Miss a pass? Your ass is grass.
Forget the play? After practice you’ll stay.
Talk back to me? It’s your lunch we will see.
Show up tardy? Perfect time for a punishment party!
Who remembers reciting this sacred oath when becoming a card-carrying member of the coaching profession? Nope, me either. Yet we still find ourselves doling out punishing reminders of “Who’s the Boss” like boxer turned actor, Tony Danza.
Just like a boxer, we have managed to dance around the issue of physical recourse for far too long. While belts and paddles have been knocked out of the public education system, a masked version of corporal punishment has still managed to survive within athletics under the disguise of mental toughness. And who can blame coaches for wanting to build the heart and intestinal fortitude of athletes under their jurisdiction? From what I’ve heard, kids these days are just soft and lack tough discipline from their parents.
And as a parent, I realize the error in my old ways. Entering fatherhood I had little to no experience in raising a child. Stemming from this lack of knowledge, I shamefully admit to initially resorting to the threat of corporal punishment as a counter to times when “my voice was not being heard” or my children continued with an undesired action. Thankfully, I quickly realized that this shortsighted disciplinary tactic was me lashing out in frustration. A frustration that arose in moments where I lacked the patience and wisdom necessary to construct and articulate a meaningful, behavior-modifying message that a toddler could comprehend.
Experience, knowledge, patience, and wisdom; all time-tested characteristics that give a parent acumen, or the ability to practice discernment and good judgment when being confronted with a challenging child. A child that deserves an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, not count licks. Learning opportunities that arise when a parent skillfully diagnoses the underlying issue and curtails further inappropriate behavior through a confident, yet calm and educating voice.
And when that child turns to sport, there is but one voice that resonates with nearly equal tone to that of the parent. The voice of “Coach”. That person who is assumed to have the experience, knowledge, patience, and wisdom required for the creation of a winning culture.
Unfortunately, some cultural inroads into the coaching profession have stifled the development of these winning traits. Like a new parent, retired athletes or graduate-assistants are thrown into the fire with very little formally-honed leadership experience. Immediately faced with the task of developing a team’s physical aptitude and competitive attitude, the zealous coach contemplates ways to swiftly exert their authority, often times over athletes who are nearly of similar age. Athletes of similar age, who like a toddler, sometimes test the boundaries of their environment. Boundaries that push against waters that are ripe for testing that freshly anointed coach. In fear of being seen as soft, and lacking the foresight that comes through crafted-experience, the new coach relies on stadium runs up the stairway to heaven in an attempt to purge athletes of their wicked ways.
Having been that coach who once stood at the bottom of the stairs, I can admit to the false sense of security these “Come to Jesus” workouts provide. Witnessing the resultant adjusted attitudes, it’s easy to conclude that enervation equals enlightenment. However, the wicked truth is that fatigue-induced changes in behavior are both superficial and short-lived; and the only thing that ends up toughened from these punishing practices is not the mind, but the invisible wall that begins to build between the coach and athlete.
Unbeknownst to the proud coach, athletes eventually begin to see through the façade of fear and realize the banal reliance on non-verbal; high-volume power plays are a cover. A cover, or ostentatious theatrics, posed in order to maintain control over others when we feel out of control ourselves. Out of control because we lack direction.
Direction that becomes visible through reflection. Slow and simmering reflection that is initially guided by a mentor who teaches the developing coach how to look beyond the behavior and into the motives. A mentor that encourages the setting aside of one’s frustration in exchange for justified rumination. Justified because the time we spend reflecting and weighing the outcomes of our impending decision allows us to authentically learn more about our own leadership-style and value system before we regretably levy the wrong version of physical education.
We as coaches go to great lengths to effectively teach young adults how to become committed, or put some skin in the game. But when we fail to critically reflect on how we handle(d) those challenging moments, the game we end up playing is on ourselves. Like my old, less experienced self learned, when we aren’t comfortable in our own skin, we show our teeth. And if we follow through with that frustration-induced reaction, we may end up biting the hand that feeds us.