UK Men's Basketball

Coaches like Calipari, Pitino, Huggins must grasp ‘nature of the beast’ to cope with stress of profession

John Calipari: If road fans don't cuss me, I should retire

Kentucky coach John Calipari on the halftime interview with the SEC Network on Tuesday night when Missouri fans were chanting "Cal You Suck!"
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Kentucky coach John Calipari on the halftime interview with the SEC Network on Tuesday night when Missouri fans were chanting "Cal You Suck!"

On Monday, West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins dropped to his knees during a timeout. He was seen rubbing his chest as the teams left the court at halftime. He later told ESPN’s Holly Rowe that his internal defibrillator had given him a shock. (It was implanted after he suffered a heart attack in 2002.)

On Wednesday, a taunt incensed Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, who acted as if he wanted to go into the stands and confront the fan. Of course, you may recall Pitino making an obscene gesture toward a fan as he exited the Rupp Arena court last season.

For Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist at Ohio State, these incidents show men not dealing well with the pressures involved in a high-stress profession.

“If you keep pouring in hot coffee in a coffee cup and you’re not sipping it down, eventually that coffee is going to spill over,” Graef said. “And I think that’s what you see with a lot of these college coaches. They’re taking in all this hot coffee, and they’re not sipping it down. They’re not coping effectively. So then you see the blowups and meltdowns and people with health problems.”

Graef — whose name rhymes with waif — tries to help Ohio State players deal with such stresses as adjusting to college, career choices and the end of romances. He approved of how UK Coach John Calipari welcomed the taunts from Missouri students on Tuesday. To not illicit disfavor from the opposing side meant you weren’t doing a good job, Calipari said.

“That rationalization, that acceptance is a critical factor,” Graef said. “If a coach knows the nature of the beast, then it makes it much easier to lean into the reality and embrace it almost like a friend.”

Calipari also seems to use humor.

“That’s really an effective coping strategy,” Graef said. “There is a lot of mental gymnastics that we do that can change how demanding our demands are. Channeling your inner jokester can very much make a demanding situation less demanding.”

Pets can serve the same purpose. Graef said he had a graduate school professor who was “very adamant about the importance of pet therapy.” Pets, particularly dogs, can help people deal with stress because “it forces you to get out of your head,” Graef said. Incidentally, Calipari has two dogs.

Of course, there’s always the option of ignoring the obnoxious fan. But, generally speaking, coaches cannot do that.

“They’re kind of built to react,” Graef said. Coaches react to adjustments made by the opposing team. They react to calls by the referee.

“They’re also competitive by nature,” Graef added. “They spend a significant amount of time and energy in that profession So you wrap up that much ego and identity in it, if that doesn’t go well, it’s going to (tick) us off. When we’re (ticked) off, we’re going to be much more vulnerable.”

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