of the incident, “From then on, we were a closer bunch of human beings. When we went on to win our third straight national championship, I wasn’t as impressed by this victory as I was by the way a group of very different men had come together in tolerance and affection.”

Two coaches, both of whom won national championships (Bryant won 6, Wooden won 10) had drastically different approaches. Bryant operated with intimidation and rigidity and motivated his players with fear. Wooden operated with understanding and flexibility and motivated his players with love. Bryant treated the game as the end-all, be-all of life. Wooden treated the game as simply a vehicle to learn how to be a better human.

Too often, when we are exhausted mentally and physically, we treat ourselves as Coach Bryant would treat us. We kick ourselves when we’re down, thinking that telling ourselves that “we aren’t ____ enough” will motivate us to be better. That may work in the short-term, but how sustainable is that over a lifetime? What are the mental, emotional and physical ramifications of treating oneself in this way? How much enjoyment is there “playing” for a mind that treats us how Coach Bryant treated his players?

What if we treated ourselves how Coach Wooden would treat us? What if we related to ourselves with forgiveness, understanding and healthy discipline? What if we even treated ourselves with, dare I say, self-compassion, similar, to how we would relate to a 3-year-old or 90-year-old, similar to how we would relate to our best friend or the person we admire most in this world when they make mistakes?

Would our productivity fall off a cliff? Would we be too soft to operate? Would we lose our edge? This is precisely the concern that many of the clients I work with cite to explain their hesitancy to give up the Bear Bryant approach. However, research tells us that the Bear Bryant approach will ultimately have the opposite effect.

Enter the Yearks-Dodson Law, which studied how our performance is affected by levels of arousal or stress. The results indicate that yes, a certain level of stress can help us perform better, BUT only up to a point. Chronic or intense stress leads to a vastly diminished performance. Picture an upside-down bell curve. Many of us have blown past that sweet spot of ideal stress as we continue to berate ourselves and move about the world as if everything is on fire.

To flesh this out more, think of the college kid who has a paper due in 24 hours. That’s acute stress. The threat is finite. The stress of the looming deadline can jolt our previously lazy college kid into action, causing him to churn out a solid B- paper on a topic that he knew very little about prior to realizing that he was in danger of failing his class. This example is more autobiographical than I’d like to admit.

Now imagine if that same college kid had a paper do every 24 hours. That’s chronic stress. There is no end in sight. Then imagine if he had someone barging in his dorm room every 30 minutes yelling at him, telling him how lazy and worthless he is for procrastinating yet again and using scare tactics to motivate him. That’s intense stress. The college kid will develop apathy in the face of this and his physical, emotional and mental well-being, as well as his performance, will begin to naturally decline.

So how do we learn from our mistakes if we don’t use that voice in our head to belittle ourselves? How do we maintain our performance or grow and get stronger if we don’t deny ourselves breaks and rest? How can we ensure that we don’t wait until the night before the paper is due every time if we don’t scold ourselves for our laziness?

We simply use the power of awareness and ask ourselves some simple questions. “In this moment, am I being a Coach Wooden or Bear Bryant?” “Am I kicking myself when I am down or providing an encouraging pat on the back?” “Would I talk this way to a child?”

As the Buddha reportedly said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

If you find that the coach in your mind is kicking you when you are down, then reach out to talk about how therapy can help.

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