Machiavelli on Ice

When I saw that North Quad was screening Miracle as a part of the Sports at the University semester, I had to go see it. I have loved that movie since I first saw it years ago as a kid. Even if the story happened before I was born, the message is immortal. It communicates inspiration, teamwork, cooperation, hard work, and more. Before the movie began, Professor John Bacon spoke about his experience with Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 Olympic hockey team. He told the audience that one thing that made Brooks such an effective coach was the fact that he was a psychology major. This lead me to think about the qualities of an effective leader in a high stakes competition. 

The 1980 US Men's Olympic Ice Hockey team celebrating their victory.

The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey team celebrating their victory.

In a previous blog post, I connected Machiavelli’s principles to my experience in the marching band. The situation is different here because we are dealing with a leader of an Olympic team representing the United States. In the movie, the coach tells the players early on that he is not there to be their friend. He was not interested in making them feel good but in making a solid team. Brooks did not care about the players hating him if he got the results he wanted. If they were looking for a friend, he told them to go to the assistant coach. I wondered what Machiavelli would think about this style of leadership and if it could be applied to the coaching team instead of a single leader. Machiavelli says that leaders should “avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible”. Brooks did not mind being hated. However, he had a balance of clemency with his assistant coach being a friend to the players. I think that this may have evened it out. I feel that Machiavelli’s principles applied to the two coaches rather than a single leader balanced and that he would approve of their leadership. One is harsh and hated more than Machiavelli advises and the other is loved and friendlier more than he advises. Between the two of them, though, is a mixture of a coaching pair that demands respect and results but also looks out for the wellbeing of the individual players.

In this scene, the coach makes the players run an agonizing drill over and over for hours right after a game that they did not take seriously. The lights in the arena turned off and he kept pushing them. The players couldn’t stand and he continued to run the drill. This goes against what Machiavelli would support, in my opinion. However, Brooks was always telling his assistant coach that he knew how far to push them. He knew the psychology of the team and he seemed to have an idea of what he was doing and how to get the players to do what he wanted.

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Sam Mikulak, U of M student and gymnast for Team USA

I attended a seminar on Positive Psychology and Sport to go along with the Miracle showing. Sam Mikulak, U of M student and Olympic gymnast, talked about his experiences in working towards the Olympics. He is intrinsically motivated and discussed how crucial it was for him to have positive outside influences. With a coach like Herb Brooks, he might have turned against the sport that he loves so much. He did not need other people disciplining him or tearing him down to push him. He needed people to believe in him and think that he could make the Olympic team.

It is harder for Machiavelli’s principles to be applied to this situation. Gymnastics is a largely solitary sport. There are coaches but they are not pushing to make a team work together but to better individuals. However, we can consider a more broad and less drastic application of Machiavelli’s principles. Mikulak needed the outside source to support him because the harsh discipline was internal. A year before the qualification rounds for the USA Olympic team, Mikulak had a bad landing and broke both his ankles. He knew he had to keep training but he was severely limited. He pushed himself through rehab and continued training to be stronger and better, concentrating on other aspects of gymnastics that did not require his ankles. After going through strong emotions knowing that he was at a severe disadvantage, he was his own harsh leader in training to be sure he was in shape for the qualification rounds. In order to keep the balance so that he didn’t begin to resent gymnastics, he needed outside sources to be hopeful and positive. His outside influences would cover the ‘clemency’ portion of Machiavelli’s principles. Mikulak needed the balance so he did not become too lax in his training and so he did not become overwhelmed with negative pressure.

Theatrical release poster for the movie Miracle

Theatrical release poster for the movie Miracle

Even if it is on a general level, it is interesting to see how Machiavelli’s ideas can be applied to various situations and people. Whether it is a coach for an Olympic team or an individual member representing Team USA, Machiavelli’s principles continue to be relevant. Herb Brooks was a harsh leader, but he led his team to the gold medal in 1980. Sam Mikulak is a hard worker who needed positive support to lead him to being a member of the US Olympic Team. Even with drastically different mindsets, they are connected. And if you haven’t seen the movie Miracle, go watch it.

2 thoughts on “Machiavelli on Ice

  1. Your post is a very good example of Machievelli’s prince. I agree with the connections you made between coaches and princes. I also think its interesting that you saw that individuals could also be coaches to themselves (through discipline) and that they may need others to help them out. I never considered the fact that individuals could be their own coach/prince before this. Overall, I think you conveyed one of Machievelli’s core principles (hate vs fear) very well.

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  2. I liked that you were able to relate Machiavelli and his beliefs to coach Herb Brooks from the movie Miracle. I think it is very interesting that you said the combination of Brooks and the assistant coach created a Machiavellian leader. However, I would argue that Brooks was not hated, especially not more Machiavelli advises. Coach Brooks may have been harsh on the team, but in the end he was loved by the team and all of his decisions were supported. He was looking out for the best interest of the team and the country, and I think the all of the players realized that. I agree that Coach Brooks did things that the team did not like, which Machiavelli would support, especially since it was the best option. However, I do not think that Coach Brooks was hated, just disagreeable at times.

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