A Lesson Learned from Frank Martin's Tough Love Leading with Passion from a Place of Love

"Tough Love" and Honesty

South Carolina’s basketball Coach Frank Martin has recently risen in fame and popularity due to South Carolina’s tournament run to the Final Four. His press conference response to people believing his methods are “tough love” has become viral. If you have not watched the short press conference, check it out here:

While I do not think it is necessary for him to scream and yell to be effective as a coach, I deeply admire his perspective. Out of fear of being “too hard” or being disliked by our players and children, some are starting to feel the only acceptable feedback is praise.

Adults are often worried about giving young people self esteem, but you can’t give it— they build self esteem by working hard in life and growing as a person. What Coach Martin is saying is that when we fail to give constructive criticism and feedback, we are failing to love and nurture those that are supposed to be in our care.

"When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a bad place to be.” -Randy Pausch

We need to teach our young people to not only want and seek feedback and criticism, but how to learn from it. Coach Martin is discussing how loving people requires honesty. As a leader we need to give feedback for the benefit of the person, and not as a way to vent our frustration and anger.

There is a fine line between honest CONSTRUCTIVE criticism and honest DESTRUCTIVE criticism.

Constructive is for the benefit of the person you are giving the feedback to and destructive is often for your own benefit.

Intention is important, but you must also consider perception. More and more in youth sports we are perceiving criticism as mean and harsh, when it's purpose is to aid the growth of the player or person.

So does Coach Martin cross the line in his coaching style? I cannot say as I am not a member of that team or around the team, but it appears that Coach Martin has a positive relationship with his players and that they are able to listen and grow from his honest constructive feedback.

Seeking Criticism

As people we need to seek others who love us that will be honest with us.

If we have a growth mindset we do not just seek and thrive on challenges, we seek and thrive on criticism and feedback from those we trust and respect. We know we are not always the best evaluators of ourselves and so we need coaches and mentors to give us constructive criticism. Not just “good job” or “bad job”, but feedback that specifies what we did well and in what areas we need improvement.

Recently I moved to Pennsylvania and I have been trying out new Crossfit gyms and yoga studios. I realized I was spoiled back in Tennessee with a Crossfit coach and a yoga instructor who put in the effort and care to provide constructive feedback. It has been a struggle to find a coach who cares enough to give the time and effort to critique my form or even let me know if I am doing the workout correctly! Do coaches struggle to give individualized feedback out of fear of hurting feelings? Or is it a lack of effort or caring?

During the last five years of teaching I came to realize the best teachers at our school not only worked hard, but they craved positive feedback and constructive criticism. The teachers didn’t feel they were being observed enough or at all. Is this lack of observational feedback due to a fear of intruding on the teacher autonomy that a school values or is this due to a lack of resources?

Discerning Criticism

I think all criticism, regardless of the intention, can be perceived as destructive if we allow it.

One valuable lesson coaching has taught me is how as a leader to discern criticism and praise. Most of us will face criticism more than praise in life! Over time, I improved as a coach at ignoring the criticism that was not warranted and listening to the criticism that might be beneficial. Deciphering between the two is not always an easy task, and some criticisms will cause you to question your own beliefs and methods.

"If you are criticized don’t take it personally. Consider if it is deserved, if so, change, if not recognize it as a problem of the one who criticized. The same holds true for praise: don’t take it personally. If it is deserved, accept it with magnanimity and give credit to the source of all goodness, if it is not, gently educate the person as to why it is not due to you.” -Dr. Bill Thierfelder

The criticism I received in my first few years as a Varsity head coach was vastly different than my last few years. Early on many people observed that I was out of control, focused far to much on the referees, and my energy was so over the top that it became ineffective. When supporters of the team had the honesty to discuss my shortcomings with me, it was not easy to hear. I did not listen very well and even made excuses or justifications for the way I behaved.

Side note: People do not criticize your shortcomings when you are winning and can often view them as strengths. Angry and out of control suddenly becomes passionate. Quiet and unenthusiastic becomes poised. Frank Martin’s coaching methods were highly criticized a few years ago, but after his NCAA Final Four Tournament run, fans love him!

Some criticism I received at the end of my time at Notre Dame was true. I did not always make the best tactical decisions and I was not always the perfect leader. However, I chose to ignore most of the criticism I received due to the fact it was either false or not beneficial to me.

Instead I focused on an inner circle of people I knew cared about me enough to tell me the truth regardless of how hard it might be for me to hear. I had my parents, certain trusted fans, and an athletic director whose opinions I valued. I hired a staff who I valued and constantly looked to them for feedback and criticism. I had a team of players I trusted and I would ask for their feedback and criticism. After a while I didn’t have to ask my players or my assistant coaches. They were going to tell me straight up and that is a GREAT place to be.

You are in a authentic and loving relationship only when people are truthful, transparent, and loving in your conversations.

Over the last Christmas break we had an early morning practice and two of our players showed up late with no excuse and no prior communication. A rarity for this to happen because our players generally viewed practice as a privilege and knew if they failed to meet our standards, they would miss out. The two players were forced to sit out practice, but were expected to participate by cheering, encouraging, and even coaching their fellow teammates. While they were not happy initially that they had to sit out practice, I think by the end of the practice they were enjoying their role as cheerleaders and coaches! They were gently reminded at the end of practice that the team expected them to be on time and communicate any issues.

As I was leaving the school after practice one of the fathers of the young men who sat out stopped me. He erupted in anger and frustration. A lot of honest destructive criticism was being thrown my way. He accused me of being to hard on these teenage boys. I was accused of being blind to how miserable players and parents were of losing. I was criticized for my crazy philosophies on character and team building activities. Needless to say, I was hurt. Here was a parent who lavished praise on me for years, but due to the fact I was hard on his son and we were losing a lot of basketball games, he suddenly had not one nice word to say.

Consider the source. Check the facts. After honest discussions with my players, I was made more aware of their frustrations, but I learned what I already knew. They had not reached a point of desperation or great misery. In fact, at that stage of the season they were more focused and motivated than ever to keep improving. So I moved on.

Giving and Receiving

There are two sides to criticism. If we want to truly learn and grow as a person we will strive to discern and listen to criticism from the outside, regardless of how it is communicated, which can be difficult at times and easy to get defensive. Forming an inner circle of people who we trust and will give us consistent, honest feedback is critical to our personal growth.

When giving criticism and feedback, be authentic by speaking truthfully, clearly, and from a place of love. It is a difficult act to balance, but if the people in the relationship understand they want the best for each other, they will be more likely to listen and speak truthfully.

Congratulations to Frank Martin on not only coaching South Carolina to the school’s first ever Final Four, but for building meaningful relationships with players by coaching them in the best way he knows how to do that...

Loving them.

Let me know me your thoughts: jpnerbun@gmail.com or twitter @jpnerbun

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