The Accountability Advantage

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XIV

‪"Discipline is the highest form of love. If you really love someone, you have to give them the level of discipline they need." ‬ ‪— Tom Izzo‬


Tom Izzo sent twitter into a frenzy during the first round game against Bradley for yelling at freshman Aaron Henry. Most tweets were along the lines of, “He crossed the line”, “There’s no place for coaches like that in basketball”, “His behavior is unacceptable, unnecessary, and inappropriate”, and “I would never let my kid play for him”.

Before we make any accusations about Tom Izzo verbally abusing his players, let’s examine why he was all over twitter last week.

When Kyle Ahrens went down with a gruesome ankle injury, Coach Izzo was there on the floor comforting him.

As Izzo walked back to the bench, he wiped tears away. Michigan State players took turns exchanging hugs with Ahrens before he was stretchered off the court.

This doesn't seem like a coach who only cares about winning.

The comradery within the culture Tom Izzo has built is undeniable.

He has a reputation of being tough, and that is instilled within every player who comes through his program.

Tom Izzo’s players are loyal, he is unaffected by the “transfer epidemic”, he has a bunch of 4-year players who love and respect him.


So how does a guy who talks to his players so harshly have such loyalty? Our culture seems to be of the belief that if you hold a player accountable like Izzo did, you’re going to hurt their feelings so bad that you should get the paperwork ready because they’re going to transfer.

The only reason why this works for Tom Izzo is because of the relationships he’s built with his players.

Many people believe accountability and criticism should be delivered in moderation, at a low volume, so there’s no conflict and no one gets offended. That can be disingenuous. Avoiding conflict and accountability actually minimizes the depth of a relationship. Accountability steeped in relationship is healthy.

Accountability breeds intimacy.

Accountability breeds comradery.

Accountability breeds toughness.

Accountability breeds trust.

Aaron Henry had a choice. He could either get offended and take it personally, or he could understand why he’s being yelled at and let it light a fire in him to go out and do better next time.

Tom Izzo’s program breeds tough players because he intentionally challenges them. He puts them in difficult situations on purpose because the measure of your toughness is how you respond to adversity.

Tom Izzo’s objective was not to humiliate Aaron Henry, Izzo was trying to challenge him and he wanted Henry to respond. Izzo sighted a series of mental mistakes as his reason for getting on to Henry. In the postgame interview, Izzo gave credit to Aaron Henry because he did respond, he made a couple big buckets and some big free throws.