All-time sport guru and basketball coaching god John Wooden once noted, “Sports don’t build character, they reveal it.” Sometimes what is revealed isn’t pretty--but sports are a reflection of our balanced society, and so when we see the amazing dignity, support, and strength of the bond of a team displayed when Louisville’s guard Kevin Ware suffered a compound fracture in the NCAA Tournament matchup against Duke juxtaposed against the ugliness of now-former Rutgers Men’s Basketball Head Coach Mike Rice’s behavior, it’s a welcome reminder that there is still great stuff that happens in sport if we choose to look for it, and there is also a wide margin for improvement. 

The moment the video of Rice’s coaching practices went viral, a nationwide gasp was released, wondering how such abusive coaching could be tolerated. The fact of the matter is that while Rice’s behavior appears as an aberration, there are too many coaches out there, at all levels, who still believe that fear and intimidation are tools that will lead to athletic success. It is not as simple as saying those coaches have a problem with their anger (though some likely do), but more fundamentally, they believe that their abusive tactics actually work; and there is some history to support that. 

Bob Knight is arguably one of the best college basketball coaches of all time. Master of the motion offense and notorious for running clean programs that steer clear of NCAA sanctions, it is also widely known that Knight had a violent temper that flared from time to time replete with chair throwing and player grabbing. More recently, on the football field Washington State’s Mike Leach has been identified as being abusive. The point that needs to be clear is that intense coaching does not have to equal abuse. And further, one has to wonder how much more successful athletes could be if they were not afraid of making mistakes.

Coaches are, in surprising numbers, poorly educated on coaching, let alone the psychology of coaching. It isn’t their fault…no one is making them learn. Coaches get the reputation of being good coaches more by wins and losses than the way they assist an athlete in developing into the best people they can be; but thankfully, that is improving. In the meantime, coaches have attitudes about respect and authority and try to command these domains in a way to get sport success. Do I believe that abusive coaches want to hurt their players? Maybe in the moment when they are frustrated and feel like their players aren’t following their lead, to learn to be better players. Overall, I think they want to win more than anything else. And that is one of the ironies here. Our society calls for winners and then coaches get rabid in trying to provide that, they lose their way and society is blameless. We, as a society, need to protect our children. Winning matters, but it doesn’t matter more than everything else. And if we see coaches that are abusive, where we don’t support the way they are treating our kids, we need to pull our children out. I understand completely that sports are increasingly competitive and pulling a child from a high-reputation coach can stunt their career, but not doing so, may stunt, if not scar, their personal development. Parents cannot tolerate coaches acting this way and organizations cannot tolerate it. 

As problematic as what happened at Rutgers is, it happens all too often. We need to be mindful of the power that we give coaches (and athletes for that matter) and recognize that, in the wrong hands, that power can do irreparable damage. 

Ironic in a different way is the fact that coaches often don’t understand how to change athletes’ behavior. Reliably, you will hear football coaches order their players to do laps or basketball coaches demand “suicide drills” for poor execution. Running…something that can increase stamina and perseverance, it is used as punishment. You punish the bad behavior by having them sit and watch practice. They don’t get the reinforcement of playing if they don’t do it right. Anything that can make them better, assuming they want to get better, is a reward. I was working with a baseball team where a couple of players were having a mischievous, if not disrespectful, sidebar while the coach was talking. Understandably frustrated, he ordered the three players to go take a half hour of batting practice each. Baffled, I later asked the coach why he did that. Equally confused, he offered, “as punishment”. I then replied, “Then wouldn’t it make more sense to give everyone else extra batting practice and they don’t get it?” Coach smiled and said, “I knew you shrinks were good for something…no one ever explained it to me that way…” 

Coaching is hard work. At the collegiate and pro level especially, winning determines your livelihood. When you don’t reach your goals, becoming frustrated is understandable, and when frustrated, you are more likely to get angry and lash out. I would never ask coaches to not get angry. That would be like asking them to not be human. I would, however, ask them to remember that their players are watching and learning from them. Do you want them to be composed and focused under pressure or do you want them to be furious? High levels of anger interfere with fine motor coordination, decision-making, problem solving, and interpretation of environmental data. These mental skills are necessary for sport success. And, at moderate levels, anger can increase strength, speed, stamina, and decrease the perception of pain. Therefore, anger is very valuable in sports…the right amount of it. We can teach athletes how to adjust their emotional levels and improve their sports performance, but coaches have to model it first. Anger management can help athletes and coaches enhance their performance, but that only matters once coaches change their attitudes about coaching and developing players. If they believe that fear and anger and intimidation are the tools to improve performance, sending them for anger management, to them, is akin to castration. When the attitude changes and their understanding of motivation, teaching and character building becomes forefront, then a whole new world of opportunities can open.

Follow me @MitchAbramsPsyD on Twitter 

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