Blog: Coaching by Fear

By John Kessel | April 25, 2012, 11 a.m. (ET)

There is a famous segment in one of my favorite movies of all time – Monty Python and the Holy Grail – where the “team” of knights, led by Coach, I mean, King Arthur encounter a little white rabbit. They had been expecting a horrible beast by all accounts, and yet all they saw was this cute bunny. They gained confidence for a moment, only to be ravaged in seconds by a vicious, throat tearing flying terror – the rabbit – and then the team responded…RUN AWAY!......

Flight or fight is our primal response to fear. Coaches who use fear as a tool, must be thinking their players will fight, when they say things around the concept of “Do _______ one more time, and I will put you right on the bench…” They are forgetting to coach for people, and begin to coach for points. Most importantly to understand, a coach who does this, loses the trust of his or her players. This loss of trust is a far bigger problem than the loss of a game. The ever-wise Dr. Paul Arrington, whose niece is the US Olympic Committee’s Director of Ethics and Safe Sport, has addressed one example of this well heard on too many fields of play, in a very solid paper called “Yelling: Is It of Value in Coaching Volleyball.” He covers the physiologic responses, training methods, optimal arousal states, effective communication and much more. If you would like a copy, email me at and I will be glad to send you Paul’s paper.

Remember coach (and parents), you are a TEACHER first. Teachers build confidence in their students, and are a central part of building trust within the students. Studying (aka practice) success is then met with testing (aka matches and tournaments), and there will always be regression under stress. Do not ADD to your player’s stress in competition – for the competition will do enough of that for you. Your players need to trust that you are there for them in this contest, not against them. We coaches have it even better than teachers, for, during the test, we can provide help. Choosing to provide more fear by your words (aka threats) is simply not a principle of good teaching. Losing the match, in front of teammates, parents and fans, is provides plenty of “fear” and stress. They need you to believe in them, not doubt them, for if they are losing, they are likely already doubting themselves.

Help your team have a holy hand grenade of confidence, by never resorting to using fear in teaching. Each game has six opponents who have been hoping to put fear into their adversaries, from the very first hits of the “warm up display…” Your team does not need another opponent to be sitting on their own team bench, ready to leap at their throats when an error in judgment or timing happens on the court – they need another leader of character building, who says in both body posture and soul – “Never, never, never, never give up” as someone else from England once said, by the name of Winston Churchill… whose counterpart from the USA said in that same period of World War – “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…” There was no need to fear these leaders – for they clearly were on the side of their own countrymen, fighting against fear, not using fear to “lead.”

The process of becoming the best you can be, is a journey fraught with failing. Indeed, one of the uniqueness of the sport of volleyball, is that every point, is in no small way a “fail” of one or the other team. Since every rally now results in a point, that is a lot of little moments to fail…. But perhaps one of the most important jobs of a coach occurs in each of these moments your team fails….letting your team know that is ok to fail….but you and the staff – even if your team “staff” is just you – will NEVER let them be a failure.

A Russian coaching friend for many decades, Yuri Tshesnokov, who I had the pleasure of working with over the years we worked together on the FIVB Technical and Coaches Commission, was asked by our USA coach Bill Neville, how many Olympic level players do you have in the Soviet Union. He estimated about 1,000. Bill followed up with, so how do you pick your top 12? To which Yuri responded – resilience. He felt that perhaps the most important “skill” is the ability to deal with the fact that basically every point scored against you, was happening due to an error – and that those dealt best with this never ending roller coaster, river rapids like ride of a game as it ebbs and flows and grows point by point with errors - were who he wanted on the team.

A recent and WONDERFUL talk on by the head of DARPA is a personal must view. She makes clear that she is not encouraging failure, but discouraging fear of failure.. The TED site intros it with… What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" asks Regina Dugan, then director of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In this breathtaking talk she describes some of the extraordinary projects -- a robotic hummingbird, a prosthetic arm controlled by thought, and, well, the internet -- that her agency has created by not worrying that they might fail.” In it she quotes Georges Clemenceau - “Life gets interesting when we fail, because it is a sign we have surpassed ourselves….” THAT is such a great quote…

Sure, you can use fear, including punishment, to “teach,” – but as I noted in my recent blog on “Coaching the Human Animal” it does not result in greatness or a desire to pursue deliberate practice. You know there bear, if you miss that trick one more time, I will have to put you in your cage for a day…Yeah THAT gets results. NOT.

Time to take a proud dad moment too, to give a shout out to the Princeton Tigers and especially my son, Cody, the group that helped me write perhaps my most popular blog "What Can a Player Control." Tomorrow nite head coach Sam Shweisky leads his three freshmen and five underclassmen starters to play the vererable Penn State, coached by an old friend and wonderful coach, Mark Pavlik, in the EIVA playoffs - one of these teams is just two wins away from making the NCAA Final Four next weekend.

Cody was just named newcomer of the year for the league and to the league first time, as he is leading the league in points per set and kills per set, and 6th ranked in the nation in kills per set - most of any freshmen. Cody grew up never being coached by fear....but the press release alerting me to his awards had a name that brought some tears to my eyes - "Uvaldo Acosta." To see they have named the EIVA player of the year (fittingly given this year to the great Joe Sunder) in UV's honor, brought such a rush of memories. I played against UV in USAV adult tourneys when he was a joyful high school player from ElPasoTX/Juarez, and supported him thru his career from player to coach, and still miss him greatly. That he died in the heavy surf off of a Hawaiian beach attempt to save one of his George Mason players shows the team player he was till the very end. I see the same joy to play this game in my son's play on the court, that UV exhibited all the way through his USA National Team practices and playing career. No fear, just joy. We all must ensure we give our players this passion to fight, and not for flight from what is ahead.

It seems fitting to end with the lessons from another great movie – the Wizard of Oz. The venerable Terry Pettit wisely notes about this classic ““The question is not whether or not the monkeys will come. The monkeys always come. The question is whether or not your team committed to behaviors that give them the best chance to be successful.” Just take some time to reflect on the final lessons learned by Dorothy, the scarecrow, tin man and the “cowardly lion,” from none other than the “all powerful wizard.” How did the witch rule her charges, AND the Wizard of Oz, before he was discovered behind his curtain? There may be no place like home court, but it is our duty as wizards of our playing area, to instill our athletes to PLAY smart, PLAY with heart, and PLAY courage, founded on a JOY to compete – not one of fear of failure or losing. This is not to be feared, but to be rejoiced. It is done by being a true team leader - not through fear - but by leading our players to believe in themselves, by believing in them. ESPECIALLY when the monkeys are flying around....

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.


On April 25, 2012 Peter wrote

Great piece, John! Enjoyed the read.

On April 25, 2012 Andy wrote

one of your best and hit home to the recent situations.

On April 25, 2012 Julie wrote

Had to chime in here. I'm a health behavior person by profession, and a volleyball coach wife by.....choice (?). But seriously, I've been reading your blog for the past several days because my husband mentioned it and I was curious. I have to say, as a behavior theory person, that you are spot on. Why? Because people who are afraid and have no perceived ability to do anything to rectify the situation do NOT get motivated to do better -- they get motivated to run away and hide (they don't have the Holy Hand Grenade -- what an image!). For those of you who actually like reading academic articles, here's the one to look at: Kim Witte's Extended Parallel Process Model:

On April 29, 2012 John Kessel wrote

Julie - Thanks for the research addition to this... and for all who are working to be the best head coach/boss they can be, just found these INC tips which also note that the best do NOT use fear - good thoughts from this read. Thanks for the comments and kind words in emails and in these blogs, and for those who are tired of reading about Cody, the season ended, he was named all tourney, and I will stop being a proud dad Here is that good read...

On May 02, 2012 Scott Golden wrote

John - Love your articles and love using them to help guide my athletes to become better people and players. Thanks for putting in the time to create another great piece.

On May 07, 2012 Julie wrote

I wish you could send this to my daughters coach. It is very sad to see a young athlete pushed out of a sport due to harmful statements and mistreatment. My daughetr fell in love with volleyball at her fist tournament at age 12(4yearsago) and has worked dligently when noone is looking at getting better on and off the court. She has grown immensly and made arguably one of the best select teams in our region , only to be diminished to leaving the sport altogether due to this typeof coaching, from a great technical coach. This type of fear factor coaching and underhnded politics should not be allowed to influence our children. I am a former Olympian and have had the pleasure of failing many many times, and feel I should have made the call early on, but have always believed in following through with commitments. In this case, maybe not. Is there a point when quitiing due to this type of treatment is ok? Just curious.

On May 08, 2012 John Kessel wrote

Julie - In my own experience, I supported my son leaving two sports - and my daughter one - based on the poor teaching skills of the "coach." In one case, football, my son never played again, but in the other two cases, they returned the next season to the sports - with new and better skilled teachers. I also found that by getting my kids to coach others, younger or less skilled than themselves, it made them stronger players and even more in love with the game. I guess it is my hope that by giving the athlete a true love of the sport, they can make it thru a year of bad teaching, or in my kids' cases, an interruption to the training. For your daughter, I would simply do a few things 1. Get her to play doubles. 2. Make sure she knows the adult "teaching" is wrong. 3. Come up with other ways to make the game fun - getting on a coed team, playing Mother Daughter as a doubles team this summer, teaching little kids the game, stuff like that. If you read my two "key" blogs "Primum non Noncore" and "Never be a Child's Last Coach You will see more about what I believe to be important in this impactual area called "coaching" in a sport. I also would suggest a recent TED talk for your daughter, and you, about perspective and reframing. I sure hope she stays in volleyball, if she still loves the GAME, and does not let such a coach steal that love... "The circumstances of our lives actually matter less to our happiness than the sense of control we feel over our lives." - Rory Sutherland Let me know if we can help in any other way.

On May 18, 2012 John Kessel wrote

Chuck Rey, whose blog is always worth the visit, shared this great Harvard Biz Review today, on the real leaders who are "boring..."

On July 05, 2012 John Kessel wrote

army stops yelling and starts teaching too...

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