The picture at the top of this article is of me interacting with one of my players during a game this past season. The first time I posted this photo on social media I thought it was a great shot. That is, until I was asked by not one, not two but several people if my "player was getting in trouble" in this scene.
I examined it thoroughly and yet, still failed to see the validity of this perspective. Of course I see myself as a person who was just coaching. Plain and simple, I was assisting my player with information needed for success. What I learned most from these assumptions was pretty telling.
As coaches, even a freeze frame in time of our most well-intentioned leadership can send a completely different message to those who know nothing about us or our commitment.
I am particularly intrigued by our current coaching climate and the troubling number that are being dismissed.
At some point, every coach has discussed this frustration. You know, the topic of that coach who got smeared in the local paper with a damning headline suggesting that athlete verbal or physical abuse led to their takedown.
I have watched far too many coaches in the last decade be ushered out the door due to allegations of verbal and/or physical abuse. I continue to scratch my head as I attempt to separate the bogus claims from the legitimate ones. Often the only way to try and determine this is through vague press releases covering the firing or hearsay.
As leaders in sports we can discuss and dissect this, but what are we really doing to address this trend?
If you are a coach, parent, teacher or athlete, you know exactly what I am referring to. What appears to be weekly now, we are reading about those beloved coaches of 20-30+ years in the business being sent to the chopping block after an athlete accuses him or her of abuse.
As chronologically predictable as it can be, the parents are outraged, the public weighs in, social media barks relentlessly on its chain for a week, the administrators panic, the team is scarred and everybody loses. As expected, the public is not likely to get their hands on the truth.
Unless we are directly involved, these stories always have two passionate sides. The two distinct camps include those who immediately condemn the coach and those who immediately attack the athlete(s) for being "soft".
Let's be honest, nothing about blind allegiance to either camp is healthy objectivity. As we are quickly losing our ability to listen and be balanced, we naturally feel the need to pick a side. As I read more of these stories and shake my head, I have worked to identify some intriguing commonalities in each case. In identifying these common denominators and paying closer attention to the missteps in a dismissal of these coaches, I am fascinated by our reactivity and poor preparation. Rather than shake my finger at everyone from the top down, I am writing to help with a few solutions.
As a college coach I will never assume that a physical or mental abuse allegation against a coach is true or false. I am a firm believer in the facts and that protection of athletes and students alike is paramount.
Verdicts and trials like Nassar with USA Gymnastics, MSU, Penn State and Baylor have put us on guard to protect our athletes and children and rightfully so. Absorbing those details of such a horrifying timeline of abuse have us all questioning our trust in every adult at every level in athletics and education. Please keep in mind for this piece, I am specifically speaking about allegations of physical and verbal abuse as opposed to sexual abuse or inappropriate coach-athlete relationships, which is a whole other article.
As we process and react to these stories in the news, it is completely reasonable to be on guard, but what is less reasonable is eliminating 10 stand-up coaches from the system to gain retribution for the one bad coach who fooled us all.
Again, in identifying the repeat patterns in these behaviors we can do so much better in deciphering whether this is a failure of the system or a specific person within it. The following is designed to help the two parties on the front lines of this battle. Here, both administrators and coaches can find a middle ground while all parties move professionally forward.
FOR ATHLETIC ADMINISTRATORS
Take a breath.
When a parent calls or visits you with a concern over one of your coaches, it can be a whirlwind of emotions and one that compels you to act. However, you can minimize your exposure to the shrapnel of that external pressure if you are able to gain a concrete understanding of whether the accusations or based on actual experience or perspective.
A coach accused of forcefully grabbing a player by the collar in an arena full of witnesses is an entirely different animal than an athlete's disagreement with their playing time. Other popular allegations against coaches are "showing favoritism" to certain players, insensitivity, excessive conditioning, yelling and bullying. Our tendency as the public and as athletic leadership is to stir all of these allegations into the same pot.
Principals and athletic directors, I get it, I really do. When listening to rants of your dissatisfied customers (parents), the red and blue lights begin to flash and there is so little that prevents you from fully imagining yourself being ushered out the front doors of your institution in handcuffs for allowing abuse by a coach under your watch.
My advice? Take a breath.
Regroup after the parent leaves your office or hangs up the phone. Recognize that while the parents may be outraged and will be demanding answers, the majority of even your worst critics understand due process and have no choice but to respect that.
You have the power to take that control back and be objective for the sake of all parties involved which includes every single person associated with your institution. Hastily firing a coach without any facts sends a message that you are controlled by public and/or parental opinion and opens the floodgates for further sway by outsiders. Despite it being something that may feel isolated to only one particular coach or team, a quick condemnation vibe will send a lasting message of a lack of trust and confidence with all of your coaches.
With this, comes a lack of confidence in your leadership. You owe it to yourself and to your institution to do what is right over what is easy or expected based on emotional emails, tweets or Facebook posts.
Talk to your coaches, observe and learn about them
When we understand the people who work with and for us, we are more likely to be able to identify and understand their typical behavioral traits that makes them great or not so great at what they do. As admins, it is your job to familiarize yourself with the people who work for you far beyond their interview.
Visit with your coaches as time allows and attend a practice or two to observe and share any feedback. In turn, when a parent calls and accuses your coach of yelling at their child you can respond with, "Yes, I have attended a few practices and heard the coach elevating his/her voice on occasion which appeared necessary in a loud, noisy gymnasium."
We can hold all of the required seminars and trainings to check the boxes by the county, state, board or university but none of these are as remotely effective as superior to subordinate feedback and consistent encouragement to do what is right. In contrast, if you attend a practice and see something that gives you pause about a coach's behavior or language, you should share that feedback as well with your coach as soon as possible.
Taking a coach aside after a practice and gently expressing that something you saw or words that they or their players used could be misconstrued by an outsider, is less tension-based criticism as it is looking out for their well-being. Even the most old school coaches are responsible for ongoing professional development. While it is definitely possible that not every coach will see this as helpful criticism, know that your professional effort in this interaction will provide you with a time marker to refer to in the event there is a complaint of the same nature in the future.
This will align your foundation of dialogue on accusations with factually based observations so you can remind your coach that you specifically offered them an opportunity to address and/or adapt their own behavior in a previous meeting. As an admin, if you fear this kind of interaction or feedback with your coaches you need to rethink your role as a leader. This is far more ideal than having to let your coach go based on false or overinflated allegations born by a lack of communication and awareness.
If you have never observed your coach in a practice, regardless of the age, level, or win-loss record, it is highly likely when you field the call from the angry parent that you will feel completely disarmed and unprepared. Unprepared people are at a much higher risk to make uninformed and brash decisions. Additionally, if you are a more traditional leader who finds comfort in fostering professional silos between yourself and the coaches you serve, your vulnerability to negative outcomes and resentment is multiplied many times over. Commit to due diligence as an administrator and know the people who coach for you.
Always meet with an athlete with an assistant or other adult present.
As a college coach who has established a healthy trust within my program, regardless of how long I am in this profession, there is absolutely no time that I will meet with an athlete without my assistant coach present. This practice alleviates the worry of misinterpretation by the athlete or student and adds an element of a third party witness which benefits all involved.
Document the details on your challenges.
Express your issues to your oversight admin when you feel they may have the opportunity to become a vulnerability for you. This may be in writing or in a meeting. This will give your admin the ability to recall a specific athlete or issue almost immediately which can be hugely helpful when they are contacted by parents.
Speak to your student athlete prior to going right to the parent
I hear coaches quite often vent about the overly involved parent(s) who is upset over their child's playing time. We often want to go right to the source and deal with the parent but we are missing a step. Speak to the athlete directly and discuss their role on the team with clear language that is firm but supportive. Document this interaction and share with your administrator for good measure.
In the event your athlete is misbehaving, treating you or teammates with disrespect and has ignored your counsel in correcting it, make a record for files and share with your admin. Document all displays of consistent behavior that are disruptive to the team or culture and share where appropriate to give your admin some historical context.
If you do not want to find yourself standing alone against unfounded abuse accusations then you must learn to recognize the value in communicating your challenges and needs at a time when things feel manageable. Communicating only in times requiring urgent input or response will send a message to your superior that you only share when you are panicking or need something.
Written team rules are key
Always have your team rules in writing. Supply your admin with your team rules and consequences in advance so they understand what will and will not be tolerated. After gaining administrative approval, consider distributing student-athlete contracts that demonstrates they individually understand the team expectations and standards. This is an ideal time to have your athletes assist in the process of creating their standards and consequences rather than we as coaches creating them in isolation.
Understand that the amount of time you have been at an institution is irrelevant
If you believe documenting and keeping your administrator or principal in the loop is silly based on your many years of experience, this is a shortsighted conclusion. Being an old school coach with more traditional methods does not make you a bad or outdated leader but it does make you more vulnerable to a system that has changed based on the constituency we serve having massively contrasting expectations. If we want to survive in coaching we must move with the times without false hope that our tenure will protect us. If you recall, the captain of the Titanic was convinced he could go faster despite warnings of icebergs because he had 30+ years of experience.
Our experience can and may work against us at any time as a coach. Like the Titanic captain, if we won't evolve in being proactive to protect ourselves and those around us, the door is open for us to join him at the bottom of the ocean or on the unemployment line.
Accept that not every customer will be satisfied with your performance
Regardless of level and age, as coaches and teachers we have all accepted that we may never reach every individual. For those who have invincible weeks or months as educators, there are so many of us that know well what it is like to feel invisible, disregarded and unappreciated. While we have accepted that 100% buy-in is likely unattainable, it does not mean our constituency of parents have automatically arrived at this same conclusion. Newsflash: No parent is currently sitting at home with the idea of being satisfied that their child is the one we won't be able to reach.
This means that unsatisfied customers or those unwilling to accept that their effort or workload is not matching their outcome, are inevitable. While we have come to terms with this as coaches, not every administrator is going to understand this perspective without some guidance from you. As coaches or teachers it is our job to communicate these issues as we move through our profession in real time.
Example: Letting your admin know after the season that a specific parent has harassed you all semester about playing time will be less helpful to your case after a complaint has been lodged.
Share your ongoing challenges with your leadership.
Keep your admin in the loop with ongoing challenges. Too often we attempt to be all things to all people and make efforts to convince ourselves that we have it under control at all times. We can complain to our assistants all we want but they will likely not be asked for their input or be part of our jury when judgment day arrives.
We agonize over problem athletes and pressures from outside influences. In turn, when either or both of the two entities decide to turn on the coach, this may produce a level of surprise for your administrator who may believe they have little choice but to initially side with the accuser group. If you do not currently feel you have that level of support at your institution, inquire as to how you can foster that relationship. This inquiry will not just be for you but for other coaches as well. Developing that layer of insurance and trust can be an incredible game changer in coach productivity, effectiveness and administrative operations.
No one is dismissing the need for elimination of coaches who are practicing physical or emotional abuse with their athletes. However, coaches and administrators should be working toward the same goal and operating as a team. Establishing a much keener awareness on the behavior and challenges in today's athletic forum will be far more fruitful than reactive elimination of so many of our best leaders.