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The Emotions of Sports: Anger management

As fiery as coaches can be, they’re also responsible for controlling themselves and their players

Posted: August 1, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 1, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Canyon boys basketball head coach Chad Phillips, left, is as passionate as any coach in any Foothill League sport. But Phillips and the other coaches in the Santa Clarita Valley know that it’s important for them to curtail their anger so that players and fans can do the same.

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It’s the elephant in the living room. Or maybe it’s the vicious, angry bull in the living room.

It’s one of the most important aspects of sports, yet many seem hesitant to talk about it at all.

Anger, frustration, passion. No matter what word you use, it plays a big role in every game, every practice and everyday occurrences in sports.

“You can be you off the field,” says Golden Valley High head football coach Andy Campbell. “You can be kind, you can be cute, you can be cuddly, whatever you want to be. But when you cross that line, you’ve got to have that alter-ego.”

The existence of anger is undeniable. The way anger is dealt with is debatable.

From a coach’s point of view, controlling his or her anger can be just as important as keeping players under control.

“The hard (players) are the ones that get so emotional and so into it, and as a coach, you have to see that and figure out how he can go down that path and make him understand how to control it,” says Valencia baseball head coach Jared Snyder.

In the heat of any athletic competition, emotions are bound to fly from players, coaches, fans and officials alike. Those emotions don’t necessarily need to be negative, though.

“It’s more motivation for us and passion,” says Canyon boys basketball coach Chad Phillips. “I’m not angry at anybody, nor would I want to coach angry, just because that would put a negative reputation on me, my players, the parents.”

Inevitably, it goes too far at times. A coach might argue too much with an official and get ejected from a game. A player might get too physical with an opponent and get suspended.

One of the biggest challenges for coaches is finding that fine line where anger and passion turn into irrational behavior.
“As a coach in games, you want to stay positive,” says Valencia softball coach Donna Lee. “It’s hard because sometimes you want to lose it. But as a coach, you have to just remember, it’s just one game.”

Simply put, Lee says, there is no room for anger in softball. She explains that girls react differently than boys to anger. Girls have a difficult time concentrating when they’re frustrated, whereas boys can channel it into a higher level of performance at times.

As is the case with Valencia High graduate and Boston College-bound basketball player Lonnie Jackson.

“I’m reactive,” Jackson says. “It’s part of my instincts to do that, but anger does play a big role in sports, sometimes in positive ways, and it pushes you.”

Harnessing it is one thing, but it’s still an emotion with potential for danger. Sometimes, the negative portion of anger doesn’t result in a penalty or a slap on the hand. Worse yet, it can lead to health problems, as it did with Phillips earlier in his coaching career.

In recent years, Phillips says he’s toned it down for his own sake.

“Blood pressure has always been an issue for me and the last thing I’d want to do is die of a heart attack coaching,” Phillips says. “I’d rather die of a heart attack playing with my kids.”

A game like basketball is fast-paced and physical, and momentum can change quickly. All three of those ingredients often blend together in a heap of emotional flare-ups.

But that’s not all bad.

In many of his high school games at Valencia, Jackson recalls using his own self-critical frustrations as motivation to play better. Sports psychologists have taught him to redirect his negative emotions into positive results on the court.

Most of the time, he’s able to do it himself.

Like any other player, every once in awhile, he needs help.

“When I’m playing too mad, I’m playing too fast, so I just need to slow down,” Jackson says. “Coaches know when I’m playing too fast and they just tell me to slow down. It’s a mixture of knowing it yourself and other guys knowing it.”

Football is another sport where anger plays an important role given the inherent physicality of the game.

During football practice, Campbell says he intentionally puts players in situations that push the limits of their frustrations. The idea is to let them reach a boiling point so coaches can learn how far the athletes can be pushed.

“It can go from motivation to destruction very fast and you have to be able teach the kids that gray area,” Campbell says. “When you see a kid going toward that destruction, you’ve got to be able to recognize that.”

Lee does something similar with her softball teams. When she sees a player ready to throw her helmet down after striking out in practice, she teaches them to expel the negativity.

“You have to figure out whatever that trick is to get into that frustration and anger mode so that it doesn’t affect their offensive and defensive game,” Lee says.

All the practice in the world can’t completely prepare an athlete for the true feelings that occur within a contest. The players who are most passionate about the sport they play are the ones that must rely on themselves to convert anger and frustration into success.

That’s the ongoing balance in all of sports.

On the surface, the problem is anger. The root of the issue is how much players and coaches care. It’s the constant desire to succeed.

“You should care about every pitch,” Snyder says. “You should care about every play. You should care about every single win or loss.”

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