The Machiavellian Coach

It’s finally Sunday afternoon. I set up my computer, food and drinks for the rest of the day and lay my butt on the couch to watch the greatest sport ever, football. This has been a custom for me since 10th grade, no matter how much homework I have. About two Sundays ago, I watched the New England Patriots take on the New York Jets. The announcers started discussing the success of one of the most victorious coaches in the history of the game, Bill Belichik. Besides for his tremendous ability to create a successful game plan, Belichik is noteworthy for his ability to handle his players. Every player who has ever played under coach Bill has noted of his incredible ability to get the most out of his players.

Bill Belichek giving his quarterback Tom Brady instructions.
Bill Belichik giving his quarterback Tom Brady instructions.

While I listened to all this on the television, I began to think of all the homework I would have to do at 11 pm that night. I recalled the 23-page article from political science that I had to read. My mind began wandering about the different readings we had, and it hit me right there. Instantly, I made a connection between Machiavelli and Coach Belichik. In The Prince Machiavelli is famous for stating that as a ruler, it is better to be feared then loved. If a king is loved by his people, they will take advantage of him. There must be a reasonable balance, where the king is feared and loved simultaneously. This is an extremely difficult task, but if it is achieved, it’ll lead to an extremely successful reign. Bill Belichik was able to do just that with his New England Patriots

Bill Belichik has achieved this perfect balance. He is able to get the most out of his players by setting high expectations. He demands that all players prepare and work hard to perform at the best of their abilities. He does all this without being hated. The players understand that Bellichik is doing his job and may be a hard-ass at times in order to achieve greatness. There aren’t many coaches who have the ability to achieve such a perfect balance between fear and love. The players start to respect their coach and understand that his methods will only lead to success.

Coach Bill Belichek and the 2004 Super Bowl Champions New England Patriots visit the White House.
Coach Bill Belichik and the 2004 Super Bowl Champions New England Patriots visit the White House.

Nobody questions his tactics; rather they do whatever coach Bill says because they respect him as a coach. As a result, they begin to love their coach while never thinking about disobeying or taking advantage of them. There are a few other coaches that fall under the category of being the perfect ‘Machiavellian coach’ including Tom Coughlin and Gregg Popovich. Both coaches have been coined as being hard noised and tough. However, both have received enormous praise from their players while winning numerous championships. Machiavelli would most likely agree that these three coaches are coaching their teams in the most efficient possible way.

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8 thoughts on “The Machiavellian Coach

  1. I definitely agree that Belicheck’s coaching style has proven effective, at least in his case, but I feel that it is not necessarily the ultimate style of coaching: to be feared rather than loved, particularly at the professional level. You brought up the example of Gregg Popovich as a Machiavellian-like coach, and, by doing so, implied that Popovich is a Belicheck-like coach. I struggle to agree with that statement; from what I’ve seen of both Popovich and Belicheck and from what players say about them, I’m convinced their styles are very different, and as an (former) athlete, I would definitely prefer Popovich’s style. The connections that he has formed with a number of players and the heart he puts into basketball are very different from the Machiavellian Belicheck, who seems to treat his players more like objects. Just my opinion.

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  2. An interesting connection is being drawn here, in that fear of a coach can evolve into love. While I understand how this could come about as the players begin to enjoy the benefits of being coached by such an imposing and demanding figure, I wonder if the love you are describing here can truly be considered love, or if instead the emotion would fall under a completely different category. When Machiavelli discusses the disparity between fear and love, I don’t think he believes that these two feelings can be reconciled necessarily. If a love is originated in fear, I don’t think it can be qualified as love, but instead as an appreciation for the ability of a teacher or coach to draw our greatest potential from us, abilities that we would never have unearthed on our own. Through that, a player may instead develop a love for themselves and their potential, which is closely aligned with a fear of the coach that has turned into a fearful respect. Additionally, there are other coaches in the sporting world who have also tried using fear to evoke the greatest out of their players (the mental picture of Brian Kelly yelling at the Notre Dame players several years back comes to mind), but have not achieved success to anywhere near the same extent. In such a situation, Kelly appears to have tried to employ “Machiavellian” coaching, without finding the same balance of respectful fear and love that you described. It makes me wonder what brings about the distinction between productive fear, and restricting fear, particularly among football players.

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  3. This is a very interesting and true connection in the cases that you present. Belichick does employ this “Machiavellian” style of coaching where he gets the best out of players by being a hard nosed coach. Personally, as a New York Giants fan, watching the two Super Bowls where the Giants and Patriots faced off (and the Giants won), was amazing not only because of the players, but because of the allure between the two coaches. Both coaches give off that tough, rugged personality who will do anything to win, and many times for these men that works. However, not everyone who acts as a feared coach gets the desired result from his players. From the start, many people thought that Tom Coughlin would not be successful in New York because the players did not initially respond well to his criticism and hard nosed personality. Nonetheless, once the desired result of producing a world championship is completed, these coaching styles are endorsed. So while it is better to be feared than loved, it is only when success is yielded that people will respond well to those coaches and leaders.

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  4. I think your blog post is spot on. The connection between these various coaches and Machiavellian is very accurate. As an avid sports fan, I believe that coaches need to be feared so that the players will never settle for anything less than greatness. A counterexample of a Machiavellian coach would be Lovie(his name accurately describes his personality) Smith the former head coach of the Chicago Bears. While the Bears were always a team in the hunt for the playoffs, I don’t think they reached their peak. A lot of this had to do with the coaching style of Lovie Smith. Every single player who has ever played for Lovie Smith has loved him. He always has a smile on his face and is always being positive with his players. Personally, I think this mentality prevented the Chicago Bears from ever reaching a dominant level, and eventually cost Lovie Smith his job. On the other hand, Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick are known throughout sports to be some of the toughest coaches to play for. With that being said, they are well respected by their players and always get the most out of them. Their Machiavellian attitude has a lot to do with their success and has allowed their teams to go down as some of the greatest dynasties in sports history.

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  5. I find this to be a great point. There has been much precedence of coaches with this Machiavellian style (ends justify the means) who have been widely successful. Many professional athletes respond well to the style described above. However, I think there is another essential element that should be factored in here other than just fear or love. I think Belichik might have definitely elicited some fear, and definitely some love, but perhaps more importantly the element of respect. A player who respects his coach will follow him blindly, will have this intense desire to win for his coach now too. A coach who cannot do this will most likely fail in his pursuits to a victory. Take for example Jim Harbaugh, a NFL coach often seen straining to yell at his players on the field. It has become widely apparent that the players and people of San Francisco do not want him there anymore, in fact it is even rumored he will be leaving the city after this season (and hopefully come back to us at Michigan). So I think ultimately an argument can be made against the true success of a Machiavellian coach; the results are split at best.

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  6. This is spot on regarding the way Bill Belichik coaches. I was thinking while reading this blog that it was much like Tom Coughlin until you mentioned that at the end! I will argue however that while this is obviously an extremely effective method of coaching, it is not the only effective method. There are countless examples of coaches who are more friendly with there players who get the job done. Pete Carrol is a perfect example. He is notorious for being a fun-loving coach, almost the opposite of Bill Belichik. And yet he is now the coach of one of the most dominant teams in the league. I believe that this happens with any type of leadership. That while being a Machiavellian leader may be very effective it all depends on the person and there environment. Something also must be said about a balance. If a a leader is too hard on his people, or a coach to hard on his players, they will come to resent him or her and will no longer preform as effectively because of it. That being said i still ultimately agree with your post that one of the most consistently effective ways to coach, is like Bill Belichik, and is characterized by the Machiavellian traits that are shown.

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    1. Although you say in your post that Belichik is able to maintain a perfect balance of being a fun-loving, milder mannered coach and being a hard ass, I would have to disagree. I would argue that being a hard ass and demanding so much of his players at the begging in of his career actually caused his players to despise him until they started winning. However, once his methods started working is when his players started to in fact love him. It is hard to not love a man who brings you glory and success no matter how hard the work is. Thus I don’t think it has anything to do with Belichik being a “players coach or even being nice to his players. Rather, it has to do with success and players obsession with it. Perhaps, if the Patriots had a losing season and Belichik’s methods stopped working the locker room may turn on him.

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  7. Good article with many great points but there is one thing I disagree with. I do not believe a coach should follow the Machiavelli ideals. I believe this because a coach shouldn’t really be hated. If a coach is hated the players will most likely have a negative mindset towards being on the field or being around the coach which will directly affect the outcome of how the players preform. I believe a coach should be feared in a way. Not in a totally scary way but in a way in which you do your best every rep and do your best to remember the plays. When you can have a coach who will be hard on you but will do it in a disciplinary way, you will have a good coach. Just something I have noticed from being an athlete, great job on the article!

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