Last week, Kentucky High School football coach David Jason Stinson was found Not Guilty on charges of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in the death of one of his players, 15 year old Max Gilpin. The sophomore offensive linesman collapsed while running “gassers” ( a series of wind sprints) during practice last August, 2008 and then died three days later of heat stroke and massive organ failure.
At the time of the practice, the field temperature was 94 degrees and Stinson was having his players run the gassers as punishment for a lack of effort that they had showed that day. It appears that several of Gilpin’s teammates also became ill during the sprints, vomiting and dropping out with various ailments. The Attorney General argued that the coach had pushed his players beyond reason and then failed to pay attention to how his young athletes were reacting. When he collapsed, the 15 year old’s body temperature was 106!
Guilty or not, at the very least, this coach showed exceptionally bad judgment and a complete lack of sensitivity to where his players were at, both physically and emotionally. This total disconnect from his players, quite common to poor coaching was in part fueled by a culture of ignorance inherent in football and a lot of other sports. This culture of ignorance is based on the absurd notion that if you as a player acknowledge that you’re in pain or injured, then you’re less physically and mentally tough, macho, courageous, etc. than you would be if you had just “sucked it up” and kept your pain and discomfort to yourself.
Playing through pain and not listening to your body is quite simply wicked stupid! Coaches directly and indirectly encourage this sign of “strength” in their players by liberally using the threat of embarrassment/humiliation, a powerful behavioral shaper with pre-adolescent and adolescent boys. Already painfully self-conscious with a shaky self-image and desperately wanting to fit in, this age group of boys will endure almost anything if they believe it will enhance their sense of self and social standing on the team. Instead of protecting these boys and teaching them how to listen carefully to and trust their body, coaches like Stinson put them at risk.
If this isn’t criminal behavior, then at the very least it’s abusive! It’s time to stop perpetuating the silly myth that really tough guys “suck it up” and “play through pain.” This is actually more of a sign of weakness and stupidity, rather than strength, especially when you consider that the player who is in pain is too scared to even admit that he’s injured. Real strength lies in listening to your body, acknowledging that you’re sick or injured and standing up for and protecting yourself, regardless of the potential negative reaction that you might get from your coach or teammates.