Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rutger's Coaching Abuse--Assume Athletes are Students

The tape of how Mike Rice treated Rutger’s basketball players speaks for itself. It chronicles months of a coach who “motivated” athletes through physical grabbing, pushing, throwing balls at unprotected heads and genitals while hurling endless curses and anti-women and anti-gay slurs. Only after the tapes reached the public thanks did the President and Athletic Director fire Reid. Now the Rutger’s athletic director and the senior Vice President who prevented Reid’s firing are gone. The media has covered many angles of what is horribly wrong here; I want to focus upon one.

Let’s assume athletes are students and coaches are teachers.

This is the fundamental moral claim of college athletics. If athletics belongs in the university, then it's teaching should align with the mission of helping students grow as persons and acquire high order cognitive and character attributes.

Rice’s actions represent profound moral failure and do not belong in the university dedicated to teaching students to learn and master themselves and knowledge.

Most college coaches I know choose college over professional ball because they see themselves as teachers. They love the game, they love helping young men and women grow into adults. The best are appalled at what they saw. Jim Boeheim in 35th year coaching it best, “Honestly I couldn’t watch it anymore.” Boeheim had the courage to admit the relentless pressure on coaches can drive them to behaviors, “I get verbal, I’m on players. I don’t like to curse. I do curse sometimes.”

Boeheim also highlights an almost universal response among coaches. The Rutgers' coach did not need this demeaning and degrading style. “The tragedy is his team would have played exactly the same, or better, if he hadn’t done any of that…If he never threw a ball, never touched anybody, his team would have played, I think, better, in my experience.”

My point is not that this is a bad way to get winning team. Even if his team was winning, his style of coaching did not belong on a university campus, period.

Let’s assume practice is a classroom, coaches are teachers and athletes are students.

A good class and teacher have goals and a lesson plan. Good coaches have practices planned and know what their goals are for each practice just as good teachers.

If athletic practices had a syllabus, the class goals would read something like this.

1.   Understand the basics of the game and the team plays.
2.  Develop one’s talent and perfect skills that enable a person to achieve at the highest level he or she can.
3.  Understand how to scout, read and successfully play against an opponent.
4.  Develop the physical and mental endurance to play at a high level in intense competitions.
5.  To develop the emotional capacity and self-discipline to be team oriented, stay focused amid chaotic competition and efforts to disrupt concentration.
6.  Develop the cognitive skills to recognize patterns make decisions and act upon trained perception and knowledge.

The coach’s athletic class aims to help the student develop physical, emotional and cognitive skills that empower the student to achieve at their highest possible level.

The student should develop a strong sense of oneself as a confident, high achieving, team oriented individual capable of assessing, adapting and acting under fast moving conditions of competition.

Many modern university classes make no pretense to train pattern recognition, decision-making or impact character. A subset of modern university classes does pursue these goals. Modern science labs teach students to practice and contribute to doing science. Professional schools often create high pressured environments to replicate the stress students might face on the job. Old style law classes employed a tyrannical and fear driven style humiliating and attacking students to prepare them for the rigors of trials. The singular world of performance training requires students such as singers, actors, musicians or artists to confront super tough teachers. Students face endless and sometimes intimidating critiques.

Many classes and teachers use fear as an aspect of motivating students. Despite endless studies that strength based positive reinforcement works better, most teachers mix fear into their classes. The simple reality of grades mixes fear of failure into classes. Harsh and demanding teachers can intimidate students. Sometimes the fear can work well and help challenge students to do more than they dreamed they could. 

Every university will have crazy, ditsy and abusive teachers. I have dealt with all kinds. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they cross lines where they abuse and hurt their students. Sometimes in the name of demanding excellence they move over into a bizarre form of domination and abuse. When teachers cross these lines they need to be disciplined or terminated.

In teaching and coaching process matters as much as the outcome. Students learn to internalize how they are taught, not just the outcomes. Every teacher presents a role model for how to pursue a profession, how to relate to other people and how to exercise knowledge and performance.

Physical and emotional abuse, endless screaming of obscenities and homophobic slurs fundamentally fail as college teaching. No university should want their students demeaned and taught to see themselves as body parts, stereotypes. No university should permit their students to have their heads or genitals battered by basketballs. Even basic training does not permit such treatment.

Two things hit me about this. Most coaches at some point in practice yell, scream and are quite capable of creative insults and profane curses. It really struck me how many of Rice's players saw this behavior as not unusual—I don’t even want to talk about what this tells us about the type of coaching that goes on at high school and AAU teams. Second, any of us who have experienced different styles of coaching or teaching know that you can teach different ways and be more affirming and strength based. We know that a lot of this stuff rubs off your back after a while, it becomes noise not signal. Now this has a real downside because it means that people can become so inured to abuse that they accept it and internalize the demeaned identity and just get on with life.   

Good teaching and coaching means teachers simulate some of the stress and anxiety of such competition and speed. This can be done in many ways and has family resemblance to techniques used in professional schools. When this crosses a line to moral and physical abuse; when it makes a student less of a person, the college should stop it whether in athletic practice or a classroom.