What Basketball Coaches Can Teach Us About Inspiring Communication


The language we use matters. So does the delivery of it.


As a basketball fan, I’ve come to realize there is a spectrum of two types of coaches: Catalytic champions and Controlling directors.


Controllers <————————————————————————-> Catalyzers


Controllers need order. They focus on what’s not working. Power, attention, and ego drive their moves.


Catalyzers acknowledge progress. They praise the team, encourage reflection, and champion other people’s ideas.


I remember watching a middle school basketball game and observing the stark contrast of coaching styles. One coach was screaming, pacing, red in the face, and even got a technical foul for yelling at the referee. The team mirrored back the energy of their coach; several players fouled out, the team ran fewer plays, with more players putting themselves (and their layup, their jump shot, etc.) first before the success of the team. At one point the coach yelled, “Take down the shooter!” There was no respect, sportsmanship or civility.


The other coach, however, was calmly encouraging and smiling, while sitting on the bench. His team gave each other more high-fives, smiled more, and executed more plays.


These were middle school students.


His quiet, yet profoundly impactful presence reminded me of a Richard Smith (of Wild Ink) quote, “Whispers are often thunderous.”


I recall a very specific incident when I was teaching. I found myself at a stand-off with a 14 year old student one day.


“Stop talking. Sit down and listen up!” I yelled at the class

“Dang, why are you yelling, Ms. Rosen?” the student asked.

“Because y’all are so loud. I need your attention so we can finish the lesson”

“Why do you look so irritated though? Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed…” she said as other kids snickered.

“We don’t respect you when you yell at us all angry and stuff. You should go watch how Ms. Dixon teaches”


I was trying to control my classroom. I was frustrated and triggered and found myself wondering:

  • Why was I yelling?
  • Did I not sleep enough?
  • Was i projecting my issues onto my kids?
  • Why was I doing all the things I knew not to do?


When I held up the mirror and reflected on the situation, I didn’t like the controller I had become. I had always wanted to be an inspiring, loving teacher. I never wanted to be perceived as angry. I had to humble myself and go see how Ms. Dixon handled her classroom management.


In my experience, at some point, we teachers/leaders/coaches inevitably project our stuff onto teams they support.


We’re imperfect human beings with complex and multifaceted pains, experiences, and struggles. At some point our pain is going to seep out into our communities. How we navigate and work to minimize those moments matters.


Ms. Dixon (as well as numerous, brilliant basketball coaches) taught me that being a calm, catalyzing champion for your team’s success means that you win every game–no matter the score. I made a commitment that day to be a leader who supports, uplifts, and who is a guide on the side for my champions. I hope to always allow my team to discover their unique strengths…without projecting my issues.


The spark acronym helps us remember how to consistently be a catalytic champion:


S– Show up authentically. Share your intentions, values, and hopes in a real way.  Remember to show up as you.

P– Pause and breathe. Distance yourself from your ego and ask “how do I want to be experienced right now?”

a– Ask questions and stay curious. With yourself first, and then others. (ie: why am I triggered right now?”)

R-  Respect diversity. Let the differences on the team harmonize like a good song.

K– Kindly expect tension. Messiness is a part of the game. Control and order don’t drive transformation.


The world needs more catalyzers.


Through intentional habits, decisions, and moves we can move closer to being the leaders we desire to be.


Leave a comment below with the answer to these questions and what they bring up for you as inspiration or motivation to make a change in your own leadership style.

  • Can you think of a time in your life when you taught/led/coached/parented from a place of control / frustration? How did it make you feel?
  • Now, can you think of a time when someone helped you learn and grow with grace?


Rachel Rosen, the founder of S.P.A.R.K. Community and S.P.A.R.K. Leadership, is on a mission to start a global conversation about inclusion, empathy, and racial equity. With a Masters from Stanford, and extensive training in leadership, coaching, team and organizational development, S.P.A.R.K. experiences are grounded in theory and practice–all in service of making the world a better place. With love. For justice. Want to know your SPARK Leadership strengths and growth areas? Check out our self-assessment here

PS- For the next few weeks I have carved out space to support more leaders. If you’d like to talk more about what SPARK being a Catalytic Leader  looks like, it would be my honor to support you. Feel free to book your 20 minute complimentary strategy session here.  

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