A punitive coach

People don't like belittling. They don't like cursing. They don't like insults. They don't like "control-freaky" behavior -- like one person telling others they may not speak. They don't like bullying and intimidation.

They especially don't like these things around their children.

Except ...

Many people love all that stuff if it comes from sports coaches.

It's a weird deal. (I've written more than a few times about Pat Conroy, who tells the tale of excessively punitive coaches better than anybody.)

In today's New York Times, Jere Longman profiles Granbury High's Leta Andrews, the winningest high-school coach in the country. A lot of the story is what you'd expect -- the touching stories of developing young people. She sounds like a tremendous leader. Nothing in it is shocking or terrible. She's still loved and respected by the former players interviewed for the story, and many have gone on to greatness probably in no small part because of their high-school coach.

But there is this admiring talk of harsh treatment of high-schoolers. Here's Coach Andrews:

"It was drilled into us. Daddy wanted everything done just right. If I was on the tractor, I had to plow so straight. If I varied at all, I’d have probably got a whipping. I couldn’t deal with anyone who didn’t bleed to death playing. I have a hard time dealing with it now.” ...

So here we have father who whips his children for driving a tractor anything but perfectly straight. I'm very sorry for Coach Andrews that she had to grow up like that.

Exacting is one way to describe it. Another way to describe it is child abuse. I'm sure there is a line between that, and, say the demonic Robert DeNiro character in "This Boy's Life" (PG-13), but it's hard to know precisely where it is. Nevertheless, that kind of parenting is cited as a positive example in how Texas high-school girls are taught, in 2011, to play basketball?

She expected from her teams the exactitude that her father had expected from her. If an opponent tied up one of her players for a jump ball, the entire team had to run 10 wind sprints, said Cerny, the center on the 1990 championship team. If a player missed a free throw in a game, she had to shoot 25 reparation shots when the team returned home, even if it was late at night.

“If you missed the front end of a one and one, that was automatically 50 shots,” Cerny said. ...

“She’s a tough coach,” Jordan said. “She doesn’t let you slack off. Sometimes she makes us cry, but we know it’s for the good.”

I'm not saying those punishments are so bad. Every coach makes players shoot free throws and sprint. That's just basketball practice.

What's weird to me is the conviction -- shared by so many -- that young basketball players need to receive punishments every day, even when they aren't actually doing anything wrong.

Can you imagine if they taught math and science this way? With punishments for almost every student almost every class? With routine tears? With no one but the teacher allowed to speak? There are several reasons they don't. I think the main one is that people find it indecent, and needlessly humiliating. Another one is that it's simply not necessary. We know math can be taught other ways, so this harsh way seems overboard.

The same is true of coaching. There are other ways to go about it. But in sports, for some reason, it's widely accepted.


An e-mail from "The Korean" who runs the blog "Ask A Korean" (which has some PG-13 language):

I am writing because your latest post caught my eyes, especially this passage: "Can you imagine if they taught math and science this way? With punishments for almost every student almost every class? With routine tears? With no one but the teacher allowed to speak?"

This is EXACTLY how math and science are taught in East Asian countries. I emigrated to America when I was 16, after finishing 9th grade in Korea. (I am 30 years old now.) I was astonished to find out just how soft and backward American math and science education was. An average 10th grader at my school was learning math concepts that I finished learning in 6th grade. And the available data bears out my experience -- students from East Asian countries lead the world in math and science, while America comes in near last in the developed world.

My opinion is that tough lessons are accepted for a reason -- they certainly did produce Leta Andrews, whose results speak for themselves.

On a related note -- you may have heard of the "Tiger Mom" phenomenon caused by this article: I happen to write a pretty well-read blog, and I wrote a post defending the Tiger Mom point. I think you will find them relevant and interesting.

My tale is really not about optimal parenting, or even optimal coaching.

It's about inconsistency in what is considered decent and acceptable. Is it okay for a teacher to make kids cry routinely or not? I'm saying that it's odd that sports bring out an appreciation of harshness and punishments that we don't have in other parts of our lives. That hypothetical math teacher would likely be fired. But that real coach is celebrated. My point is: What's the difference? That's a question for all of us.

(Also, if we're talking Tiger Mom, you should read this.)

We can have a debate about American education reform. But that's a bigger conversation, and this is a basketball blog! But I'll go there, for a minute: Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" digs into the achievement gaps between countries in math. As I recall, he argues that the most important difference is the sheer volume of work put into it. (Also, the English language has numbers that are very hard for young kids to learn, so they get to adding and multiplying them later in life.)

Setting limits, and high standards, and putting in lots of work ... my best guess is that those are universally positive things for parents, coaches and teachers to do. There's nothing loving, in my view, about being wishy washy about whether or not your kid is allowed to play in the street. Hard lines, expressed clearly and consistently, are as loving as one can be.

But how best to make young people notice your limits, and respect them? Tricky.

Having talked about this with coaches, I'm also pretty sure that it's not really a case of there being one best way to coach. There are different basketball players, and math students, out there who respond optimally to different kinds of leadership. Those who work the hardest will have the best chances of succeeding. Some will work hardest while being screamed at, others will work hardest with words of encouragement. Others work hardest when no one is looking. Still others require extraordinary patience.

When you are locked into one technique, you are guaranteed to alienate some portion of the kids. In my mind, a truly masterful teacher would have a full symphony of tools. Just banging the same drum ... it'll motivate some kids, but frustrate, intimidate and alienate many others. It's a question of getting the right mix.

It's also a question of decency. Even people with good motivation can cross that line. We may not agree where that line is exactly but I hope we all agree that there is one.


An anonymous e-mail:

As a Korean and a mathematician, I find that "Ask a Korean" guy's comments about the value of forced mathematical education laughable. It is true that this brutal method of education creates a population of people who are better at doing trigonometric integration than any other in the world. However, it is all about memorization of formulas and forsaking further progress in order to repeat things enough times to get everything right on the exam. Hmm, do Coach Andrews' players devote a disproportionately large amount of time to improving skills that will help them avoid punishments when they could become much better by practicing ball fakes?

However, the value of such a skill is pretty much nil in the today's society. FREE algebraic and numerical mathematics software can do that for you.

Often, lay-people mistake calculation for mathematics. We see this stereotype in movies when you see "geniuses" solving long equations on the blackboard. Calculation is but a small subset of the mathematical skill set and perhaps the least important one. Where a human's touch is truly valuable in mathematics is creative problem solving. What passes for creativity in Korean mathematics training is knowing a lot of clever substitution formulas that were proven by non-Koreans.

Some rudimentary cost-benefit analysis is in order here. We have established that the economic benefit of Korean style mathematics training is certainly not overwhelming. In the end, after college training, Korean engineers will be equally effective as American engineers. Korean plumbers will know more math than American plumbers, but does that matter? The costs are many: lasting emotional damage, stunted creativity, opportunity cost of time to pursue other studies more suited to one's aptitudes, the enormous monetary cost of extracurricular math review, etc.

So who exactly benefits other than the snooty parents who want to claim that their lil' Johnny beat your lil' Susie in the last national ranking of test scores? Yes such ridiculous rankings do exist. This brings me back to the value of applying such brutal methods to coaching kids. What did Coach Andrews really teach her players? To work hard or to submit to inhumane treatment at the hands of unreasonable bosses while trembling in fear?

Would the quality of the players' lives have been better had she been tough without imposing irrational punishments? David Brooks' criticism of the "Tiger Mom" also applies here. Coach Andrews was too lazy to be tough in a reasonable way. The outcomes of free throws are probabilistic. It makes no logical sense whatsoever to punish a kid for missing less often than Ray Allen does.