Don’t Mentor Like Bob Knight

February 10, 2008

On Thursday, just-retired winningest-ever college basketball coach Bob Knight was interviewed on a popular radio sports show. He just quit, in the middle of the season, as coach of Texas Tech’s men’s basketball team, so that his assistant coach son could take over as head coach. Anyway, why he was being interviewed is not relevant here.
The important point is that Knight made some very emphatic remarks that reveal quite a bit about his style of mentoring players. It is a style that sucks. He was as successful as he was despite, and not because of, his mentoring style. Don’t mentor your trainees like Bob Knight.
(Streaming video and analysis are below the fold. The interesting parts start at about five minutes in; if you don’t want to watch I have summarized the relevant bits.)
When asked about his players’ reactions to his quitting in the middle of the season, he replied, “You’d have to ask them”. He said that he hadn’t given it any thought, and figured that the players would take responsibility for their own reactions.
A good mentor doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst, but she does need to be somewhat attuned to the reactions of her trainees to her statements and actions. It’s not good for mentor-trainee communication to be completely unidirectional. Effective mentors need to know what their trainees are perceiving around them, not only in the science, but the mentor-trainee relationship.
When asked about the attitudes of players today, as compared to the good old days, he responded that players today want to be left alone to do their own thing and to have fun. He then said that this is terrible, that doing the hard work it takes to win isn’t fun; only the winning itself is fun.
This is just crazy. The best way to motivate people to put in the tremendous effort necessary to succeed is to make the effort fun. Not only that, but the more fun people are having, the better they are able to focus intently on the task at hand, and the more creative they will be.
He also reminisced longingly for the days back in 1962 when he was a high school coach and got to paddle players in the ass to discipline them. He then stated his belief that society is “lenient” and “condones mediocrity” by not allowing teachers and coaches to beat their students and players.
I think we can safely leave it at that.

5 Responses to “Don’t Mentor Like Bob Knight”

  1. natural cynic Says:

    A somewhat distant memory of listening to Knight:
    During lab down-time in grad school one summer I sat off to the side while distinguished guest Bobby Knight harangued the basketball campers and assistant coaches. After it was over, he asked if there were any questions to the somewhat fearful looking audience. Nobody made a peep and I thought of asking “Does being an asshole make you a better coach?”, but I chickened out.
    He probably would have appreciated the question.


  2. whimple Says:

    He was as successful as he was despite, and not because of, his mentoring style.
    Really? It’s not like his attitude towards his trainees was a big secret, but that didn’t hurt him appreciably in recruiting new talent to play for him. Don’t know anyone big-name successes in science like that? Don’t underestimate the power of the dark side.


  3. He is crazy and I wish people wouldn’t keep encouraging a lunatic like him. I wrote a rant recently that included him.
    If you’re interested please see the post (and comments, too, as I added something there) at
    I’m new to blogging and am not sure of the etiquette—so pardon me if this plug is inappropriate. But I do write science-related articles that may interest you and your readers.


  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    “I’m new to blogging and am not sure of the etiquette—so pardon me if this plug is inappropriate. “
    Entirely appropriate to plug relevant stuff in limited quantity! If one of us likes reading your blog, we may even add you to the Blogroll.


  5. PhysioProf Says:

    I already put Yackety Yak on my blogroll at PhysioProf.


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