Coaching and Sport in Society

Thank you for your responses to the previous blog. As a result, I am in the process of creating support systems to better address abuses of power and childhood assaults. I will keep you posted on this progress.

Themes evolved from your emails and blog responses. Below please find some of these topics addressed.

1. Who's coaching your kids?

Many readers want to know how to identify a predator who may also be a coach, teacher, scout leader, or anyone in a position where he or she has regular access to children. There is no look or specific demeanor, but predators tend to violate respectful and standard interpersonal boundaries. They invade others' physical, emotional, and verbal space with inappropriate conduct often masked as concern, teasing, or playing. Predators put themselves in positions where they are surrounded by unattended children.

Predators tend to spend an inordinate amount of their free time with children and have limited interactions with people in their own peer groups. An older person who wants to take a child on trips, or spend individual, one on one, time with a child is demonstrating very suspect behavior. Predators also tend to shower gifts and trinkets on their victims and lean on their victims for emotional support. Always question the relationship, reason, and motive before you allow a child to spend unsupervised time with an older person.

There is a good article in this week's Sports Illustrated by a writer who also coaches youth basketball. He loves coaching young people, but is now afraid to offer rides and to express encouragement or support reflected in minor physical contact; a tap on the shoulder or arm for fear it will be misinterpreted, or his behaviors will be considered inappropriate. My physician, who also coaches youth soccer, expressed the same concerns. They fear, as a result of these highly publicized sexual abuse scandals, our society's treatment of youth will become more antiseptic.

Sincere and well intended adults like my physician and another friend who wrote, and who devotes his life to improving the well being of disadvantaged children, feel marginalized and undermined by the scandal. It makes them wonder how their good and honorable intentions and actions may be perceived. A volunteer coach blessed with a good and generous spirit may be compelled to withhold potential life changing moments with a child seeking direction for fear these actions may be misinterpreted.

A good way to confront this is for coaches to meet with their youth team members and their parents at the beginning of a season to clarify expectations for team goals, coaching and player roles, game and position processes and techniques, a process to stop / report / address / prevent abusive behaviors, appropriate conduct, behaviors boundaries, healthy relationships, and evidence of commitment. If these team structures are recorded, they can form a reference point for evaluating progress and success during the season.

2. What are good coaching behaviors?

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." (Plato, 427 - 347 BC)

Above please find a picture of one of my Brown line coaches, Bob Wylie, and Steve Wizniewski, who was an All-American guard at Penn State when I coached there. They now work together as coaches for the Oakland Raiders. They are considered good coaches.

Good coaches tend to set high conduct standards with their behaviors. So, probably the best way to assess a good coach is with his or her team members' conduct and behaviors. Good coaches are recognized by the growth and success of those they lead. Their influence is monitored by healthy peer and team friendships and relationships, fun experiences, respect, happiness, higher levels of well being and hygiene, improved social interactions and performance away from athletic venues, and increased consideration for self and others. Coaches who influence these behaviors in their players are good coaches. We tend to judge coaches by their competition wins and losses. These are important, as we all play to win, but these gauges are short term. The ultimate goal of sports is to improve its participants and observers appreciation for potential, and, in turn, to improve society.

3. What are good sports' parent / sports' observer behaviors?

Parents never attended athletic practices when I was participating in football, wrestling, and track while growing up in the NJ suburbs. Our teams were very successful. My teammates would be mortified if any parent approached a coach, or athletic director, to discuss his or her child's performance or playing time. The coaches would not tolerate this.

Coaches were trusted to do their best for the team and for the athletes. Parents demonstrated their support at competitions and via booster clubs, but refrained from interfering with athletic decisions. It was a boundary expected not to be crossed.

Any hostility at athletic events was directed toward referees and officials for missed or perceived bad calls. I never heard negative comments directed towards coaches or athletes from my, or the opposing, team. For the most part, we respected each other. We lived in a very competitive area.

Based on your blog comments and the news, negative and aggressive fan / parent language and behavior now dominates all levels of sporting events. High school and college athletic directors and coaches report receiving harassing phone calls at all hours of the night from irate parents expecting more playing time for their children.

In these situations, individual performance supersedes the team. The greatest distinction I noticed separating strong teams and healthy communities from sub par organizations is the sense of member admiration and commitment to a common purpose. Organizations struggle when everyone is pulling in separate, selfish, directions. Organizations succeed when constructive member beliefs and behaviors reflect shared common and respected core values.

There's a distinction between being encouraged and empowered to voice concern to improve a situation and running one's mouth. The former tends to help the team. The latter often reflects selfishness, an antithesis of team goodness.

Also, screaming parents can undermine a child's athletic performance. Screams and overly aggressive conduct increase the stress chemical response in a child's forming brain. If present and associated with athletic competition, these chemicals undermine blood flow and muscle reaction. They also interfere with memory, mental clarity, and reaction time. These heightened brain responses, fostered by overzealous fans and parents, can create in a child athletic performance barriers. They will jeopardize enjoyment. This can alienate young athletes from sport.

Sports can offer young people a great outlet to expend energy while gaining physical skills. Sports can also provide a nice opportunity to socialize, to become more self aware and empathetic. The ideal ancient Greek philosophy of sport states it propels the admiration of human capacity. This admiration appears to be lost in today's parents' fears and criticisms. Perhaps these parents are triggered by memories of their own childhood athletic shortcomings.

A former college teammate and a standout in two varsity D1 collegiate sports now coaches youth sports. He writes: "all of the dads in town are very successful. They are either alpha males or artists. As a result, the sense of entitlement is very high. The people who volunteer to coach and help youth sports in the town refer to the insane dads as “do it for me dads”. These dads are always critical and never helpful.

Most of the insane dads, as alpha males, played some low level sports in high school or below.

(My friend) thinks the extreme behaviors are rooted in the following beliefs.

1) Through sheer will and determination these dads became successful and alpha males.

2) These dads EXPECT success in their lives. They feel like they make success happen.

3) They expect their sons to be successful alpha males. If the sons aren’t as driven, these dads think they can make their sons driven through dad's sheer will and determination.

4). And so, these dads scream, thinking this will make it happen.

It’s ironic in soccer because most of the insane dads never played soccer. So not only is their screaming and ranting inappropriate; their coaching points are often flat out wrong.

The dads that played college sports or are artists tend to be very mellow and helpful on the sideline."

Whatever the reason, these egos and efforts to manipulate aggression devalue youth sports. The aggressive behaviors these dad's want demonstrated by their sons are not healthy or age appropriate and can lay the foundation for bullying, battery, assaults, and abuse. I'm pretty sure these are not outcomes insane dads want for their sons. However, sons are prone to demonstrate behaviors modeled by their dads.

When power, control, and ego are not addressed and corrected, abuses of power can proliferate. Corrupt predator coaches will exploit a parents' distorted aggressive athletic hopes for his child and isolate the child. Kids left unattended by their parents are more likely to be abused. The unhealthy ego and power needs for athletic victories make delusional parents deny, or blind to, corrupt and devious behaviors committed by bad coaches.

Agreeing on core league, team, and fan values and outlining the reflective behaviors expected by parents, fans, coaches, and athletes can set conduct standards. Defining behaviors opposed to core values, and the penalties for a person who demonstrates these behaviors, can also remove destructive behaviors from youth sporting events.

An assigned and strong person or committee, and not the coach except when dealing with his or her players, needs to be assigned to implement and monitor penalties incurred by parents, fans, opposing players and coaches.

4. Does God influence sporting outcomes?

There's a lot of media attention on Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow generated by his energetic, unorthodox playing style, by the Broncos series of unfathomable comeback victories led by Tim, and for Tim's unwavering Christian Faith. It's implied the Broncos success since Tim took over as the team's quarterback, and its appearance in the NFL playoffs, is due to Tim's faith and God's Blessings.

Athletes use many different vehicles to reach their zone, or their highest capabilities. Many superior athletes have an innate love of their sport. It gives them a sense of identity, success, and control. This propels them to practice and to push themselves towards mastery. This allows them to excel. Some have tremendous drive and determination. Others share a passion to a common goal, teammates, and coaches. Their performance and success is a result of their commitment to shared values and mutual respect. Illegally, some athletes turn to artificial means and performance enhancing drugs to get an unnatural edge. Some athletes rely on superior physical and mental gifts to outshine competition. Some athletes, like Tim, use a belief system to reach their pinnacle. It offers them the focus and calm needed to function optimally under pressure; to give them a sense of clarity and purity and inner strength.

I'm guessing Tim's belief system allows him to distinguish his own performance, yet I'm pretty sure God has nothing to do with distinguishing Tim's or the Broncos' performance. The Bible states athletes should prepare and pummel their bodies, to put their best efforts forward. There is no evidence or scripture stating God is interested in athletic outcomes. It states He wants His followers to believe His teachings and to love one another.

Before every athletic event I participated in over an 18 year period, I was encouraged, and offered the opportunity, to pray. I'm not sure I was ever told what to pray about, but I sensed my young teammates and I were expected to be thankful for the opportunity to participate. I also asked for strength to demonstrate our best abilities, and for our competition to do the same, so we might bring out the best in each other. I prayed no one be injured or tempted to cheat, so the competition remained pure, like a battle amongst honorable animals or gladiators. I never prayed for victory. This cheapens prayer and belief systems. I'm pretty sure Tim doesn't pray for victory, but for the opportunity to glorify his God.

As long as the methods are legal, do not bring harm to oneself or others, and fall within acceptable league conduct boundaries, I have no objections with what Tim Tebow, or any other athlete, practices to reach his or her best level of performance.


Nomi said…
Sports can bring people together, who ostensibly have little in common. I have had some moments of great connection at baseball games, etc.

Last night I watched a varsity basketball game between, Providence Central's 'Knights' and Portsmouth's 'Patriots'.

The bleachers (@Providence Career & Technical High School) were actually above the court...! It seemed to be a well played game with no extraneous (sp?) tensions...

Thanks for this post, Matt; I think I know one team you're rooting for this weekend ! (begins with a *G*).

Happy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone !
Anonymous said…
Identified strongly w/comments re:parents never attending players practices etc. Players would be mortified if a parent approached a coach. We're from same tme period & area. My wife would joke, "I'll have a bag over my head when I pick you up after pratice"
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