Big league tips: are you a disciplinarian or a players’ coach?

In the business world, everyone wants to be the boss. The chance to run the show and put one’s own stamp on an organization is enticing. But what happens when it finally happens? What type of boss will you be? Unfortunately, there’s no uniform answer to this complex question.

In professional sports, there are typically two ends of the coaching spectrum: there’s the Disciplinarian and there’s the Players’ Coach. Throughout history, each style has achieved varying degrees of success and failure. Which one is the right approach? Let’s look at the tale of the tape…

The Disciplinarian

The Disciplinarian is considered an old-school style of boss. This authority figure takes no nonsense from anyone, makes his (or her) rules crystal clear and comes down hard when his rules are broken. The idea behind this management style is to operate the team like a well-oiled machine, where everyone plays their role and no excuses are made. Some Disciplinarians take it a step further and believe that you have to rule with fear. This can include raising one’s voice and even taking away player privileges if certain goals aren’t met.

Former National Hockey League head coach Mike Keenan, whose nickname was Iron Mike, is a classic example of a Disciplinarian. Keenan was known as a fiery coach, someone who could erupt at any time; the idea being that you better do what he says or you’ll be sorry. This style paid off for him: he took several pro hockey franchises to the playoffs and won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994.

Despite this enormous success in the NHL, Keenan also moved around a lot, with his employees eventually growing tired of his ‘My way or the highway’ approach. Was it worth it? It’s hard to argue with his body of work.

The Players’ Coach

A Players’ Coach is known for giving his players more latitude, trusting them to police themselves. The idea behind this management style is to create an encouraging environment where players are free to be themselves and excel in the game.

Pete Carroll of the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks is an example of a Players’ Coach. His rah-rah style of encouraging players and letting them express themselves has served him well at both the college and pro ranks. Carroll emphasizes fun and believes that this approach breeds elite-level performance.

While Carroll’s tenure in Seattle has been mostly excellent, he had previous stints as the head coach in New England and New York where his approach didn’t produce desired results. Simply put, a Players’ Coach can succeed provided that he (or she) has the players who are self-disciplined enough to enjoy the leeway that’s given.

The Hybrid

A new boss can’t always follow a blueprint and expect everything to go well.  A successful manager has to adapt to his team and learn along the way.

Take the case of Tom Coughlin, the former head coach of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars. Known early on in his career as a boss with a militant approach, Coughlin eventually adapted.

As the New York Giants players have famously explained, when Coughlin took over their team, he was a Disciplinarian. After disappointing results, Coughlin heeded the advice of players and his own family, and adjusted his coaching style, establishing a hybrid coaching style that was part Disciplinarian and part Players’ Coach. This adjustment in management style led to two Super Bowl victories.

Takeaway message

At its core, being the boss involves devising a plan for success, motivating your team to get the job done and meeting/surpassing objectives. How you choose to go about it is up to you.

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to be someone you’re not when you assume the reigns. Just remember – you became the boss because of who you are and the results that you produced.

So establish your rules, listen to your players and most important of all: trust the instincts that helped you become the boss.


Matthew Ross is a communications and marketing professional, and a sports radio host on TSN 690 Radio Montreal. He has contributed to such outlets as,,, and The Montreal Gazette. You can follow him @MatthewWords on Twitter.

See also:
Should your office have a gambling policy?
Playoffs in the workplace: there’s always room for competition


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