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Coaches: When Your Athletes are Reckless with Their Feedback, You Pay the Price


The years of 1999-2003 were my student-athlete days. Like all teams, my college tennis teammates and I had our share of inside jokes and crass phrases that would cause even our own coaches to shake their heads.

As a team, our most frequent use of these phrases could most commonly be heard on "challenge match" days. For those unfamiliar with the challenge match concept in college tennis, these were singles practice matches where each player would compete for their number in the lineup.

For me, these were no big deal because ultimately I wanted to just play where the team needed me most. For others, challenges matches were a mixed bag full of emotion and anxiety. The possibility that you could gain or lose a spot was nerve-racking for some while exciting for others.

Shanking the ball into the net after a well fought and fast-paced rally usually induced some low key swear words or mild self-berating, but most of the time you could just hear pockets of sarcasm across all six courts.

"You suck, nice shot." or "Ugh, hit that shot again, I'll kill you." These were all statements that were drowning in sarcasm and empty threats to one another. However, off the court, in terms of the things we said about our coaches, we pretty much said anything and everything that today would make many administrative heads turn or at least cause a follow up interrogation if the wrong ears got wind of our poor wording choices.

As a dual sport athlete I had two coaching staffs to criticize. For my teams, we had plenty of training days that were skill focused but particularly after a tough conditioning session it was not uncommon to hear a teammate lament at dinner that: "Coach must have been in a bad mood, he crushed us today" or "Coach was pissed at us and yelled at us."

I look back on it now and I cannot think of one overinflated criticism that we had of our coaches that wouldn't be taken seriously today. Every statement we made was completely void of context or consequence at the time. Being a coach now, I almost cringe at the assumptions and often completely unfair judgment we cast on our coaches because at that point in our self-absorbed college lives, we were understandably and irrefutably reckless in our dialogue.

In reality my coach "crushing" players was really a translation that meant conditioning was challenging in our sessions and helped us to become fitter.

I recall the day my tennis team was discussing how we "got yelled at". In actuality, we were rightfully verbally reprimanded for leaving sweaty, dirty clothes, food and trash all over our school van that transported us over spring break. Our lack of attention to the fact that the men's golf team was inheriting that van for our next trip embarrassed our coach and our program. Yes, our coach was upset but even then he didn't actually "yell" at us, rather he strongly stated his disappointment. As the captain I knew I was to blame back in 2001 but despite our language being overinflated and our 18 year-old brains painting a very inaccurate picture of the situation, if you asked our team today, it's likely we would explain it the same way for nostalgia purposes and a laugh.

You see, today's players haven't necessarily changed their language on coach feedback nearly as much as the ears hearing the feedback have.

This is less of a problem than the reaction and lack of effort to dissect the words to gain a firmer understanding of these words in an athletic context.

I think quite a bit about my high school and college scenarios and how those would play out in the current sports environment where we are experiencing coaches being let go on the daily. I had some great coaches and some not so great coaches and about half would lose their jobs if they were employed today. This is not because they were abusive and not because they were coaching to hurt or belittle their players but because there would no longer be administrations in place that would have the time or interest in seeking explanation or context.

From my perspective, this isn't solely an entitlement matter, a millennial or generation Y problem. Rather more of a complete disregard of the power of the words that the athletes of today are actively accessing. This, in tandem with ignoring how delicate interpretation without context is becoming the enemy of accountability and natural consequences for basic standards.

This has and will continue to cost coaches their jobs while future teams will lose out on solid leaders. If we do not seek to recognize and treat the issue we will continue down a sad path of athletic chaos. The idea that we can fully blame the current generation of athletes is not productive or reasonable and no amount of complaining or labeling of entitlement will change the mass exit of some of our best coaches.

This being said, there must be acknowledgement of an existing subset of the athlete population who is well aware of the buzz words and knows absolutely how to use them to their advantage with administrators.

We do not talk about this subset enough because of the level of fear in the coaching community that we will be branded that "horrible coach" we all hear about.

There is no denying that there are some coaches who are poor at what they do. Criticism of methodology, delivery or connection with their athletes will never fully disappear. However, for the rest of the coaches innocently attempting to survive an environment where so many react based on reading the headline without even reading the article, we are stuck. This should sound familiar where we as a society, retweet the best tweets and read Facebook click bait based on their shock value or catchy title. How many of us have read a social media post/article and the first five commenters post the same question or observation that is clearly answered in the body of the article?

If adults do this with supposedly longer attention spans, it's even worse within the 18-21 year old crowd. If you are as agitated as I am about these kind of people, you are in the right place but you will also find merit in how this translates to our athletes and the concept of total recklessness with words. There should be no mystery as to why we collectively react to words without a shred of context.

This generation is able to text, email, tweet, snapchat and publish what they choose and share their opinions, judgements and experiences without repercussions or answering to anyone. This has decreased our opportunities to show them how they can destroy livelihoods with one wrong usage of a phrase or word.

In terms of the danger in athletics, convenient omission of context arrives and a coach who notices their player is light headed at practice asks them what they ate today. In the moment, the athlete may share that they skipped a meal or didn't have time between class which would fully explain their lack of energy. No coach would view this as an abnormal exchange.

However, give this scenario a few hours or even days to marinate and suddenly when the athlete doesn't start, their end of the year interview produces feedback that they were "fat shamed" or that the coach "demanded to know" what the athlete had been eating.

This in itself is a prime example of a lack of context that can and does end careers. Often the ambiguity and anonymity of these survey answers allows a total free-for-all on interpretation. Again, there is no debate that poor coaching and methodologies exist but by placing this epidemic squarely on the shoulders of coaching population we are completely missing much of this pattern of behavior even outside sports, to recognize that it is now taking over on the inside.

When a coach chooses the team standards or consequences over a single player looking to skirt the system, this is not "mean or abusive", it's actually helpful to the process of assisting players in strengthening their conflict muscles and taking ownership over their mistakes.

When a coach is open and honest with where a player is talent or effort wise, this is not "bullying" it is an opportunity for feedback. These are all only a FEW of the most common athlete translations shared by our network of coaches in one handy cheat-sheet image below.

It is our job as the professional adults in these situations to dig for context and work with understanding your coaches before you opt to throw them under the bus. If you are not interested in pursuing the whole story because it feels time consuming think about how much time you are going to be taking when you need to rehire a new coach year after year because you cater only to the comments of a dissatisfied few rather than considering the group.

Did you like this article? Tweet @TFCoachCarlson #BEFEARLESS #ContextSavesJobs or DM me with your SA Situation and Translation. www.thefearlesscoach.org