December 15, 2009
Aggressive coaching is a growing problem, but how much is too much?
By DAVE HELLING and DIANE STAFFORD
Anyone who’s ever coached a young athlete recognizes the feeling — when pride and admiration turns to frustration or impatience when a shot is missed or a ball is dropped. Countless times each year, coaches from kindergarten to college are able to turn those feelings into teachable moments and encouragement, approaches that almost always lead to better player or team performance. But sometimes a darker side emerges: A player is yelled at, severely punished, even physically abused.
It’s not clear what happened a few weeks ago with University of Kansas head football coach Mark Mangino. An investigation is under way following complaints by players and parents. Yet the problem of overly aggressive youth coaching is growing in America. Indeed, three out of four young players quit organized sports before the age of 13, according to one survey, blaming overly aggressive coaching more than any other reason. “The win-at-all-costs mentality that’s filtered down from professional sports has colored youth sports,” said Jim Thompson, founder of a California-based organization called the Positive Coaching Alliance, which counsels coaches at the high school level and below. “Youth coaches are imagining in their heads that they’re an NBA coach or an NFL coach.”
A survey by the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance gave youth coaching a C- grade in 2005, calling the lack of focus on effort, skill development, positive reinforcement and fun “unacceptable.” “Youth sports has lost its child-centered focus, meaning less emphasis on the child’s experience and more emphasis on adult-centered motives, such as winning,” the group concluded. Of course, the use of what might politely be called intense verbal encouragement has long been a part of organized athletics. Most men or women who’ve ever played a game can tell stories of a coach who raised his or her voice in an effort to improve concentration and execution on the field or court. But a growing body of study suggests the in-your-face approach to coaching can be counterproductive for some players.
“If you’re going to jump on a kid and berate them verbally, they’re going to shut you off,” said Tim Grunhard, an NFL veteran now coaching at Bishop Miege High School. “That’s something as a coach you have to adapt to.” Grunhard — who was surprised by the allegations involving Mangino — said college coaches from Joe Paterno at Penn State to Pete Carroll at the University of Southern California have either abandoned the military “boot camp” model of football coaching or never engaged in it at all.
“There’s a tolerance for it if you’re winning,” said Gary Abram, a management consultant at HCap International in Kansas City. “But that style has a shelf life. “Eventually, players are robbed of their dignity and self-respect and they leave, physically if they can, or, if they can’t vote with their feet, they shut down emotionally … and the winning stops,” he added. Abram was a professional baseball player who also coached high school and college sports, so he’s seen athletic organizations from all angles.
Among the forces that have allowed the “screamers and punchers” to stay active in the sports world, Abram suggested, are baby boomer parents. Some are “fixated on their kids’ athletic successes at all costs” and on players who sense the attitude that “coping with abuse is the price of admission.” There’s a macho, if not paramilitary, undertone to many sports organizations, an atmosphere that’s counter to the “we are family” approach of a coach such as Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University. Scott Snook, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard University, has analyzed management styles and concluded that what an individual fundamentally believes about human nature is most likely to influence his or her approach to leadership. Those who believe that people need rewards or punishments to do what’s wanted will gravitate toward tighter controls and place “social distance” between them and those they supervise, Snook found. And because of the hyped-up emotions in sports contests, it’s also easy for coaches with that mentality to snap in stressful game situations, or even in practice, Abram said.
“When you see coaches have a conniption on the sidelines, they’re shifting the responsibility for their team to the players,” he pointed out. When that strategy works — and the team wins — fans and boosters tend to be more tolerant. Players also keep quiet about any abuse because they want to keep playing. When the team stops winning, though, society begins to shine a spotlight on coaching behavior. “Then we’re more likely to say, ‘Hey, that’s wrong,’ ” Abram said.
Check back next week for another great article on youth coaching.