By this point, there is little mud left to be flung at Rutgers as the court of public opinion weighs in on now-former Rutgers Men’s Basketball Head Coach Mike Rice’s departure, his subsequent “stamp of approval” by John Lucas for his recovery, and the questions that are being asked about soon-to-be appointed Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann.

This blog is really not about Rutgers though. It is about the complexities of sport and the perceptions and misperceptions thereof. I blogged a couple of months ago about abusive coaching and explained my concerns regarding what was depicted in the Mike Rice case. The scrutiny that incoming AD Hermann is facing based upon allegations from former players that she was abusive brings to light the question of where the line between intense coaching and abuse is. Hopefully, we will be a little closer to understanding that by the end of this piece.

An interesting, though problematic, view of abuse and harassment is that it is in the eye of the recipient. If someone claims that they felt harassed, regardless of the intention of the other party, it may be anointed as such. This emanated from the understandable need to protect those treated unreasonably and to avoid blaming the victim. Does that mean, therefore, that anytime someone states that they are abused, it is undeniably a fact? This would seem confusing considering the fact that false reports, though generally rare, do happen…and they seem to occur most often when there is a potential financial gain or an opportunity for fame and notoriety. Believing an allegation prima facie without due diligence can get particularly dicey.

What does this mean for coaching? When a coach has to make the difficult decisions regarding playing time and roster cuts, is this harassment? Recently a father sued Sterling Regional High School in Camden, NJ for $40 million because his son was kicked off the track team. So, should the valuable lesson that challenges in sports can build character and resilience be replaced by, “Don’t worry, if you get cut, Daddy can sue”? Is that a step in the right moral direction? It is a proliferation of a culture that damages sports and does not assist children become more mature adults. The sports apocalypse is upon us if demanding effort or getting cut from a team makes a coach a bully.

Does this mean that anytime a coach demands an athlete work hard, and pushes them to their mental and physical limits, that this is abusive? I don’t believe this to be the case. Sports are an arena where individuals can be pushed to the upper limits of their greatness…and that takes hard work, and intensity from both the coach and the athlete.

There are coaches that are super-intense and also beloved by their players. There also are coaches that are hated by their players at a given point in time, and over time, the players become increasingly respectful for how the coach got so much out of them. So, watching from afar, it would seem near impossible to determine where that line is. I would venture to guess that many coaches would be accused of being abusive if the public watched every second of every practice and every competition. Some of this is because of a tremendous need for coaching education. Parents seem to forget that many coaches, especially at the youth sport level, are volunteers. Volunteers with little formal training. Further, many coaches (at all levels) coach in a manner that was impacted by how they were coached when they were younger. “Back in the day”, before child welfare calls were on speed-dial and corporal punishment was the discipline of choice (which by the way, I am not implying that those days were necessarily better…but they weren’t worse in all ways either), coaches ruled with a heavier hand. Before there was a 24 hour news cycle and someone in Bangladesh hears about a sport scandal in a corner of New Jersey before allegations are even verified, coaches were less afraid to be harsh.

One could argue, appropriately I might add, that those conditions were (are) more ripe for abuse and exploitation of athletes. I would agree and the vulnerability of athletes is something I am quite vocal about. Yet, simultaneously, coaches have been handcuffed to a degree to provide the structure and discipline that athletes (children, adolescents, and adults) need in order to improve.

There absolutely needs to be oversight by parents and sports administrators to protect athletes from abuse. There is also the view, that many people are reluctant to say out loud, that perhaps the self-esteem movement (the older cousin of the positive psychology movement) has swung too far in the wrong direction. Perhaps, we are not teaching children about resilience and the values of competition, but sheltering them from opportunities in sport that can teach them valuable life lessons.

George Carlin “lectured” quite astutely in one of his last stand-up shows, “that the self-esteem movement was a complete failure. That high self-esteem has not led to the benefits expected and most profoundly has not reduced the incidence of violence because , as it turns out, many people who are extremely aggressive and violent, think very highly of themselves. Imagine that sociopaths have high self-esteem, who would’ve thunk…”, he quipped. Then he extended it to sports, noting that in today’s America, “There Are No Losers, You’re Just the Last Winner” A lot of kids don’t get to hear the truth until they’re in their twenties when their boss tells them to pack up their desk and leave. Now, they have to learn about losing.

This is an important lesson. While parents are helicoptering in their children, entrusting them to the hands of coaches (many of which are stellar and have tremendous impact in providing structure and discipline that parents aren’t), valuable lessons about play and competition are being robbed from children, making them less prepared to handle the rigors of life. A life where it is exceedingly rare that success drops into their lap. A world where you must aggressively pursue your goals if you hope to achieve them. An environment where achieving greatness, being elite, becoming a game-changer, requires, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s review in Outliers, 10,000 hours of practice. There is a risk that our children’s environment, especially in the context of sport (which is an undeniable metaphor for life), is becoming less effective in preparing them for life by making everyone a winner just for showing up. Or not.

How does this map on to the dilemma about abusive coaching? Simply, especially with younger athletes where the goals should be having fun and learning skills – in that order – parents, coaches and sport administrators must have a closer eye on the interactions between coaches and children to intervene whenever a coach’s style can be deleterious to the athletes’ development. Better coaching education requirements need to be the norm. Criminal background checks should be the standard. But, workshops for parents about appropriate participation and interactions with coaches need to be more commonplace. A code of conduct has to be established that provides guidance for the example that parents have to model for their kids. And, except when there is reasonable evidence that abuse may be taking place, parents have to let coaches coach.

The realization that coaches that use name-calling and fear-mongering as a motivational style are less likely to be successful is spreading, but not quickly enough. There are still coaches that believe that this works. There also are coaches who still think exercise should be used for punishment for athletes that are not performing up to standards. Parents and coaches need to continue to evolve into their roles, and accept their full responsibilities for developing a whole person, as well as an athlete.

The other side that I remain concerned about is the possibility that individuals are so spoiled and coddled that they cannot hear feedback, criticism or coaching without it being identified as abuse or maltreatment. To be clear, I am not implying we should turn the blind eye to abuse…absolutely not! However, increasingly there is a trend that people, both young and old, are not receiving honest, direct feedback. Grades in school are inflated at times. Supervision and coaching has to be driven by positive comments, which make it difficult at times to shape behavior. Perhaps we are not teaching children resilience the way they need it; especially when life, not only sports, will knock you down. I wonder if we are losing this message, and our ability to achieve greatness along with it.

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