Active Voice: In Pursuit of What? Lessons from a Coaching Failure

By Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM is the executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute and professor of pediatrics at Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota. Internationally recognized for his research and leadership in exercise-heat stress and youth athletic health, Dr. Bergeron is a Fellow and past trustee of the American College of Sports Medicine and is currently a member of the National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board for the International Olympic Committee postgraduate Diploma Program in Sports Medicine.

Prompted by the high-profile and widespread media attention to basketball coach Mike Rice’s documented, abusive conduct toward his players, reactions from students, parents, former student-athletes, the university administration, prominent professional athletes, other coaches and even the late-night talk show hosts ranged from shock, anger, and disgust to apologies and embarrassment. Collegiate coaches and the broader coaching community took strong exception to the videoed behavior, citing the actions as highly inappropriate and unacceptable. This speaks well for the many who are demonstrably dedicated to the coaching profession and the kids they teach. Unfortunately, problematic coaches and coaching are neither restricted to this incident nor limited to the collegiate ranks. Younger scholastic and youth community sports have their share of coaching problems too. Some might say it’s a result of a “win at all costs” attitude and expectation, tougher competition, inadequate coaching training and possibly personal internal and external pressures. Whatever the reason(s), this sort of behavior toward any athlete is inexcusable and should not be tolerated.

Moreover, these tactics don’t work! Effective coaching begins with respect. And for a coach to truly gain the respect of his or her players, the coach must consistently demonstrate respect for each athlete and for the game. And it goes much further than that. Coaches are not just teachers and motivators for a sport – good coaches understand and respect their very powerful position to influence and develop a young athlete for life! Sure, scare tactics might get a short-term perceived “positive” result; but real understanding and learning is not likely to be the outcome, and the long-term lesson from such repeated behavior could readily lead to powerful self-doubts, a dislike for the sport, and a young athlete leaving the game altogether.

Abusive behavior and these “coaching” tactics are often the result of a coach not knowing what else to do when he or she thinks the individual athlete or team is not performing as expected or desired. Yelling louder or working them harder and longer is all that’s left in the arsenal of purported solutions. This underscores the inadequacies of coaching standards – especially with very young athletes in community sports where the coaches are typically just volunteers with little-to-no formal instruction in youth-specific coaching, or training in youth development or sports safety at all.

Two key additional points should be considered. First, these are student-athletes…and, like the NCAA commercial states, “Almost all of these student-athletes will be going pro in something other than sports.” Just look at the numbers. Of the 8.5 million high school student-athletes in the U.S., only about 3-5% of team sport participants will go on to play in college – at any level, never mind with a full scholarship! And the percentage of those high school athletes that will turn pro – it’s about 0.1% or less! Youth sports can provide numerous immediate and lifetime fitness and health advantages. Rarely will it evolve into a professional sports career. Secondly, even if a coach or parent has a great young athlete, verbal and physical abuse is not the pathway to helping anyone achieve his or her highest athletic potential. Intrinsic motivation, a positive environment, understanding the myriad dimensions of the sport, the right preparation and mentoring, appropriate and individualized long-term, diverse and balanced development, training and competition and enjoyment are the keys to high performance and all levels of athletic success – just like in other areas of life. Coaches, parents, administrators and sport governing bodies need to teach this, expect this, and live by this.

The mission of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute is to be the recognized leader and advocate for advancing and disseminating the latest research and evidence-based education, recommendations and policy to enhance the experience, development, health and safety of our youth in sports. And this extends to promoting a healthier pathway to and through collegiate sports, while recognizing that healthy sports development and participation will provide all young athletes the opportunity and desire to “stay in the game (be physically active)” for life!