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Bullying In Coaching Lacrosse

Two recent articles have grabbed the attention of the sports world, and while both tackle the subject of yelling, and bullying, by coaches, the two articles also come to VERY different conclusions. One argued that all the yelling was ineffective, and amounted to bullying. The other argued that the yelling was actually good for kids, and always has been.

Bloomberg’s Harlan Coben wrote That’s Not Coaching. It’s Child Abuse., while Jennifer Wilson (no relation to the author of this article) wrote Old School Coaches – In Defense Of Coaches Who Yell, for Esquire. The two both have strong feelings on the issue, and bring up compelling arguments to support their positions, but who is right?

Is all this YELLING good, or bad, for the kids?

Honestly, it’s hard to say.

In the real world, you will get yelled at. Policer officers may bark orders at you, your boss may hand down some “advice” in a not-so-nice way, or your significant other may really let you have it if you mess up something serious. Prepping kids for yelling, even when it’s not the 100% rational kind, makes, at the very least, some amount of sense. Yelling may not be an ideal motivator, but it is a reality in the world we live in.

On the other hand, one of sport’s great lessons is to treat people with respect, right? We teach this about opponents, refs, and our own teammates. Coaches are supposed to teach their players, and screaming at them all the time does not fall under this teaching expectations umbrella. Teaching, and not yelling, is usually in a coach’s job description, so the latter is obviously not required, even if it can be deemed useful. So how can we even begin to draw a line?

For me, it is pretty simple… There is NO line.

People love to create steadfast rules, and hard guidelines for action. Everyone loves to say what is definably right, and what is known to be wrong, especially in opinion columns. But in my experience, every situation is different, and unique, and sometimes yelling will work, and sometimes it won’t. You see, we’re all snowflakes and…

Ok, I’m not going to get too sappy here. I’ll spare you that. But I will say that no two situations are ever truly alike, and that sometimes, but not always, a little yelling can go a long way. Does it seem like I have selected a total fence-sitter position here? Do you bemoan my inability to say one side is definitively correct?

Well, how about this? Both authors are definitely WRONG.

The press loves to create two-sided stories these days. It’s us vs. them, this vs. that, and everything is shown in black and white. There is no nuance, or grey area; it’s all extremes. In this case, Coben is the extreme of painting yellers as villains and talentless coaches, while Wilson is their apologist. Both writers miss the boat by a couple nautical miles.

Coben is correct when he decries small children being told that they look like they are having sex with their grandmothers. No one should be told that, and definitely not by their coaches. I found that example he cited to be repulsive. But Wilson is also correct that a coach yelling at a kid who is being lazy can help that child achieve, and learn how to achieve in the future. What shocks me is that neither of them can see the other side of what they are espousing.

Coben comes close to creating some caveats, but immediately after, he dedicates a single line of text to “Zero tolerance. None.”, and then writes:

When you call a kid a name or belittle him, that’s abuse. Plain and simple. It should be treated as such. If you cannot coach without screaming, don’t coach. I appreciate how much time and effort it takes. I’ve coached kids, too. But if you can’t do it without tantrums, find something else to do. This is abuse. Parents may not be aware of the long-term effect coaches like these have on their child. Study after study has shown that verbally aggressive language doesn’t motivate. In fact, it harms.

Are parents aware of the effect that NOT getting yelled at, ever, until a child has grown up, can have? Because that is what will come with a Zero Tolerance policy. NO Yelling. That’s what zero tolerance is, by definition. Does “Get back on defense!” also mean “you’re not trying hard enough?” Can that be seen as “belittling a child”? As usual, zero tolerance is not the answer.

Of course then we get to Wilson, and while she does a good job of saying when someone has gone way too far, she also makes some troubling generalizations that I don’t fully understand, especially when she writes:

I am not scared of the coach who lays it all out there, night after night, caring that my kids do their best, not just for themselves, but for the benefit of the whole team. Caring harder than a two-by-four to the face. Caring so hard that it is a real possibility that he will some day blow out that one vein in his neck.

It’s funny, because I feel the same way Wilson does on this one, FOR ME. I am not scared of this coach. I like a coach who cares more than a 2×4 to the face. I like a coach that cares about the team so much he may have a stroke. But I, and Jennifer Wilson… we are not everyone.

There are kids out there who internalize yelling as nothing more than anger. There are kids who shut off to anger and yelling because they have seen so much of it already in their lives. There are kids who need to be hugged, and legitimately cared for out there, and some of them may be on the very teams that Wilson’s kids are on. She assumes that kids everywhere have a great family to go home to. She assumes that athletics is not a release from the pressures of a dangerous life, and that for some, it can be the only place a kid can feel safe. Perhaps she is ignorant to these factors in life, because she certainly doesn’t account for them in her article.

Actually, Coben also seems pretty ignorant to the above issues as well, when he writes:

I’m also not a huge fan of the namby-pamby New Age coaching. If a kid hits a weak grounder and doesn’t run it out, don’t yell, “Good hustle!” But still, that overcompensation is preferable to ones on the other side. There can be nothing approaching abuse directed at a kid.

At least he thinks hand holding could be preferable to berating a kid. I guess it’s a start, but it still shows little compassion for kids in tough situations, or kids who live their lives outside of Coben and Wilson’s immediate sphere.

You know what? Screw it, I am going to get sappy here, because these are kids we are talking about, and not cookie cutter robots. Each one really does need different things from a coach. Some need to be yelled at, and told they run slowly. Others need to be encouraged, even when they fail, simply because NO ONE else in their life is doing so. And countless others need everything in between, and a thousand things we aren’t even discussing.

At the end of the day, it is NOT about whether a coach is a yeller, or calm. It is not about whether a coach berates players, or holds their hand. It is how the coach interacts with each player to make sure they are reaching their potential, and becoming a better member of their team, ALL WHILE BECOMING A BETTER PERSON. It has nothing to do with yelling, or not yelling, and everything to do with nuance.

THAT is what the great coaches all have in common: Nuance. Now if only the sporting press and more parents could pick up on that we might be able to have a truly honest and enlightening conversation for once.