Coaches are teachers, motivators, amateur sport psychologists, and parental figures. A great coach can teach life lessons that go on well beyond the playing field, while a bad coach can make a young athlete hate sports and quit playing altogether. I was like many young athletes, figuring that the leap from a high school level to the collegiate level would mean not only higher competition, but better coaching, and wow, was I wrong about that. A recent Sports Illustrated article details some disturbing stats about how collegiate athletes are treated by their coaches. (This podcast echos the article and is worth the listen). In one study cited in the article:
“39% of women’s basketball players strongly agreed that “my head coach can be trusted.” 61% of these athletes do not trust the person who is suposed to be their biggest ally and advocate? The article also goes on to say:
“Even more alarming, athletes have never been more psychologically vulnerable, reflecting a trend among all college students. The ACHA assessment found that 41% of athletes had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” and 52% had “felt overwhelming anxiety,” with the figures for women jumping to 45% and 59%, respectively. Further, 14% of athletes said they had “seriously considered suicide,” with 6% having attempted it.”
A similar article was written 5 years ago, but it doesn’t seem like much has changed, despite the assertion that: “That shift has forced coaches to adjust. Abuse simply won’t be tolerated.” But it still happens. Within those 5 years we’ve seen Illinois football coach fired, video of Rutgers basketball coach throwing balls at a player while berating him, Florida football coach Jim McElwain curse out a player on national tv, and a high school football coach order his players to assault a referee during a game.
What is going on here? Have times changed? Are the athletes of today simply a product of the self-esteem generation, where everyone gets a trophy and helicopter parents control their lives? I think there may be some truth to that, but it’s on a case by case basis. In the Jim McElwain case, he apologized and publicly stated that his 94-year old mother admonished him on the phone, while the player on the receiving end of the outburst, Kelvin Taylor, said: “I understand exactly what Coach Mac was doing,” Taylor said this week. “He was just in the moment. He was fed up. He’s just trying to discipline us. That’s what the whole team needed. That’s going to make the team better.”
But many other cases are very real, and coaches take the negative motivational tactics too far. College coaches are playing for their jobs, and under tons of stress. Many of them are simply coaching the way they were coached back in their day as athletes. And some are just power hungry people who like to use their position to intimidate and get their way. In consulting with athletes over the years, I’ve had multiple collegiate female athletes tell me their coach called them “fat” in a very derogatory manner, in a pathetic attempt to motivate them – how they think this is going to be effective, I’m not sure. I have had more youth athletes than I care to count come into my office where the coaching or the overall team environment is so bad that they don’t even want to go to practice. The very activity that is supposed to be an escape from the stressors of life, where you can lose yourself in the moment, work out and be physically healthy, bond with teammates, and learn valuable life lessons, can become stressful and overwhelming obligations.
So, what can be done about these abusive coaches? There is a fine line between tough love coaching and abuse. And whereas in the past, that line was determined by the coach, more recently that line is being defined by the athletes, for better or worse. While there can be some debate about what is abuse, there is no debate that things need to get better. No matter what position you are in, there is a role for you to enact change. SPINw can help your school or program make sure that coaching abuse doesn’t happen for your athletes. Here are some ideas:
Athletic Directors – ADs and administrators can help by making sure their program has a clearly defined culture, complete with a Vision Statement, Mission Statement, and Core Values. Provide continuing education for coaches a couple times a year – after all, the best coaches are striving to learn, grow and improve, just like they expect their players to. Finally, consider having a sport psychology consultant or mental game coach on staff, or at the very least develop a relationship so that your athletes have access to this service.
Coaches – Follow your program’s aforementioned Vision, Mission, and Core Values – that is the “process” to follow in order to achieve the results you want. When the goal is winning, you can motivate your players just as well through positive tactics as negative ones. Set clearly defined goals, standards and expectations for your players, and include rewards/punishments for adhering to them or not. And finally, communicate, communicate, communicate with your athletes!
Parents – As your athletes grow, make sure to empower them in their relationships with their coaches. Don’t jump in and save them at any sign of trouble, but be there to support and problem-solve. There are sure to be ups and downs in sports, and the best parents help their kids to understand that they aren’t entitled to much in life, and earning something is the best way to build confidence, character, and self-esteem. As athletes begin to get older, it’s also fair to let them know that the potential exists for overbearing coaches, but they have some control over the situation. Finally, consider having your athlete work with a sport psychology consultant to bolster their mental game.
Athletes – Athletes can work on recognizing the difference between tough love coaching, criticism, and negativity vs. out right abuse. In working with athletes I teach them to listen from a different perspective, to be able to handle criticism to help make changes and improve performance, not to take everything personally. For example, a young athlete may feel like the coach is singling them out for negative attention. But on further examination, that coach treats most athletes the same way, that’s just his or her style, which they have been doing for years. In this case, the coach isn’t going to change, but how you choose to listen and take the information is in your control, and therefore changeable.
Interested in having an athlete work with a sport psychology professional?
The mental game is just as important to success as the tactical, technical and physical elements. But ask most athletes and they will tell you they put the least amount of work into the confidence, focus, and emotional control. To work on technique, put in extra time with a coach or supplement training with private lessons. For tactics, you can read books, watch game film, and ask coaches. Physically athletes can train with a strength and conditioning coach or see a nutritionist. But how do athletes, coaches and teams go about deliberately improving the mental game? That’s where sport psychology comes in. It’s not just a reactive measure for athletes who are struggling, either. See the spectrum below.