May 30 (Bloomberg) -- The coach called one player a “f*****g retard” in front of his teammates. He told others that they shouldn’t enjoy themselves after a game because they played like, well, a compound obscenity sometimes used as a derogatory term for the female anatomy.
In the coach’s attempt to motivate his boys during one halftime, he gathered them around him and told them that they were playing as though they were (pardon the shock value) undertaking a sexual act with, yes, their own grandmothers. It seems kind of small by comparison, but he also threw clipboards and kicked equipment, insulted the players’ families, cursed out coaches and referees, and humiliated and berated and singled out several players to the point of tears.
No, this isn’t Rutgers University or the latest collegiate scandal. This is a volunteer father coaching my son’s grade-school lacrosse team in my New Jersey hometown.
Why are we still allowing this?
The above story isn’t unique. We’ve all seen these guys on the sidelines. We parents may not condone it, but we’ve learned to accept it. We put up with this behavior because we worry that if we question it, there will be repercussions for our kid. He’ll get less playing time, we fear. She will be moved down from the A to the B team. He will be the brunt of even more abuse. We see our choices as putting up with it or denying our kid the sports experience. We start to justify it in our minds. “Hey,” we tell ourselves, “this is how Woody Hayes coached. The guy really knows the game. Maybe it’s a good thing.”
I, too, was guilty of thinking like this.
But we know better. And it has to stop.
Maybe the screaming and shouting worked for another generation. It doesn’t work now. And even if it did, even if your sixth-grade program ended up with a record of 11-2 with abuse when it would have been 9-4 without (and the evidence strongly suggests that the opposite is true), so what?
New Jersey has just adopted some of the toughest anti-bullying legislation to which our own children are accountable. Shouldn’t we demand the same from our coaches? Could you ever imagine a schoolteacher or debate coach behaving in such a manner?
What I’ve noticed -- and yes, this is anecdotal -- is that the best teams with the best coaches seem to be have the calmest sidelines. Rather than shouting specific instructions at players -- and chastising them for every mistake -- these coaches have already taught their players what to do. They trust these kids to take responsibility. Sure, the kids mess up, but there is a lot to be said for playing without fear. They play better, learn to be instinctive, and -- gasp -- have more fun.
The bullying has to stop. Not a little. Not with some wiggle room. Completely. OK, in the heat of the moment, a coach might accidentally drop an F-bomb. That isn’t what I mean. I’m also not a huge fan of the namby-pamby New Age coaching. If a kid hits a weak grounder and doesn’t run it out, don’t yell, “Good hustle!” But still, that overcompensation is preferable to ones on the other side. There can be nothing approaching abuse directed at a kid.
Zero tolerance. None.
When you call a kid a name or belittle him, that’s abuse. Plain and simple. It should be treated as such. If you cannot coach without screaming, don’t coach. I appreciate how much time and effort it takes. I’ve coached kids, too. But if you can’t do it without tantrums, find something else to do. This is abuse. Parents may not be aware of the long-term effect coaches like these have on their child. Study after study has shown that verbally aggressive language doesn’t motivate. In fact, it harms.
I love sports. As a kid I played Little League baseball, tennis, basketball, the usual potpourri of youth sports programs. What I remember best was the fun I had with teammates, the joy of sweating, of competing, of having a mutual goal, of shaking hands afterward. I remember fondly those coaches who demonstrated balance, who tried to teach us skills, rules and sportsmanship, who instilled confidence in us, who encouraged us when we made mistakes, who never tore us down. When a coach did correct or criticize (confession: I find it hard to believe praise if I never hear criticism), it was done without malice or histrionics or fear.
I also recall my friends who unfortunately got the angry, live-through-my-kid coaches and how miserable they were, how these kids ended up quitting before their time. I talk to high school and college coaches now. They have seen the results of crazed youth coaches. They talk about trying to get kids involved again -- after coaches like this make them lose their love of the game.
There are other problems -- huge, enormous problems -- with sports in our society and the ridiculous importance we place on them. I say this as someone who started on my college basketball team and knows that my athletic abilities helped me tremendously in the admissions process. But with all the news coming out in my home state right now, let’s start here today. Let’s make this a hard, firm policy in all our sports programs on every level. Let’s put these coaches on notice with zero tolerance for any type of ridicule, humiliation or abuse.
The coach I mentioned earlier was finally removed. There are many parents who still back and excuse him. Some simply don’t know better because their child doesn’t share or has become immune to the bullying. Worse, many shrug it off. “There are a lot of parents who coach like that,” they say. Wow.
But last week, at my son’s game, under the eyes of a calmer coach, I watched one of his teammates throw a really bad pass that led to a goal for the other team. I was so accustomed to the abuse that I actually winced, waiting for the eruption. But there was none. No parent on the sideline groaned. No coach pulled the kid out of the game or shouted at him. The kid knew. The game continued. The kid ended up scoring a goal a few minutes later.
(Harlan Coben is the author, most recently, of “Six Years.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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