Brian Neal, Assistant Sports Editor
Throughout the history of sports, we have witnessed every type of coaching style from Bobby Knight’s intimidating, motivational approach to the quiet confidence of Lovie Smith to the strategic way of Bill Belichick or Tony LaRussa. All of these coaching attributes have their own advantages and disadvantages, but is there a wrong way to coach?
Many have accused a coach like Bobby Knight of being over-aggressive at times when he has physically grabbed or shoved players, and growing up, there are always the coaches in pee-wee and pop-warner leagues all the way through high school that are harsh with kids and teens as they attempt to teach them through intimidation or fear.
But where is the line? What is acceptable in modern-day sports? These are questions that need to be examined carefully because that line has changed from decades ago when it was more acceptable to be physically or verbally abusive to teach or coach.
This is especially relevant with the recent leaked video of Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice screaming profanity at players and even worse, physically hitting, kicking and throwing basketballs at them.
“You f**king fairy… you’re a f**king f**got,” Rice appears to have said in the video to some of his players.
It’s one thing to yell at players when they mess up or aren’t giving the effort, but it’s another thing to use language like that while doing so. And on top of doing all this, he was physically abusing them at times. Several players have even transferred because of his behavior over the last few years.
The video, with footage from 2010 through 2012, was provided to ESPN by former Rutgers’ player development director, former NBA player Eric Murdock. He believes he was fired by the university for blowing the whistle on Rice, though the school’s official reason was “insubordinate conduct.”
“To see your coach physically putting his hands on players, physically kicking players, firing balls at players from point-blank range, the verbal abuse, the belittling, I was in total shock that this guy wasn’t fired, immediately on the spot,” Murdock told ESPN.
Rice was suspended three games and fined $50,000 at one point, but he was finally fired April 3 with RU acknowledging his behavior was “unacceptable and … not to the Rutgers standard.”
Dr. Robert L. Turknett, a licensed psychologist, posted on turknett.com about when aggressive leadership as a strength can become a weakness.
“Is aggressiveness in a leader good or bad? The answer is – both,” Turknett writes. “Considered a strength, when associated with a drive for results, a willingness to take risks, and the pursuit of new business; aggressiveness becomes a weakness when it erodes interpersonal relationships. Indeed, in today’s competitive business climate where the ability to work with people is critical, overly aggressive behavior derails individual careers and undermines organizational effectiveness. An overly-aggressive leader is harsh, belligerent, bullying, autocratic and generally insensitive to the needs and feelings of others.”
Here, Turknett is talking about overly aggressive leadership in the business-world, but it can apply in exactly the same manner in the sports arena. When a coach talks down to a player and is insensitive to their feelings and needs, it can be a destructive force to not only the success of the team, but each individual associated.
It doesn’t mean that coaches need to hold their players’ hands and “baby” them, but there is a line. And anything similar to what Rice did is certainly over it.
Sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg, who specializes in helping players get past mental fears and blocks, believes that the reason some coaches are abusive is because of the culture of needing to win and be the best in their sport.
“Here’s the problem the way I see it,” Goldberg writes on his website, competitivedge.com. “Because winning has become so important to us as a culture, because being ‘numero uno’ has been erroneously equated with coaching success and competence, some of our youth sport, club, high school and college coaches have forgotten what their real mission as a professional is. These coaches have come to mistakenly believe that the won-loss outcome of their season is far more important than the process of participation, character development and safety of their athletes.”
Goldberg lists signs of abusive coaching as regularly using public embarrassment and humiliation on his/her athletes, being disinterested in the feelings and sensitivities of his/her players, is a yeller, demeans his/her players, creates a team environment based on fear and devoid of safety, tends to be rigid and over-controlling, defensive and angry, being physically abusive and any other behavior that is similar to these.
Times have changed and these actions are not okay. In youth leagues, parents need to take a stand and stop people from coaching like this. In high school and college, players or other adults associated with the teams need to recognize this and put an end to it.
Negative reinforcement does not build character, it breaks people. The sooner this realization is made, the sooner abusive coaching can be eliminated from our sports.