Hector Amezcua / Bee file, 2012

Jim Harbaugh's style of publicly praising his players is known as positive coaching, say sports psychologists, who see it as part of a movement away from the in-your-face method used by traditional coaches. Hector Amezcua Bee file, 2012

Harbaugh's methods show power of positive coaching

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Friday, Aug. 24, 2012 - 6:32 pm

SANTA CLARA – In the spring of 2004, Eric Bakhtiari was a skinny redshirt freshman from Burlingame who figured he was a pretty good player that would blend into the mix that year on the University of San Diego defense.

That is, until incoming coach Jim Harbaugh pulled him aside one day.

"He told me I wasn't a good player, I was a great player," Bakhtiari said. "I thought someone else was in the room. I didn't think he was talking to me."

The exchange was a seminal moment in Bakhtiari's football career. He completed his four seasons with the Toreros with 34 1/2 sacks and 66 1/2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Six years later, he's reunited with Harbaugh and appears close to landing a spot on the 49ers' 53-man roster.

Bakhtiari is not the only player to be dazzled by a Harbaugh compliment – often a conspicuous public compliment. Last year, Alex Smith received a barrage of praise from Harbaugh, who called him "elite" and said he deserved a spot in the Pro Bowl.

This year, Harbaugh said Michael Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen and insisted that beleaguered rookie A.J. Jenkins would be an outstanding wide receiver.

To sports psychologists, Harbaugh's style is known as positive coaching, and they see it as part of a movement away from the traditional, profane, in-your-face style symbolized by coaches such as Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher.

To players, Harbaugh's rosy, public appraisals build loyalty in their coach and faith in themselves.

"It's positive, and it builds up people's confidence," said offensive lineman Derek Hall, who played for Harbaugh at Stanford. "And it makes you feel tighter with the coaches. He's always preaching that you want to build up your teammates when you're talking with the media – a rising tide lifts all ships."

Smith's experiences with his first two NFL head coaches were very different.

His first, Mike Nolan, publicly questioned Smith's toughness after the quarterback tried to play despite a badly separated shoulder. The second, Mike Singletary, famously and furiously challenged Smith on the sideline during a nationally televised game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I don't want to speak for the other guys, but it's nice to have a coach who isn't going to publicly throw you under the bus," Smith said. "There are a lot of things that happen on the practice field and in games that people don't always see or get credit for. And I love the fact that he let's that be known."

Larry Lauer, a sports psychologist at Michigan State, said that when Pete Carroll became coach of the New York Jets in 1994, he was criticized for his rah-rah style, which observers doubted would be effective in an NFL locker room. That style has become more prevalent.

Lauer said it may be that young people today are more interested in positive feedback than previous generations.

"And they're more attuned to that," said Lauer, who works with high school wrestling coaches. "We like the Harbaugh method at our level."

Rick McGuire, the head of the University of Missouri's sports psychology program, said the positive coaching method is more meaningful than the alternative and ends up having a more enduring effect on athletes. And he said he was glad to see coaches like Harbaugh, Carroll and former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy be successful in the NFL.

"It makes no sense to try to build someone up by cutting them down first," McGuire said. "You can be demanding without being demeaning."

Lauer said he's often asked whether the style ultimately will have an adverse effect, and he said he fields concerns about the "wussification" of the American athlete.

He said the style wouldn't be successful if it weren't backed up with good, old-fashioned coaching as well as behind-the-scenes criticism when it's needed.

And Harbaugh certainly isn't a softy.

He ejected two receivers – Brian Tyms and Kyle Williams – for practice scuffles this month and angrily pulled another, Jenkins, from a formation after the rookie drew a false-start penalty.

Smith also discovered that Harbaugh's high praise doesn't always translate to the business side of the game. Smith took a long time to sign a new contract with the 49ers in March, and before signing it he watched the 49ers court Peyton Manning, his counterpart in Sunday's game against Denver.

Still, he insists there are no hard feelings between him and his coach.

"Anyone that's been around coach Harbaugh for a while realizes – and I think it's a great thing about him – he's going to tell you what he thinks," Smith said. "Good or bad, he is going to give you his honest opinion. As someone who's been around for a long time and been with a lot of coaches, you appreciate a guy telling you the truth and being honest with you even if it's not always what you want to hear."

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