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March 29, 2019
Tom Izzo and Tough Coaching
Last weekend’s opening round of March Madness generated its usual buzz as the NCAA basketball tournament officially got underway. And while there were some of the last-second shots and unexpected outcomes that always make the tournament so popular, the defining moment of the first weekend wasn’t the celebration of a Cinderella upset or the devastation of a blown-up bracket. It was the tirade of an angry coach.

During a timeout midway through the second half of Michigan State’s first-round win over Bradley, Spartan head coach Tom Izzo openly berated freshmen guard Aaron Henry for his lack of effort hustling back on defense. Cameras captured the heated exchange (you can watch it here ), and what followed became a firestorm of controversy around Izzo’s actions and their place in coaching today. A number of people have asked my opinion on what happened and how it aligns with my beliefs as a coach and a parent. So here are a few of my prevailing thoughts…
Was Izzo’s approach out of line?
Coach Izzo definitely has an old-school approach when it comes to challenging his players and holding them accountable, and in this day and age where – let’s be honest – our society is overly sensitive and easily offended, it’s easy to see his style as archaic and unnecessary. There was a time when an outburst like his wouldn’t have made a ripple; today it’s the lead story on SportsCenter. Is coaching like this, from what you might call the margins of his emotions, the only way to challenge players or hold them accountable? Absolutely not. There are plenty of other coaches who demand a high standard without making a scene, but this is Izzo’s style, and it works.

I don’t mean “it works” solely in the sense that his teams are routinely one of the best, toughest, and most connected in the country each year, or that his win-loss record justifies what might seem like borderline behavior. I do mean that if we judged Tom Izzo’s relationships with his players in its entirety – and not just on a ten-second clip that went viral this week – I'm confident we’d find there’s more to his approach.

Yes, Tom Izzo yells and screams harder than most other coaches. But Tom Izzo also loves his team and his players harder than most other coaches, too. He coaches from the margins of those positive emotions, too. What doesn’t make SportsCenter is the daily commitment he’s made to building relationships, investing in his players, and getting to know them on a personal level – who they are, want they want, and what role he plays in helping them get there. He’s spent months, even years showing his players he cares for them and developing the kind of authentic trust that can handle even a heated confrontation on national TV. That’s what works for Tom Izzo. I know he loves his players, not because he’s said it’s true. I know because his players – including those you’ve seen him berating once in a while – have stepped forward to say they know it’s true, too.

But what about those poor players?
So much time was spent this week focusing on the actions of this coach that, in my opinion, the real story got overlooked. The real story wasn't the coach; it was his players. While most of America was busy getting their feelings hurt over Izzo’s tirade, you know what Aaron Henry (the talented freshman Izzo was after), and Cassius Winston (the senior captain who stepped forward and led his team in that challenging moment), and the rest of the Michigan State players were doing? They were busy responding to the challenge like champions.

Experts spent a lot of their time this week debating whether or not this program wins because Tom Izzo gets in players' faces and screams at them when they don’t meet his standard. The answer? Who knows. Maybe that’s it, maybe not. As we’ve said already, there are plenty of other coaches who achieve the same outcome using a different approach. I would contend that the program achieves the success it does because it's made up of players who are tough enough to handle that kind of coaching, who can hear an important message from what is occasionally an irrational messenger, and who understand that their response to tough coaching is what’s most controllable and most important. I'll guarantee you Tom Izzo knows that and loves it about his players.

It seemed like almost everyone felt bad for the Michigan State players except, ironically, for the Michigan State players. When coach yelled at him, Aaron Henry didn’t crumble to pieces, sulk his way through the rest of the game, or quit the team afterwards. You know what he did? He got determined. He went back out there and made some big plays that helped his team win an important game with a lot on the line. When asked about it postgame, Henry said, “It’s nothing new, it’s just responding to it, accepting the coaching, not having a pity party for yourself, just being a basketball player and go respond.” And later, “No abuse was done. Nothing bad was done. It was just coaching,” he said. “That’s what (Izzo) is, that’s his life, that’s his job. Coaching. You can’t be upset how he does it.” Toughness. Resilience. Response. Why does Michigan State basketball win? Because it has a coach like Tom Izzo, maybe. Because it has players like Aaron Henry, definitely.

What’s the takeaway for us?
If you’re working to raise and develop young athletes who plan on playing their game at a high level, there are some challenging truths you’ll have to accept. One is that struggle, hardship, and adversity will be a part of their experience. Their toughness will be tested routinely, in many forms – including maybe even by an angry coach – and the response you’ve helped them develop leading up to those difficult moments will be revealed when their feet hit the fire. It's safe to say that playing the game in a highly competitive environment with a lot on the line isn't for the faint of heart.

Personally, I was not offended by Tom Izzo's actions. I am 100% against bullying or abuse, but I think our victim culture has, in some cases, misdefined or distorted those words to satisfy its agenda. Are there coaches who bully or abuse? Yes. Is Izzo one of them? I don't think so. If you’re offended by Tom Izzo or anyone else’s coaching style, that’s completely up to you. You are in charge of your response, and you are in charge of helping to develop, and therefore determine your child’s response – just like Aaron Henry, and his parents, and each one of the rest of us. It is worth considering where exactly it is you want your young athlete to go and what they'll need to be equipped to handle when they get there. By the way, when asked about his parents’ reaction to the Izzo incident, Henry said, “My parents loved my response. I didn’t show disrespect or fight back. Not that I wanted to...most people would have in this generation. Not me.”

I don’t know much about Aaron Henry’s character or the job his parents did in raising him, but at least in this area – of getting coached, of developing his toughness, and of responding to the challenges and adversity that come with playing at a high level? I’d say they’ve done a pretty impressive job. If we’re serious about raising kids who are prepared to excel in a highly competitive world filled with struggle, hardship, and adversity, may each of us consider the job we’re doing today, too.

*The LENS book devotes an entire chapter to the challenge of developing your child's ability to get coached. If you're working to raise and develop a champion in sports and in life, you can get your copy of the book here .

What’s your take on Tom Izzo’s coaching and his players’ response? Agree or disagree with my take? I’d love to hear from you!


-Travis
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