In Coaching: Good/Bad/Unfair, Problems in Youth Sports

As an athlete, I understand the critical importance of consistently pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. This is the ONLY way that you will grow and develop as an athlete and as a person. You have to get in the habit of GETTING COMFORTABLE, BEING UNCOMFORTABLE in order to become a champion! You have to challenge yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. You have to push your body to its’ limits and then, when you’re there and your body is screaming for mercy, you have to keep yourself there just a little bit longer! You have to consistently work on your weaknesses and the parts of your game that you don’t do well, because a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link! You have to regularly challenge yourself by competing against better and better opponents, the ones who leave you feeling intimidated, shaky and flooded with self-doubts!

The pursuit of excellence is all about consistently stepping outside of your comfort zone to do the hard, sweaty, uncomfortable things! It’s that old, over-worked sports cliché, NO PAIN, NO GAIN! This is truly the HIGH ROAD to becoming a champion! And good coaches consistently help their athletes do just that! They inspire, push, challenge and cajole their athletes to regularly go beyond their limits, to do what they think they can’t do!

However, having said that, it is NOT “good coaching” when a coach “challenges” his/her athletes to be “tough” by playing through their PAIN! And the PAIN that I am specifically referring to here is the PAIN OF INJURY. Yes, athletes need to be pushed through the pain and fatigue of oxygen debt! When they’re tired, they need to be encouraged to keep on keeping on because this is how you build strength and endurance. But when an athlete is clearly injured, when that athlete is getting very distinct pain signs from his/her body that something is wrong, the coach who forces that athlete to continue to play is NOT building mental toughness. He is NOT building character! He is NOT helping the team! He/she IS being ABUSIVE and GROSSLY NEGLIGENT!

There is a long standing culture of Neanderthal machismo inherent in sports where you supposedly display your “toughness,” “manhood” and “strength” by playing in, and through pain. Those who refuse to do so because they’re injured are accused of being “soft,” “weak” and/or “feminine.” Forget that this last characterization is mindless, demeaning and sexist in its implication that girls are the weaker sex. Those coaches who use “girls,” “ladies” or worse gender phrases to demean those male athletes who refuse to play because they’re injured are saying more about themselves and flaws in their own character than they are about their athletes!

Coaches who work with female athletes who are injured and in pain will either ignore these athletes or label them as “complainers,” “whiny,” and/or “difficult” and not willing to “take it” for the team.

Coaches who humilate, shame and embarrass their athletes into continuing to play while injured by challenging their “toughness” are putting those athletes at risk of more severe injury! In this way, they are grossly abandoning their responsibility as an “educator” and coach to DO THE RIGHT THING here, to be the adult and keep their athletes safe! Should the athlete succumb to this pressure and continue to play, and, in the process, suffer more serious injury, then, as far as I’m concerned, it is the coach’s fault! They are ultimately responsible!!!

When coaches emotionally bully their players into playing when they’re injured and therefore put them into these SERIOUS, AT-RISK situations, they are basically saying to these athletes through their behaviors, “MY NEEDS,” (to win, to be in control, to prove a point, to bolster my ego, etc.) “are far more important to me than YOUR SAFETY AND WELL-BEING.” P.S. “You as a person and athlete don’t much matter to me because I don’t REALLY care if you get more seriously injured!”

Frequently, in these situations, there will be comments and non-verbals from the coach that indicate that he/she doesn’t really believe the athlete is that seriously injured. In this way the coach directly or indirectly implies that the coach knows better and that the injured athlete should not trust the pain signals from his/her body or what the doctors might have already said about the nature of the injury. This kind of a situation teaches something dangerously unhealthy to any athlete: DON’T TRUST YOUR BODY!

Last Spring I chatted with a very talented lacrosse player who sustained a serious shoulder injury in the first half of an early season game. After the team trainer “looked at” this kid’s injury, the trainer pronounced the player “fit” to go back in the game and when the player complained to the coach, the coach used a derogatory expletive and told him to get back in! Ten minutes later, he was involved in a hard collison on that same side and suddenly lost the feeling up and down his arm and hand. He continued to play in pain. Weeks later an outside evaluation revealed that the athlete had separated and torn ligaments in his shoulder. He was cautioned that continued play could potentially put him at risk of a far more serious separation and tear. Regardless of that medical information, the coach continued to pressure this athlete to play, telling him that the team needed him, that he (the coach) didn’t care if he was hurt and that “he just needed to suck it up and get back in there!”

Feeling totally confused and scared that he would lose his scholarship, the athlete continued to play all season, despite being in extreme pain and having little use of that side of his body! When he messed up or simply didn’t play to his potential, the coach took the time to remind him in front of all of his teammates that he “wasn’t getting the job done,” was “letting the team down “ and that he was “soft!” POSTSCRIPT: The athlete had to undergo surgery to repair the damage that was done that season and last I knew, he was seriously considering transferring schools AS LONG AS he could be assured that his scholarship would be covered!

It’s a confusing and anxiety-provoking dilemma that many athletes find themselves in when they are pressured to play through injury. In any abusive situation like this one, the coach always has more power than the player. This is further exacerbated because the politics in almost every athletic department that I’ve been involved in are frequently dysfunctional and complicated! That is, there’s an unspoken code wherein the athletic department tends to support their coaches unconditionally. So one of the bigger problems in high school and college sports is that when there is abuse of any kind, the system is often not receptive to hearing it! This leaves the athlete and their family with few places to go to be really heard!

Originally the sport used to be fun for the athlete! They loved training and competing. However, when a coach bullies an athlete to play through injury, the sport very quickly stops being fun, and instead, becomes fraught with anxiety and dread! This is compounded when athletes, like the lax player above, are on athletic scholarships because they are naturally worried that unless they play, their scholarship (or starting position) may be in jeopardy. Although a coach can not take away an athlete’s scholarship just because of an injury, some coaches will play upon the athlete’s fears by using this emotional blackmail card to keep the athlete on the field! When this is done, it leaves the athlete between a rock and a very hard place!

Most coaches who bully athletes into playing while hurt are experts at killing the athletes’ enjoyment of and passion for their sport. The dilemma is that, quite often, this may be the “only show in town.” The athlete’s choices are thus limited. Continue to play for an abusive, non-caring coach and be at risk both physically and emotionally, file a complaint with the athletic department or the dean of students, or leave the team and try to find some other way to continue pursuing your passion. However, if no other team is available, then leaving this abusive coach and doing the HEALTHY THING for yourself may mean that you have to stop playing!

Any system that protects abusive coaches at the emotional and/or physical expense of young athletes is appalling! I continue to feel strongly that WE All need to speak out about these issues regardless of the backlash from those intent on maintaining the status quo!


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