Updated: May 27
In Texas, people go to church on Sunday, but religion is found on the gridiron.
Football is divine here, a theological manifestation that you have to see to believe. When we first moved here after I retired from the Army, I volunteered to be an offensive line coach for my son's youth football team. In the triple digit heat, kids pounded away at each other, some crying from the heat, others crying from the hits. Practices were punishing and as a 26-year military/war veteran I asked myself if I would endure so much misery just to play a sport.
As I contemplated, the sounds of helmets and pads cracking loudly together in the background, coaches and players lined up in two lines creating a human corridor. Two kids lined up facing each other in a three-point stance. When the whistle blew, the bodies exploded toward each other, colliding with a thunderous clap, legs pumping like pistons churning mechanically in an effort to steal turf away from the other player. Guttural growling forced its way out from behind clinched teeth as one of the players fell to the ground, causing a primal eruption of shouts and yells from the coaches and the players.
One of the players managed to plow over his teammate with such force that it knocked the kid flat on his back. At the football altar we had sacrificed a boy who got up teary eyed, physically hurt but more ashamed than anything as the coaches smacked him on the helmet and said: "C'mon, you just gotta man up!" A day in the life of a third grader playing football in America.
As a kid, I never played an organized sport, but that's not to say that I didn't play sports. In the neighborhood, we played pickup basketball at the park, soccer at the middle school, and tackle football (no pads) at the elementary school. We even played baseball, sometimes with a tennis ball and whatever bat we could find, using big rocks as our bases. Most of us didn't have gloves.
I was never coached in athletics nor did I have any experience as a coach, but when I became a dad, I didn't want to sit in the stands. So, I started reading everything I could to learn how to properly coach. I turned to organizations like Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) which offered training to prepare me for interacting with impressionable young minds. I explored USA Baseball and USA Football to gain technical knowledge. I became certified as a coach by USA Baseball, USA Football, US Lacrosse, and I am certified as a Double-Goal Coach by the Positive Coaching Alliance. I am also an Accredited Interscholastic Coach with the National Federation of State High School Associations and I did doctoral work at the U.S. Sports Academy where I studied coaching.
On the day of our first game, I was told by the head coach that the coaches’ kids would play no matter what and that the "studs" would be brought out only for water breaks or injuries. The "scrubs" would be played at the end of the game or sporadically as a "speed bump" to ensure that we were abiding by the mandatory play rule.
That game ended with what was almost a fist fight in the middle of the field when coaches gathered to shake hands but instead started launching obscenities at each other as the boys watched. I restrained one of our coaches pushing him back as I told him our boys were watching and he let rip one more "fuck you" to the other team. When he started to walk toward our sideline, I made eye contact with my son. He had seen the whole ugly display. I'm sure it had left an impression.
It was at that moment that I wondered if signing up my kid for football had been a mistake. Sadly, what I discovered is that football is not the problem. If there was ever a problem in the many sports my kids played (football, baseball, lacrosse, swimming, gymnastics, softball, soccer, basketball, cross country and track), the issue has always been the coaches, followed very closely by emotionally stunted and psychologically unstable parents.
How do blissfully ignorant coaches get access to our kids? Like vampires, we invite them in not suspecting that their ill-informed beliefs will damage our kids. Many of us have limited experience in athletics, so we turn to people that might be experts. We look up to the dad who played football in college or the mom who almost made it onto an Olympic swim team. We worship the baseball coach who played in the big leagues and the mom who played for her country in the World Cup.
We love former players turned coaches because we equate game knowledge to coaching success and the truth is one has nothing to do with the other. A knowledgeable coach, that is a coach who has deep, technical knowledge of a game, can still be a horrible coach. How? Wisdom does not mean that these players turned coaches understand child mental and physical development and many regurgitate the same unhealthy coaching bile that was spewed on them by coaches who themselves were toxic.
Some of these coaches seem really nice. Many are young, well-groomed, fit and educated and we are fooled because the packaging has changed. When I grew up, a stereotypical gym class coach was an overweight guy with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, coughing, in between barks of a raspy voice that told you how much of a pussy you were for not being able to do more than a couple of chin-ups a la Mr. Woodcock.
How many times have you seen a coach pull a player from a game because the kid dropped a pass, missed a shot, failed to block or for some other performance reason? I’ve seen it at the middle school level all the way up to high school. The zero-tolerance approach in coaching does not train kids to perform better, it discourages them from actively playing because they will be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes are a part of growth and becoming successful.
I asked a teenage soccer player how she felt when her coaches pulled her from the game after she missed a shot on goal. “How can I get any better if they do not give me the chance? I know the other girls are better, but they are allowed to make mistakes. When they mess up, they can stay on the field, but I can’t.” Not only was this girl subjected to zero-tolerance climate, but she detected the hypocrisy of the coaches and their favoritism toward players that could win the game.
I asked the PCA via Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on coaches who removed kids (including high school players) from games for making mistakes. PCA stated: "That is not the kind of approach to coaching that we condone." They added that coaches who removed players from games because of mistakes were only concerned with the scoreboard. They’re right.
My kids play sports, so in recent years I've heard coaches tell players "I'm putting you in the rest of the quarter so don't screw this up." I've seen players get greeted on the sidelines with remarks like "I cannot believe you missed that tackle, sit down," and "You got schooled by their worst defender, you need to get off." That's really inspiring, right?
PCA interviewed two NCAA Division I coaches in videos they produced and they stated that it is important for coaches to give their players confidence and encouragement to keep playing after they make a mistake. There is no value in pointing out a slip critically. Players are aware that they have made an error. An effective coach knows when and how to coach up the omission. Negative comments tear down the players and continued attacks of that kind by coaches are noxious to a young person’s confidence and self-esteem.
The InSideOut Initiative which is led by former NFL football player Joe Ehrmann categorizes coaches into two types: transactional or transformational. The transactional coach is someone who is motivated by self-interest, winning. They put themselves first and the players last. The transformational coach is someone who will put the players’ and the team’s needs first. The needs of the coach come last.
When I see kids getting pulled from games for trying their best, even if it falls short of a coach’s expectations, I think of U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Hal Moore who as a battalion commander was in a nasty battle with the North Vietnamese Army in 1965. During that fight, one of his soldiers who was directing the bombing of enemy forces had an aircraft mistakenly attack friendly positions which resulted in the deaths of several of Moore’s men. Rather than disparage the soldier, focus on the mistake or relieve the man of his duties, Moore encouraged him to keep going adding that the soldier was “doing fine” and keeping the battalion alive. Yet in the world of artificial conflict we have coaches taking things so seriously that they have taken the game away from kids and made it theirs. We have a problem.
Coaches can play an incredible role in the lives of young people. They are a valuable part of our communities. Their interactions with our kids can leave long lasting marks so we have to ensure we ask ourselves what do we want from our coaches? Child development experts will tell you that sports are a great delivery system for human values, but only if the coach is actively finding teachable moments to instill values in athletes. When the objective of sports is winning, then all of the variables from the game that can teach kids lessons are lost.
Competition is healthy for kids because there are a lot of life lessons that come wrapped in athletic strife. Conflict builds resiliency, creativity, confidence, cooperation, interdependence, energy and a long list of good things that grow out of the application of effort. Winning is a temporary end state. The skills and character kids learn from rising up to challenges in sports are far more valuable than any win that will be forgotten.
In American society, the majority of youth coaches, especially high school coaches, feel that their primary responsibility is to win. "I get paid to win. That's what they expect out of me," a high school coach once told me. But in more than 13 years of interviews, polls and surveys, with thousands of youth and high school parents and their kids, 90 percent state that fun and character development should be the primary reason kids play sports.
Yet somehow, at the youth level, parents get saddled with coaches who play their own kids in all the key positions on the team along with other players who have talent, the entire organization orbiting around the “studs” who can run fast, hit or catch. Ignored are the kids whose motor skills have not yet developed, and they are dismissed, overlooked and labeled. Kids whose brains haven’t yet learned to talk to their bodies sit and watch. How can they get better, improve, if they are not given a chance? Are they less worthy of an opportunity because they aren’t coordinated?
In high school I would argue that kids are more in need of lessons in values than they are in sports. Yes, it is important to learn how to block and tackle, or how to refine your swing, but those things should be learned to make the game more enjoyable for the player, not to make players sharper tools for the coach to use to carve out a victory.
The bottom line is that coaches behave the way they do because we allow them to. I would encourage all of you to get involved in your youth sports organizations. If you cannot coach then become members of your youth sports boards of directors and use organizations like PCA and the InSideOut Initiative to change the cultures in your organizations. Set up training sessions and put your coaches through the training. Make training mandatory and have coaching candidates, even volunteers, interview for the positions to ensure the organization and the coaches are on the same sheet of music. Your coaches must put kids first over the score board.
At the high school level, talk to administrators and athletic directors to ensure coaches are given opportunities to gain coaching knowledge from entities like PCA and the InSideOut Initiative. Good coaches will be open to the training and if they are not then you should go shopping for a new coach. Remember, teams belong to the athletes, not the coaches and not the parents.
Lastly, encourage your kids at all ages to talk to their coaches if they are having problems. Even little kids can learn to be assertive and confront rigidity, hypocrisy, and unfairness. But sometimes even if you have done the right things and coaches fall short of player and parental expectations there are still opportunities for you to teach your kids something about themselves, human nature and about the world around them.
For example, if your kid is pulled from games because he makes mistakes and other players are kept in while they make multiple mistakes, encourage him to talk to his coaches. If after talking to his coaches they do not address the issue, then the life lesson for your athlete is that the coaches are making mistakes that they do not recognize. Encourage your kid to be the bigger person, to be better than their coaches and ask them not to take a zero-tolerance approach to the coaches’ mistakes because if they do, they are just as intolerant of errors as their coaches. Encourage them to forgive.
A couple of months ago I was sorting through pictures taken last season of my son’s high school lacrosse team. I came across a picture of him after a game, smiling ear to ear, despite the fact that at that game there was a bench clearing fight started by one of his teammates. Both teams came onto the field and in the aftermath, players were ejected and penalty flags rained down.
Amidst the chaos, I watched my son, getting in between players as they went for each other, trying to prevent the fights from happening, playing the peacekeeper.
I guess I was right. The fight he saw as a young football player did leave an impression on him. A good one.