Abuse dressed-up as motivation is still abuse.
With so many high profile incidents in the media over the last number of weeks shining a much needed light on some of the dysfunction that still runs deep in our sporting culture, one might think the lifespan of abusive coaches these days would be limited. Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be the case. And, furthermore, I would suggest that the reason we seem hesitant to hold these bullies and their archaic motivation styles accountable is that deep down many of us believe that it’s simply a rite-of-passage that somehow “toughens-up” our youth and prepares them for the real world. Honestly, … what a crock!
WHERE TO BEGIN:
If a manger was to walk up to an employee and scream in their face calling them a “f…ing idiot,” there’s a high probability they’d be fired. Then, why do we let coaches do that to our children?
When my book, CHARIOTS AND HORSES came out a few years ago, I was interviewed on Canada AM. Not surprisingly, I shared my experience from Seoul and more importantly what I had learned from that experience and how it had positively affected me as a coach. Interestingly, someone commented on the interview calling my new approach to competition “absurd.” He went on to say, “This fool (me) has come up with a new philosophy to help him process a devastating loss. Competing at this level has one purpose… winning, nothing more. Mr. Dorland, your initial perspective to competition was correct, your subsequent one is wrong. Please stop teaching this ridiculous approach to children. What they really need to learn is that the world can be a harsh place, and that they might one day face disappointments, and in turn how to deal with disappointments and still remain well adjusted.”
When I read comments like this one, I’m reminded of why we’re stuck. Stuck utilizing a bag of tools that is so outdated and ineffective that it’s now begun to rot and poison our youth. The current stats on adolescents in sports tells us that 75% of our children who join organized sports as pre-teens leave by the age of 13 citing abusive coaches who focus on one thing only—winning. The results are that less and less of our children are enjoying their sporting activities and, subsequently, quitting. I suppose we could justify this information like my friend who referred to me as the fool and say that these kids are weak and need toughening up, and probably won’t amount to much anyway in the real world. Or, we could take a hard look at the system and ask ourselves some tough questions. I propose the latter!
There’s a reason why the majority of us can recall moments in our youth where we felt humiliated and shamed by a coach. It’s because those moments get into our psyche and stay there—forever! If we’re lucky, we can bury them in the hopes that they won’t resurface too often and cause us more anguish. However, if we aren’t lucky, they will begin to form the foundation of who we think we actually are. When we’re told that we’re a “f…ing loser” often enough, not surprisingly for most, we start to believe it.
When I speak with parents about the abusive coaching styles that many times result in long-term emotional and mental impairment for their children, they not only seem reluctant to speak out against their children’s coaches but rather somehow rationalize the behaviour with, “Well, our coaches were like that and we survived.” Believe me, I understand that, and I will admit that often I’ve thought the same. However, believing that is to say that just because our parents used to have a night-cap before driving home from a friend’s house makes it okay to continue that ritual today. Knowing something is inherently wrong and not doing anything about it only enables these entitled coaches.
We coach how we were coached. I understand that. But, today—in most cases, we know better. Forget about the fact that fear-based motivation is THE lowest form of motivation that we as humans respond to. Let’s not even consider that screaming at athletes, riddling them with insults and shaming them in front of their peers is THE most limited methodology when it comes to attaining high-performance. Forget about the science of that. Let’s instead talk about the fact that most of these abusive coaches are paid—in some cases good money! Yes, someone hired them to work with young people in various disciplines of sports and they get paid to do that. Which means, that the leadership of these coaches is okay with their tactics and resulting abuse.
It reeks of the expression—The ends justify the means! Which is to say that some Principals or Head of Schools are okay with these coaches because a few of them bring a limited amount of attention to their respective schools in the form of championships won. I won’t argue that fear-based motivation can work, but surely we can agree that the price of our children’s mental health is not worth the limited and short-term gains we see published on some school’s web-sites.
When I was young, there’s no way we would even consider standing up to a coach or telling another adult about a coaching incident that frightened us. It was unheard of, and the coaches at the time knew it. Thankfully, this current generation of teens does not appear to be ruled by fear and are standing up more and more to incidents of abuse. Now, it’s our job as adults to support them!
When your young child doesn’t want to go to practice or comes home from a game expressing indifference about his or her experience, it’s time to start asking some questions. Did you not enjoy the game? How come? How did your coach feel about the game? What did he or she say? Did they say anything about your contribution to the team? How did that make you feel? These are some basic questions to get the dialogue started and keep it going. It’s our responsibility to hold coaches accountable for how they treat our children.
The moment a coach screams at his or her athlete, the game has ceased to be about that athlete.
It is imperative that as parents we ensure that our children’s coaches make decisions based on what’s best for the athletes—not what the coach thinks is best for them. If at anytime you think that your child’s coach is competing through his or her team—it’s time to find another coach!
Watch for coaches who punish athletes with more training or harder and more intensive exercise. That approach shows that they buy into an antiquated methodology that probably indicates they believe in other old-school tactics that don’t serve your children as athletes or people—move on! Attend a practice and listen to the language of the coach—if it makes you uncomfortable, trust that feeling.
As parents and adults, our children are counting on us to support them and ensure that their experience on sporting teams is a positive one that contributes to a lifetime of enjoyable activity. When our children know that we have their back, it empowers them to be strong and stand up for what’s right in the world—a life skill far beyond sport. A skill that will allow them to not only survive the “cruel world” but more importantly, question it and hopefully change it for the better!
Jason and Robyn are High-Perfomance Coaches who believe one of the most undervalued and underutilized components of reaching our goals is the mental and emotional areas of our lives. With your commitment, Jason and Robyn can help you make a positive difference in how you approach your life’s dreams and goals. Guaranteed! To find out how—contact them today!
Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you Jason!
You bet, Vicki! It’s time to get this sort of behaviour out in the open and put an end to this blatant bullying!
Excellent commentary, Jason. Absolutely on the mark. Fear and shame based motivation never really works. As a former professional athlete, I’m aware of the destructive consequences of negative motivation has on individuals.
Thanks, David—figured this would resonate with you!
Excellent piece, Jason!
Saw this the other day… “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” If true, and I believe it so, it speaks to some very unhealthy cultures that exist within our education system.
Love this piece. You have some great insights, Jason. And I posted your great article on athlete transition. The sport centres are working hard to implement something they are calling “Game Plan”, to help introduce the idea of building in long-term educational, vocational and life transition strategies into the 4-year quadrennial in Olympic/Paralympic programming. It’s a start. Thanks again — keep writing your common-sense and thought-provoking pieces. Shaunna Taylor, Canadian Sport Psychology Association
Great to hear, Shaunna. Appreciate the note, and keep up the good work—it’s so important. I know you get that!
Great piece! Just last week my child was pinched by their coach! I was livid and when I brought it up to the board, some of the members felt that the behavior was needed! I disagree and will now work with the board to establish a code of conduct for coaches and a touch policy!
Invariably, people coach the way they were coached. Be patient and lead them, try not push them, to see it your way. Which is, by the way, how I see it! Good luck.