Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Health Costs of Modern Coaching

I watched Gary Kubiak have a stroke on the sidelines of a Houston Texans Game. Two months later he was fired. I watched Eric Wedge of the Mariners have a stroke while talking to the media; three months later he quit. I followed how John Fox of the Denver Broncos had a heart scare and then had to have heart surgery only to hurry back to the sidelines. I followed the ebb and flow of Urban Meyer as he came apart emotionally and physically while winning three national championships at Florida and took a sabbatical from the game. I could go on and talk about the strokes Dan McCarney had at North Texas State or the stroke of the great Rugby coach Eddie Jones in Japan. This covers less than a year. These examples highlight the hidden and insidious health costs of modern coaching.


Modern professional and college coaches are noted for high visibility and huge salaries. In college, the football coaches are always the highest paid public officials in a state. The visibility and money make coaches celebrities and targets. They are also blamed for everything and face relentless scrutiny that follows their wives and children. The scrutiny of rabid and irrational team obsessed fans only touches on the unremitting demands of owners frantic to win and chaffing to control or in college of boosters and athletic directors who serve as surrogate owners.

The medical costs of relentless pressure and stress are well known. Modulated and controlled stress can energize and motivate high performance. Unending stress, however, degrades cognitive performance through the mediated impact of cortisol and adrenaline on the centers of planning and judgment. It extracts high costs on the cardio-vascular systems that make bodies vulnerable to illness. Dealing with this stress can lead to dangerous habits of drinking, compulsive actions such as exercising or tape watching as well as overeating. Another standard technique is to “release” the frustration by acting out anger and stress with displays of aggression and abuse towards athletes or opponents. These habits are designed to alleviate stress but only contribute to health deterioration.

All this barely touches the emotional costs that high level coaching extracts. Recently ESPN printed a week in the life of John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens. The life calendar makes clear the 24/7 sleep deprived life of any high achieving modern coach. At college recruiting, fundraising and booster appeasement pile on the already insane schedule. Harbaugh sleeps over in the office to be more efficient and avoid waking his wife and children. Marrying a coach is a lot like marrying a doctor or military officer, even though the stakes are a lot less in real life. Coaches have no private life and face endless attrition trying to keep marriages and children intact.



All these hidden costs usually remain hidden even from the coach since coaches, male and female, live an uber-mensch life of ignoring the costs and coaching through the pain. They model for their players the unswerving and destructive devotion to work that obliterates private life and compromises mental and physical health.

The strokes and heart problems just reveal the tip of the iceberg of the physical and psychological costs of coaching. The very patterns necessary to live with this stress in a sane way are hardest to implement given the cycle of stress and blame and competitive perfectionism that drives them.

Coaches constantly preach to players to learn how to “let go” and have “amnesia” for their losses and failures. This capacity to move on and stay present remains critical for any player to continue in the game. Good coaches model this by showing up for work the next day after a defeat ready to let go, learn and prepare for the next game. Often however, the coach has spent all night and morning studying tape and obsessively breaking down plays or patterns to be ready.

Players internalize this taking care of business approach as much as they internalize an abusive out of control coach who takes out frustration and anger at themselves for losses on their players and pretends it is motivation. Even as coaches try to live this approach and model it, they still grapple with unrealistic expectations, demanding and irrational owners or boosters—no differences often—which have no true loyalty except to winning. No one gets any credit for past victories. Most college coaches are fired with winning records.

Every coach knows that all the praise, all the raises, all the extensions mean nothing. Every coach is expendable; no team has loyalty to coaches, unless they win, but even then a scandal will end them. This utter lack of loyalty and job insecurity coupled with the knowledge that all the praise, hype and sucking up are hollow wears down the integrity and honesty of coaches.

The coaches now reciprocate. With rare exceptions no coaches stay for long time. The “shelf life’ of a coach has decreased, and none are given serious time of five to seven years to build a true program. Almost no one will stay at one place. Many resumes will resemble nomadic lives. Coaches move constantly for money, prestige, loss of confidence or just wearing out a welcome.  Even after being fired, the coaching fraternity will reabsorb them as coordinators or coaches at lower level programs. Often they will get a second chance, sometimes third chances.


The insecurity and insincerity simply aggravate the health issues by providing no safe haven and no secure center for coaches. Sane coaches develop some sort of life and anchors beyond coaching; otherwise the costs of stress will exact its toll.

Some get ill. They collapse in public or private as the stroke and heart examples demonstrate. Many end up with chronic back or intestinal problems—common outcomes of endless stress.

More than a few implode under the pressure. Coaches explode on the sideline or practice. They scream and choke their players. They heave balls at them. More than a few meet untimely career ends when they blow up; others like Bobby Knight were treated as “characters” and people shrugged off their abuse and insanity as just “Knight being Knight.” Others end up drinking too much and getting in trouble even though they are often shadowed by team minders or protected by watchful and friendly police.

More than a few coaches are devoutly religious, for good reason. Only the knowledge of acceptance and love outside of the “game” can carry people forward. A relation to God exists outside of relations to wins and losses, despite what some fans believe. Relations to God or good friends or family perdure and provide purpose, love and acceptance that are not false or contingent on winning. Sports like life exposes mistakes and constantly tempts people to take themselves more seriously than they should. Sports pressure cookers incite mean or abusive slips and behavior. A close religious relationship provides a place to seek forgiveness, redemption and growth that boosters, owners and fans can never provide.

The cost of being a coach lies inside. The costs eat coaches alive without fans noticing. The panoply of glory, celebrity and money surround coaches. Beneath the glitter lies the human truth, “sic transit Gloria mundi.” More to the point “what have you done for me recently"? No coach escapes the falseness, insecurity, mad expectations, greed or true and false glory of this world.

The sane and healthy ones develop spiritual and personal strategies to give them perspective on the “game” they play.

Sometimes they have to lose health or personal lives to learn the real worth of worth of wins/losses compared to family, friends, love and integrity. Urban Meyer describes how it can be a "daily" challenge to keep the balance with family life and coaching. Coaches who survive and then thrive all develop the moral capacity to "take it seriously but hold it gently" and to let go and move on without breaking themselves.



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