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

Of all of the blog postings I’ve done over the past several years, none has drawn as many comments or stirred up as much intense emotion as the topic of UNFAIR COACHES. Whether we’re talking about college, high school, middle school, travel or youth sports, UNFAIR COACHES can quickly kill an athlete’s love of and motivation for their sport, undermine their learning and sabotage their performance. When left unchecked, unfair coaches are quite successful in generating repetitive performance problems and turning athletes into premature drop-out statistics!

For example, Jenny was a very talented 12 year old pitcher and the star on her softball team. She loved pitching under pressure and rarely if ever thought on the mound. She just went out there, stayed composed and got the job done! Jenny’s coach at the time was also the father of another pitcher on the team. Soon coach-dad, and for no apparent reason, started pulling Jenny out the minute she began to “struggle.” That is, if she walked a batter or gave up a single, he benched her and put his daughter in. (Mind you, in the past whenever this would happen, Jenny always bounced back and got herself out of trouble!) However, when his daughter gave up multiple hits, walks or even runs, coach-dad left his girl in, even if she was getting lit up!!

In addition to frustrating and angering Jenny, being unfairly kept on such a “short leash” got her thinking. “I can’t make mistakes,” “I can’t give up a hit” “If I mess up, I’ll get benched! I have to be perfect!” As her mind raced over these possibilities, she put more and more pressure on herself to perform flawlessly. In the process, she became increasingly nervous and distracted. Soon she couldn’t stop herself from over-thinking about messing up and getting pulled. The more she thought, the tighter she got and the tighter she got, the worse she performed. As a result, she lost her self-confidence, control and speed. Soon, just the thought of going into a game sent her into a panic and filled her with a sense of dread. By the end of the season, things had gotten so bad that she stopped pitching altogether! It didn’t take long before her fear and dread had spread to her hitting and fielding, and for the first time in her life, Jenny began entertaining the idea of quitting the game completely.

Unfair coaches border on the emotionally abusive, but their “abuse” is way under the radar screen and can’t be characterized as “reportable.” They don’t necessarily yell and scream. They don’t overtly demean their players. They don’t use humiliation and shame. They don’t physically push their athletes, throw chairs, break clip boards or have violent temper tantrums!

What they do do quite often is say one thing with their words and then something completely different with their behaviors. They make promises, but somehow don’t ever end up keeping them. They’ll tell you that all you need to do is work harder and your efforts will get rewarded, but that never seems to happen. Unfair coaches also sometimes ignore the less favored athletes. It’s as if you don’t show up on the coach’s radar screen! Worse yet, you may consistently follow all of the team rules, maintain a great attitude, take responsibility for all of your actions and, despite it all, find yourself on the bench behind more favored teammates who need an attitude readjustment, have a lousy work ethic, are totally irresponsible and consistently break team rules!

What can be even more maddening is that on the surface, unfair coaches can present as really nice guys. In all other respects, Jenny described her coach in this way as a “good guy!” He seemed kind and friendly! However, the end result of having to deal with all of the unfairness and favoritism leaves the athlete feeling as if these coaches are anything but “nice!”

Although it is ALWAYS the coach’s decision about team role and playing time, unfair coaches may refuse to give an athlete deserved playing time. It’s as if they are completely blind to the athlete’s ability and effort. Or, their favoritism makes it impossible for them to see the athlete clearly. When they do put you in, this kind of coach may play you in an off position, thereby downplaying your strengths, emphasizing your weaknesses and thus setting you up to fail. When you get in in the right position, this kind of coach, like Jenny’s, may have a quick “trigger finger,” pulling you out the minute you make one mistake while allowing their favored players much more leeway as far as mistakes go!

The unfair coach acts as if he’s approachable, even encouraging his/her athletes to chat with them. However, whenever the athletes do so, the conversations always seem the same, they go nowhere and nothing ever changes in the coach’s behaviors! This is because the unfair coach tends to be a very poor communicator! He/she is either indirect and won’t ever say what he/she’s really feeling or what they have to say to their players are just empty words.

The unfair coach’s “quiet” mis-treatment of those players not favored often leaves these athletes filled with self-doubts and no longer believing in themselves. And ironically, it’s these self-doubts generated by the unfair coach that are at the root of many an athlete’s performance struggles. Being consistently treated in this way almost always causes performance problems! It’s near impossible for any athlete to maintain their self-confidence and high level of play when playing for this kind of a coach.

It’s really difficult, even bordering on the impossible to get unfair coaches to change their behaviors because they are rarely open to feedback. They don’t see that there is anything wrong with how they are treating you, and if you or your parents do complain, this kind of coach tends to respond by defending their decisions, feeling resentful that anyone would question their judgment and explaining it away as YOUR problem rather than theirs!

What’s truly maddening about dealing with an unfair coach is that they can so easily explain your complaints and unhappiness away by labeling you as a malcontent or someone who simply thinks that they are better than they really are. This is how this kind of coach usually deals with parents who complain about their child’s playing time. They see this kind of parent as intrusive and causing problems. Again, I want to be clear here! While it is the coach’s decision who plays and NOT the parents’, the situation that I’m referring to here is the BLATANT DISREGARD OF AN ATHLETE’S TRUE TALENT LEVEL. When this happens it is obvious to all those who are watching including all the other parents that something is amiss!

If you have to play for an unfair coach, you have a VERY TOUGH, but VERY IMPORTANT road ahead of you. You must continue to work hard at your sport to improve your skills. You must continue to pursue your dreams and not let your discouragement from the unfairness and lack of playing time get to you. This means that you need to learn to channel your frustrations into constructive efforts to grow as a person and an athlete. And what you need to continue to keep in the back of your mind is that not all coaches are unfair. There are good coaches out there who do not play favorites and who value honest effort and a good attitude, coaches who are fair and willing to give you and others a reasonable chance to excel.

Let me end by saying that there are thousands of these wonderful coaches out there. Keep in mind that coaches are human, work their butts off and make mistakes just like all of the rest of us! When I talk about unfair coaches in this blog, I am NOT talking about an occasional incident or misunderstanding! What I am talking about is a clear pattern of behavior that is consistently repeated over time! You’ll know the difference because when you address a concern with a good, fair coach, they readily acknowledge their mistakes and make an honest effort to change things.

I have had the pleasure of working with these terrific coaches. So if you’re struggling right now with an unfair coach, hang in there because sooner or later you’ll have the life-changing pleasure to play for a great coach!


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