Some take the hard-hand, run-suicides-until-you-puke approach. Some give the motivational “Go get ‘em” speech. Some throw you in the fire and force you to fight.
The way sports coaches choose to manage and motivate players differs considerably and has varying degrees of success. How do you get the most out of your players? How do you instill a culture of dedication and hard work? How do you establish the kind of reputation that makes even the most hard-headed, arrogant and temperamental professional sports player trust and respect you enough to follow your lead?
Today, Lou Piniella managed his last game as a Major League Baseball manager. At the end of the year, one of his contemporaries, Bobby Cox, will do the same. This is consequential not only for the direct, near-term effects on the Cubs and the Braves, who will now have to seek replacements for two likely future Hall of Fame managers; the examples they have set will resonate for years to come.
Earlier this year, the sports world lost one of its most legendary and respected figures when John Wooden, who led UCLA to ten NCAA championships, died at the age of 99. Among the thousands of people he touched and inspired is Manny Acta, the current manager for the Cleveland Indians.
“I read just about everything from him… I won two championships… Everything was just following his approach. He preached patience, hard work, and controlling your emotions. I’m a big believer in that.”
Yet Acta struggled in managing the Washington Nationals, perhaps precisely because of this approach, and he was criticized for what was perceived as an overly easygoing managing style. To some degree, this is less reflective of Acta’s managerial flaws and more a result of the particular status of the Nationals’ ball club at the time; apparently what was necessary for the Nats, who were 25-61 halfway through the season, was the invigorating hard hand of Jim Riggleman rather than the sympathetic ear of Acta.
Or maybe the flaw was the failure on Acta’s part to understand the Nats’ needs and adjust. Acta himself admits “Wooden’s approach doesn’t work 100 percent at the big league level. You have to make a lot of adjustments.” Still, Acta believes in the slow-and-steady method. “He did it and it worked for him. I’ve done it. So far it has worked for me and I’m sticking to it.” And despite an encouraging 17-14 start to the season, the Nationals find themselves yet again in last place, 20 games back under Riggleman.
Neither Piniella nor Cox exactly take from Wooden’s book—Cox is the all-time leader in ejections, and Piniella has been described as “irascible,” facetiously called “Sweet Lou” and once ripped first base out and threw it down the right field foul line after being ejected. But both are immensely respected by their players and among the league as passionate, loyal, and fiercely competitive managers. And, oh by the way, they have managed to do pretty well for themselves—Cox is 4th overall in all-time wins and Piniella is 14th.
So what works best? The John Wooden/Manny Acta patient, controlled demeanor? Piniella and Cox’s loyalty-induced temper tantrums? Different teams, different players, different situations call for different styles. But, if all else fails, there’s always Ozzie Guillen’s hot-headed and sometimes culturally insensitive M.O. that, if nothing else, gets media attention and PR.