Imagine a job where outsiders write daily performance evaluations read by thousands living near your giant, steel-encased cubicle. You have an office that, during work hours, invites throngs of unqualified guests to sit beside you, question your judgment, even scream that you don't deserve a livelihood. "A stockbroker doesn't have 80,000 people sitting behind him just waiting for a mistake," says Jim Fassel, whom fans serenaded with "Fire Fassel!" chants during his final weeks as head coach of the New York Giants last season. "It can drive you crazy." From head coach to head case in three easy steps.
Few jobs entail such obvious stress as that of a pro coach. And the stakes are higher than ever before. In the free-agent era of millionaire coaches, owners expect improvement overnight: Win now or turn in your whistle. Six NFL headmen were fired at the end of last year. Since the beginning of the 2002-2003 season, 18 NBA coaches have lost their jobs, including six canned since the start of this season. Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan holds the longest tenure of the seven coaches in the NBA's Atlantic Division; he has been on the job for less than 10 months. "These knee-jerk reactions reflect poor decision making from management and don't take the long haul into account," says Miami Heat president Pat Riley, who quit coaching this year after an eight-year run with the Heat burned him out. "God, it doesn't look good for our profession."
At least his profession has company. Stress is spreading across the economy. With more than 2 million jobs lost over the past three years and outsourcing looming, you don't have to be an NBA coach to feel the heat. Every corporate manager with a mortgage and an eye on the next quarter is feeling it too. Yet today's superstressed pro coaches can offer lessons for beleaguered bosses. "Coaching is a rare profession that is very clear-cut, where the results are instantaneous," says Sam Karson, a stress-management expert and former chief psychologist for the Federal Aviation Administration and its frazzled air-traffic controllers. "It's important to know how these guys program themselves to take risks, to confront pressure."
Like many of us, some pro coaches confront pressure by running away from it. Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik, who's in the hot seat despite winning more games in the first half of this season than he did all of last year, does yoga. "Once you generate the relaxation response and the chain of everyday thought is broken, things will just flow," says Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School professor and the president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston. When you relax, relax. Ex--Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers, canned this season after a 1-10 start, says his biggest mistake in Orlando was never turning off the hoops. "I'd approach the tee and wonder if a play could work better if Tracy McGrady moved two feet to the right," says Rivers, an avid golfer. "I have to handle that better next time around."