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Losing the Room: The Coach-Athlete Break-Up

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The main reason cited for Paul MacLean's dismissal was that he basically lost the room. Players felt that they were constantly under the microscope and were tired of it. This article discusses what may have went wrong during MacLean's tenure.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

"I would say there was an uneasiness in our room without a doubt...Some of the better players felt they were singled out a little too often, maybe. That's today's athlete. They want to be corrected, coached, given a chance to play without, I guess, being the centre-point of discussion in a room." - Bryan Murray

As you all probably know, Paul MacLean was relieved of his coaching duties on Monday. It was a change that management and ownership felt needed to happen for the team moving forward. The Jack Adams winner had lost his touch with the players and the players were said to have been voicing their displeasure. In the end, I don't think MacLean is entirely to blame for the Senators struggles, as the team's roster lacks both scoring depth and defensive aptitude. A change, however, needed to be made and it came at the expense of MacLean, who was no longer getting the most from his players. Given that the main reason for his dismissal was that the players were frustrated with him, this article is meant to provide some insight into what may have started happening between the coach and the players.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship

In a study by Culver, Duarte, Cybulski, and Camire (2013) published in the US Olympic Coach E-Magazine, the authors (which I am one of) sought to provide coaches with examples of good and bad coaching behaviours. We collected data from 154 university students, all of whom had been athletes, and asked them to provide experiences of good coaching and bad coaching. In terms of bad coaching, four behaviours were cited that may be applicable to the Ottawa Senators and Paul MacLean: favouritism, limiting opportunities for success, instilling a fear of failure, and communicating poorly. I'm going to discuss each one and how it may relate to MacLean and his players.

Favouritism: Athletes in Culver et al.'s study claimed that coaches shouldn't favour certain players over the others. Essentially, the authors wrote that it is "the responsibility of the coach to ensure that all athletes feel valued. If the coach neglects to do so, it can be detrimental to an athlete’s confidence and motivation to play." I don't know if Paul MacLean picked favourites, but sometimes I felt that he did and if he did, obviously some players may lack motivation to play under him.  Mika Zibanejad, for example, never seemed to be a player favoured by Paul MacLean and I think this may have hurt his development a bit. It will be interesting to see how he responds to Cameron. Other players such as Chris Phillips and David Legwand, however, were given ample opportunity to succeed, even if they weren't the right players to be on the ice in certain situations. I don't think it's a stretch to think that a player like Bobby Ryan might feel a little resentment towards the coach if he's not on the first powerplay unit, but Legwand is, for example.

Limiting Opportunities for Success: Essentially, coaches weren't affording their players' opportunities to get better and perform to their potential. The athletes said that this behaviour also caused them to lack confidence in their skills and to feel that their coach didn't have faith in them. I think we could see this at times throughout the past year and a half.  Indeed, we often questioned why some players seemingly had low ice time (such as Ryan, Hoffman, and Stone, for examples), were placed on strange line combinations (Ryan with Legwand, Zibanejad with no complementary wingers), or were scratched despite solid play (Wiercioch). This could, no doubt, be part of the reason why Wiercioch hasn't been as good. If I played on a team with weak defense and believed I had a solid game only to get told I was going to be in the press-box again, I'd probably start second-guessing myself as well.

Instilling a Fear of Failure: Some of the athletes in the study felt a fear of failing because their coaches would yell at them or humiliate them in front of their peers if they made an error. The pressure placed on the athletes by the coach would cause them to feel stress and essentially choke. Athletes said they felt robbed of their creativity and started to dislike their sport. One of the main critiques against MacLean was that star players felt that they constantly had a target on their backs. Indeed, MacLean was probably making an example of some of the players who he thought needed to step up. While I absolutely agree that players should be held accountable for their actions on the ice, constantly barraging them (if what Murray said is true) eventually takes a toll on the players. Most of the best players on the team are not having as statistically significant seasons as normal. Bobby Ryan isn't scoring, Erik Karlsson's points are down, Clarke MacArthur has been snake bitten, Kyle Turris is struggling. If MacLean was humiliating or yelling at these players every time they made mistakes, my guess would be that they were starting to be afraid of doing something wrong.

Communicating Poorly: The athletes in the study said that coaches would criticize their athletes but not in a constructive manner. Indeed, the athletes said the coach would simply yell at them and humiliate them. Other athletes said that their coaches wouldn't provide them with much direction at all, especially when it came to problem solving. In these cases, coaches would ignore the problem and leave it to the team to work out, which isn't always helpful if it's constant.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that athletes want open communication that's positive with their coach. They want to be able to talk to their coach and help make decisions with them, discuss issues with them, bond with them, and feel supported by them. MacLean said he always had an open-door policy so that his players could come to him and discuss things. Whether the players felt comfortable enough with speaking with MacLean or whether they felt they would be listened to, may have become an issue. Murray stated that part of the reason MacLean had been let go was because of a weak line of communication between the coach and players. He said that as MacLean felt more pressure, he was "not as open to listen and take ideas and go back and forth in the communication part of it. Players today, more than ever, need and want that." If it is true that the players felt they didn't have a voice with the team and that they weren't allowed to be involved in decisions on how to be better, it's understandable why they were frustrated.

Head Games

I, myself, have had bad coaching experiences. In my last year of midget hockey, I was one of the top players on my team and the coach felt it was his duty to make an example of me every game. I was yelled at, embarrassed in front of the group, put down. It didn't matter what I did on the ice, I was never good enough in his eyes. It really began to take a toll on me and I ultimately wanted to quit. Hockey is my favourite thing in the world, but I was ready to let it go. Obviously I'm not a professional athlete and I was younger than the Senators players are (although only about a year younger than Lazar), but I can imagine what it's like being one of the best players on a team and being constantly made an example of even though you're trying. I can see how players may get tired of it and how it may have even started to hurt their confidence.

Yes, these are professional athletes and need structure, discipline, and constructive criticism. I absolutely do not think that athletes should be coddled, but there is a way to correct athletes and help them to improve without letting them forget you're on their side. The Senators are a young team and are learning how to play in this league. Struggles will come and the team will slump, but it's how the coach manages his players in these situations that can make or break a team. Obviously MacLean was no longer getting through and the players were starting to take exception to him, whether his behaviour was intentional or not.

In the NHL, these players are all top-level athletes. What gives players the edge is often their mental state, many Olympians will tell you that. Players with confidence and support will often play over their heads. On the other hand, players lacking confidence and support will often make more mistakes and can even choke. If MacLean was truly losing the room or losing his cool with players, this could be a bigger factor than we might think it is in terms of how it affected the players. As famous basketball coach John Wooden said, "A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment."

References

Culver, D., Duarte, T., Cybulski, S., & Camire, M. (2013). Athletes' accounts of good and bad coaching behaviors: Listen up coaches! United States Olympic Coach E-Magazine, 24(3). Retrieved from http://www.teamusa.org/About-the-USOC/Athlete-Development/Coaching-Education/Coach-E-Magazine

Thank you for reading.