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Amy Donaldson: Why do we tolerate abuse in coaching?

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 8:59 a.m. MDT

Maybe a coach's behavior isn't illegal, but is it moral? And what are harsh and questionable methods really teaching our children?

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The coach stomped her foot, yelled in frustration and then hollered for a substitution.

The player exited the game, and it was clear she knew she was in trouble. Her body language said it all. This was not the first time she had disappointed this coach.

I sat only a few rows behind the bench, so I could hear the coach berate the player. For a moment, I felt uncomfortable and glanced around checking to make sure others could see and hear what I was witnessing. The school’s athletic director sat a few feet from me and watched the exchange just as I did.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid? Only an idiot would listen to what I said and do what you did!”

The coach hurled insults laced with profanity, and then told the 16-year-old to enjoy watching the game from the sideline. Later, the girl went back in the game and played almost flawlessly. It was this “stupid” girl who led the team to a critical win.

I talked to the player afterward and questioned her about the coach’s insults.

“She’s just trying to get the best out of me,” the girl told me with a smile that indicated her sincerity. “She knows what I’m capable of, and she’s not going to let me give anything less than my best.”

That was one of my first experiences as a sports reporter. I have never forgotten it, or the fact that no one else seemed bothered by what we all watched on the sideline of that high school game. I thought of that incident and the hundreds of others I have witnessed in my 13 years as a sports reporter as I read Mike Sorensen’s article in the Deseret News Sunday morning detailing the allegations against now former University of Utah swim coach Greg Winslow.

After reading the allegations, it seems baffling that an independent investigation, like the one Utah athletics director Chris Hill said the Office of Equal Opportunity conducted, could find nothing that required disciplinary action. In fact, if the OEO did talk to 50 people, including current and former athletes, how on earth did Winslow retain his job?

Even if only some of the allegations were true — or partially true — why would the University of Utah allow someone to treat student-athletes in ways that are — at best — demeaning and dangerous?

The most disturbing truth is that abusive coaches are molding young athletes every day. How do they have access to our children? We allow it. We condone it. We tolerate it. And sometimes, we even revere it.

Consider briefly, the independent investigation initiated by U.S. Speedskating into allegations of emotional and physical abuse against two coaches who were subsequently fired and banned for an unrelated allegation of cheating. The investigators found the coach’s methods "disturbing," but in the end, said they did not rise to the level of abuse.

The real issue is that we’ve come to accept abusive tactics in athletics for a very long time. We value passion and fire so much, we’re forgiving when a coach let's it get the best of him. Don't mistake a lack of control for passion.

It's important to remember that in discussing how and why we might tolerate, even accept, bad coaches to remember there are thousands who inspire athletes not only to great physical feats, but also to be better human beings. It's in watching coaches work their magic that I see the contrast between those who teach and those who taunt.

Painful punishments have always been part of sports. What athlete hasn’t been punished with ladders, up-downs or stadiums? What athlete hasn’t been called names, pushed or goaded into a fight by a coach trying to “find the best in them”?

The difficulty is that pain is part of growth in athletics and in life. So in pushing ourselves to our physical limits, we learn some important things about ourselves on and off the court.

The problem is in the lines we’ve allowed ourselves to cross. Even though we’re now much less tolerant of abusive coaching styles, there is still a part of us that believes breaking someone down physically is necessary to build something better. And it is in that realm that coaches can do some of the things alleged against Winslow and not only get away with it, but be praised for it.

For all the athletes who overcome these incidents, who succeed because — or in spite — of these types of coaches, there are as many athletes who leave sports because they don’t want to be harassed, berated or humiliated. I’ve talked to many athletes who changed sports, gave up youth sports or chose games that didn’t require adult supervision (skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX, etc.).

What those of us who love sports need to ask ourselves is where should the line be? At what point does a coach stop being the person pushing us past our mental limits and become the person doing real psychological damage to young athletes?

Maybe calling someone names isn’t illegal, but should it be the way we try to inspire greatness? Maybe embarrassing someone in front of their teammates isn’t against the law, but should it be the way we motivate people that we care about?

I would like to know what the OEO investigation found and what U. administrators knew. Because while they might need a panel of experts to tell them what is and isn’t legal, they shouldn’t need anyone to tell them what kind of behavior is and isn’t moral.

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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