Monday, January 4, 2010

Motivation or Abuse?

Mike Leach, the Texas Tech football coach, was recently fired amid allegations of abuse toward players (really one player in particular). Leach allegedly told an athletic trainer to have a player, who had recently been diagnosed with a concussion, go stand in a dark room and stand alone for the duration of practice. It's not clear to me exactly what the connection there is but there are indications that the player was not on Leach's good side (which I kind of hope is true because if not, I shudder to think of what he might do to players who pissed him off).

The relationship between coach and player can, at its best, be life changing, transformative, and highly educational. But like any other relationship it can go bad. And the potential for it to slide from one of unequal power into abuse is ever-present. Acts like Leach's illustrate what happens when a coach chooses to use his power and act out in a way that has no resemblance to sound discipline or education. Coaches are generally given more freedom to do what they think necessary to help a player and team become "better." When I was a college coach, I secretly loved the idea that every once in awhile I could say to an underperforming player, "get your head out of your ass!" when my faculty friends would likely be hauled into the Provost's office for saying anything resembling that comment to a student. I'm sure that secretly they too would like to walk over to an inattentive (ok, sleeping) student and suddenly bellow into their ear "GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ASS!" Alas, only a coach (or a drill sergeant) is given the leeway to say such things and still be applauded as an excellent motivator.

In the context of sports, yelling (and sometimes swearing) at young men and women is not always considered abusive. Occasionally, when it gets excessive (or just too quiet in the gym when the expletive flies) it is considered in bad taste. But rarely abusive. But highly successful coaches (and by successful I don't mean wins and losses as much as helping challenge young men and women to become better people) rarely scream and yell all the time and most certainly, they don't lock their players in a dark room to teach them...something.

As a coach, I didn't assign the dirty jobs to the freshmen. I had everybody do the dirty jobs (myself and my assistants included) and do them together. Coaches who always assign the grunt work to the freshman are thinking that they are somehow helping these newbies earn their stripes. But what are they really learning? And will they learn more by carrying the water themselves than if they do it with an upperclassmen? To me, building team is building a whole team. Not segments of a team in the hopes that they will then come together magically on game day. In fact, instead of letting seniors sit back and get waited on by the freshman, I often assigned seniors and captains some of the least desirable jobs (cleaning the van after a long road trip, for instance). To me, that sent the message that with seniority and power, came responsibility to do things for the entire team. Freshmen saw that and instead of feeling pushed around, saw a future obligation and the notion that leadership was not about directing others to do your work. It was about chipping in and helping the whole team.

To come full circle, you have to wonder what Leach thought he was accomplishing. It seems to be nothing short of retribution or punishment without a modicum of education. Of course, I don't know the full context. But to me, this is one of those things that I'll draw a line in the sand. I -- and many of the outstanding coaches I have come across in my career -- would never consider doing something like what Leach did. And I promise that if I ever get a chance to teach in the classroom, I will never tell a student to get his head out of his ass. Unless of course, I'm teaching veterinary medicine and my student really has his head in his ass.

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