Too often I work with clients who report having difficulties in the environment produced by their coach. Feeling afraid to make mistakes, on edge all practice, and riddled with anxiety throughout the season. For whatever the reason, these kids believe that their coach does not support their development. In other words they believe ‘I am not worthy.’ Whether coaches are aware or not, when they work with youth athletes they are in a significant role of power and with power comes a great responsibility. It does not take much for a coach to have a profound influence on the wellness of their athletes.
The most unfortunate instance is when a coach deliberately criticizes particular players leaving them to feel frustrated, angry, and ultimately depressed. Or even worse, when a coach is unaware that his or her words and actions are causing athletes to feel worthless and incapable. The reality is that these kids are hurting more than a coach could possibly understand, and for what reason? What drives an adult, in a coach’s role, to intentionally hurt, ostracize, or belittle a young athlete? Is it that they focus too much on winning and overlook the fact that sport can be a child’s main source of relief; an outlet from the dramas of their daily lives. Or is it that they are so insecure with their own abilities that taking the time to teach and develop players is second fiddle to finding the “best,” most talented athlete, while discarding those who fall behind.
For these coaches the plan is more about yelling and criticizing the ones who they want to quit while supporting and glorifying those who they want to prosper. Why? Because it makes them look better. Take for example an 11-year-old soccer player who feels that her coach does not support her anymore. When she was younger she felt loved by excessive attention and extra training, but as she ages, she feels that her coach is losing interest and he has moved on to mold new players. This young player feels that she cannot do anything right in her coach’s eyes. She reports feeling intimidated at each and every practice, where she is told to perform ‘better’ with no actual instruction on how. As a result she feels nervous to make mistakes in anticipation of the frustration, anger, and deep sadness that ensue.
You see, when athletes are continually told that they are not performing well/correctly/good enough, without actual informative feedback, it is very easy to learn and begin to believe that ‘I suck.’ Or in another instance if athletes are over-coached or even worse, not coached at all, then they may internalize a similar message, ‘What is wrong with me?’ So if it is the coach’s intention to behave in a way that will drive players off the team, then it may actually work, but at what cost? A coach is a person who teaches and develops young aspiring athletes to perform at their best, not a person who breaks down self-esteem and optimism.
Sometimes I wonder if coaches ever go home and think about what they said that day or how what they said impacted each athlete. I wonder how often they think about the athletes’ daily stressors and well being outside of sport. As a coach myself, I may actually think too much about these things, however I believe that my power in such a role is paramount to the performance outcomes that I hope to see. Nonetheless, I coach elite soccer players that have had tremendous success under my lead. This, to me, demonstrates that the abuse in power is not an ingredient for success – it is simply a style of coaching.
There is no one reason that coaches abuse their athletes, especially since most of the time they are unaware that their actions and words are abusive. From my education as a mental skills consultant combined with my experiences as a coach I am now aware that I react to each of my players differently and my reaction is dependent upon how I relate to the player’s personality. In essence, coaches are human beings with a history of relationships – some good or healthy and some bad or unhealthy. So when faced with numerous athletes with different personalities/values/learning styles, coaches must manage any disconnect between their athletes and their own way of training/learning/performing.
For example, I value hard work and humility so when I coach a player who is egocentric and, at times, “lazy,” I feel frustrated and annoyed. As a result of those emotions my natural reaction would be to yell or simply ignore that player’s abilities. However, I can recognize that my emotional reaction is based upon my upbringing and I have the power to help that athlete develop humility and a stronger work ethic. Coaches have a choice; on the one hand they can be aware and work to treat all athletes fairly OR they can repeat the dynamics of unhealthy relationships. If their choice is the latter, a young athlete is a perfect subordinate. Coaches can use their power in a way that they may never have in the past. As a coach, they can prevail.
Each athlete has their own way of managing emotions and not all are troubled by their relationship with coach. But for those who are, it is increasingly difficult to stay optimistic and motivated in an activity that has the capacity to foster both positive emotions. As a result, coaches must continually be aware that their position affords a power that can have a profound impact on the daily lives of young athletes and such power can be easily abused. In an effort to prevent debilitative coach-athlete relationships, it is increasingly important for aspiring coaches to be aware of their own emotional triggers to better coach a wide range of personalities.