Some years back I was involved in a year-long study of an elite prep school men’s basketball program. The school had a mission dedicated to whole-person development, in which competitive sports, music and the arts featured prominently within a rigorous overall college-prep curriculum. As a social-scientist interested in both excellence and ethics it was a unique opportunity to examine the crossroads where an uncompromising commitment to excellence meets an uncompromising commitment to integrity and whole-person development.
The study involved significant embedded observations with the team, interviews with coaches and players, and the analysis of significant data gathered from microphones that the coaches wore in practice and games. (Imagine that coaches—or parents or teachers—somebody recording and analyzing your every exchange! It was amazing). I remember a point when a team member contacted me very concerned because the coaches had been yelling and screaming at practice and he had great concern that would present the coaches in a bad light. You can’t be a coach dedicated to ethics and whole-person development if you scream and yell, right? Some on our team absolutely believed that to be the case; I was not one of them. Coaching intensity is essential for high performance; I firmly believed that there was a place for yelling and displays of passion and emotion. I reserved judgment until studying the tapes and integrating it into my lived experiences with the coaches and players.
What we found was very nuanced: coaches screaming at the whole group regarding attitude and effort; coaches exhorting players to play harder, be tougher, to do it over, to do it better; coaches harping on little details. Like a parent disciplining a child, they almost always went to players that they had gotten after to explain further their expectations and motives for getting on them. What was NOT part of the yelling was equally important. They were not attacking players personally; they were not cursing; they were not denigrating them, embarrassing them or confronting them.
Coaches offered sound insight into our questions regarding the type, timing, and intent their yelling and overall motivational strategies. They could differentiate why they communicated with one player one way and another player another way. It was not indiscriminate yelling; it was not vitriolic rage and personal attack; it was differentiated instruction. They knew when to speak softly, how to comfort the player and the group, and then how to move their teaching to crescendo with effect. As a former athlete and coach I certainly did not think the yelling was inappropriate, let alone abusive. I absolutely felt that it represented an intensity necessary to bring out the potential for excellence in the individual players and the team. These weren’t 5-year old t-ball players; they were competitive, elite student-athletes.
In 1964, in an attempt to define pornography and obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “I know it when I see it.” When the video of Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, went viral this week I knew abuse by a coach when I saw it. I was not only aghast to see Rice yelling homophobic slurs at his players, kicking them, shoving them, throwing basketballs at their chests, legs, and head; I was angry as hell. I love and defend good coaches. There’s no defense of Mike Rice’s behavior. He’s a bully and his tactics were abusive. Period. Here are the two main criteria by which I draw this conclusion on the Rice tape, which was not my conclusion in the tapes from the basketball study discussed above.
1. Bullying involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, where the one with power attacks the less powerful or powerless. Rice had the power: not only because he determined who would play and how much they would play, but because he held the ultimate power: the scholarship. Complain to the assistant coach or AD and you’re done. But they could still transfer, right? Remember, we’re talking real or perceived power. No doubt the players had more power than they believed or used. (As I watched the tape I literally wanted one of the players to charge the coach and knock him on his arse!). As in cases of domestic abuse, the belief that somebody holds power over you is real. And really, if you believe that should you try to get out of the situation that the coach will tell the next inquiring school or coach that you’re just soft, a head-case, or not a character-guy, one can see why the players believed the coach has the power and thus endured this bully.
The powerlessness of the players in this case and in other similar is made worse by the complete and utter moral failure of the athletic director to stop the abuse. When the AD chose to become a bystander to the abuse, he became part of the abuse. And what was the message to the players when the assistant coach brought concerns to the AD and was subsequently dismissed? I highly doubt they thought the AD was a neutral arbitrator. Tim Pernetti is hardly the only AD who has failed to protect the student-athletes. Far too many AD’s—and frankly speaking the NCAA itself—are deeply compromised by the conflict of interest that exists between their job to protect and promote the well-being of student-athletes and their job to make lots of money off of college athletes.
High school and AAU coaches don’t stand up to these coaches because they want their players to get scholarships (and they often covet a chance to follow one of their players into the elite coaching opportunities). Parents are also often accomplices to these crimes because they are over invested and beholden to AAU and high school coaches and they choose to ignore or justify these bullying behaviors to get or keep a scholarship or to get their kid to the professional ranks. So when you can’t trust your coach, assistant coach, AD, high school coach and AD, AAU coach or your parents I think it’s not so hard to believe that they believed they didn’t have power to stand up to Coach Rice. My disbelief and frustration that the players didn’t just deck the coach, quickly changed to anger at those who created and sustained the reality that made this possible.
2. Bullying usually takes two general forms: psychological and physical. You’ve got both on full display in the Rice video. The instruments of psychological abuse are verbal and emotional in nature. The humiliating, dehumanizing, vindictive exchanges exact a deep emotional toil. I can already hear it from “that coach” or “that parent”: “Come on, man; these are big boys. You’re not going to tell me he hurt their feelings.” College athletes are amazing physical beings; but they’re still essentially young adults and they’re most definitely human beings. Years of working with athletes at all levels makes me absolutely convinced that psychological abuse is real. I’m not convinced that his tactics “did no harm”; and I am absolutely sure they did not do “maximum good” in pursuit of excellence or whole-person development. And maybe the tape doesn’t show physical abuse, but it clearly shows physical intimidation and a persistently aggressive and hostile atmosphere which most definitely was unjust, unfair, and unhealthy.
I’ve already heard current and former coaches hedging on this case, mostly by decrying Rice’s use of homophobic slurs as always and everywhere wrong, but then claiming that you need to build relationships if you’re going to drive kids hard in pursuit of their best. Going out for pizza and a movie so you can continue your abusive practices isn’t my idea of balancing pursuit of excellence with whole-person development. This is akin to an abusive husband taking his battered wife out to dinner or on a lovely vacation. It doesn’t undo the abuse; it makes it worse by revealing the deep-seated hypocrisy and manipulation at play. Bottom line: coaches must view student-athletes as an end, not as a means to an end.
Unfortunately, I think the type of behavior we observed from Rice is far more prevalent than most would want to admit. And, in my experience, female coaches are now often as likely to engage in these tactics as men. Let’s be clear: every coach who kicks over a garbage can, breaks a clipboard, throws their team out of the gym, or screams about poor execution or effort isn’t an abusive bully. So too, every player who gets upset from constructive criticism, doesn’t like the coaches style, or a coach getting after them hasn’t necessarily been “abused.” But we can’t simply operate under the “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” mentality of coaching. And just because your coach did it and you turned out alright doesn’t make it right either. The ends don’t justify the means. All that motivates is not moral.
Three practical suggestions for moving forward:
1. Develop an approach to coaching and player development that integrates the development of performance character and moral character. This idea grew out of the basketball study described above. Great coaches develop both excellence and ethics. Moral and performance character are interconnected, inseparable, dynamic forces that coaches must balance. You can’t unhook them; you can motivate in a way that violates respect and decency; so too if you love players you must push them. Mike Rice’s approach unhitched performance character from moral character. Develop both moral and performance character with intensity and intentionality; beware when the weight of your foot is disproportionately on either—especially performance character.
2. Make this a topic of an Intentional Culture Conversation within your family, your team, and amongst coaches, trainers, and administrators. We developed Intentional Culture Conversations for use in our work when the topic clearly has the potential to contribute to or detract from the mission and goals of the organization, but where the topic is complex and not clear-cut. In this case an Intentional Culture Conversation must be engaged regarding the line between abuse and motivation, about the balance of excellence and ethics, and about how we empower all stakeholders to stand up, speak out, and stop abusive coaches. The pursuit of excellence that also seeks whole-person development is as much art as science. The discussion may not lead to clear and obvious policy, but to ignore the issue and hope it doesn’t eventually emerge as a problem is just foolish. Assuming we all understand what is expected is ridiculous. We must beware of simple, easy, and obvious answers—which are often also wrong (for example, no yelling by coaches, no intense coaches, get rid of the scoreboard, or make all sports like intramurals). Let this terrible incident be the start of something good. Start the conversation.
3. Define abusive coaching behaviors so you’ll know it when you see it. Once you think about coaching that balances moral character and performance character, and once you’ve engaged in an Intentional Culture Conversation with your stakeholders, then I recommend that you create a checklist outlining a checklist of coaching behaviors that constitute your definition of bullying. Because it’s such a complex and nuanced area, many will not want to define the abusive, bullying behaviors. But this is a mistake that lets the bullies hide and the puts the good coaches at risk of being misunderstood (think of the coaches in our study above). You may not get agreement on everything, but you must be prepared to identify it—for coaches, for players, for parents, for AD’s. This will create an awareness of what to look for, of what to avoid, and will more quickly allow stakeholders to speak up to fix the problem or to better clarify your standard. For example, here’s my coach’s bullying behaviors checklist:
- Does the coach….
- Ridicule, embarrass or demean players
- Make verbal attacks personal
- Exhibit intimidating, threatening, and/or aggressive confrontational style with players
- Humiliate players publicly or privately
- Engage in emotional games, like not talking to a player, or having them sit away from the team after a bad performance
- Grab, push, shove or hit players
- Make clear to players that there is no way out or around the coach
Mine isn’t the only checklist. But take note of how even this simple checklist forces you to accept or reject mine, which ultimately leads to the clarification of your own.
Players don’t always appreciate (or even like) coaches, especially since most of coaching is getting more out of you than you think you’re capable of, pushing you beyond your limits, targeting your weaknesses for development . A good coach is like a good parent: your kids don’t always like you; they often resent your standards and expectation. But if you do it the right way for the right reasons years later they understand and appreciate you—and usually adopt your standards and values. But a bad coach is like a bad parent: they leave pain, scars, and resentment that last a lifetime. It’s a fine line between motivation and abuse—it’s also a slippery slope, so be careful and get intentional.