He closed the door to the dingy, underground locker-room before taking a seat on an old wooden bench and covering his face with his hand. The team was noticeably upset. Gene Hackman then delivers, in an inspired way, “What I say… is the law. Absolutely and without discussion.”
Whether it’s Hoosiers or Rudy or Miracle, coaches get their standards of language and behavior from somewhere.
One coach told us that if Denzel Washington (referring to his character in Remember the Titans) ran for Mayor, she’d vote for him.
Oftentimes, a coach’s first model is the coach they had as a child. Those early models are enhanced, upheld, or adjusted by popular media or coaches on TV – professional versions of themselves.
This can be a flawed model. Inspiring as they may be, scriptwriters for popular sports films are charged with telling a compelling story, not with aligning methods and research in psychology to model successful coaching. Obvious as that might seem, we often observe coaches citing movie clichés or leaning into a meter and intonation which mimics a famous coach, real or fictional. (Coaches seem to really enjoy imitating Ray Lewis.)
This is not to be met with judgement, as we are all susceptible to influence from those we admire. But it should give us pause. Are we being thoughtful enough about our instruction?
Rick Weissbourd, Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, acknowledges that sports provide opportunities for “moral learning,” enhance “moral reasoning,” and develop capacities like trust, respect, and critical thinking… that is, IF coaches use the platform of athletics for this sort of education.
If we do not identify those noble outcomes (or similarly meaningful outcomes) in our coaching, then we will undoubtedly default to repeating the methods we have observed.
Imagine if our athletes did that. Football players would be leaping all over the field, soccer players would be attempting nonstop bicycle kicks, and boxers would throw constant haymakers (Rocky Balboa never held his hands up in defense, after all, taking hundreds of unnecessary punches over the years). A coach who saw a player mimicking the onscreen version of themselves would demand they pause, slow down, and instead use the methods outlined for their success.
Coaches, we should follow suit. If we slow down and identify the outcomes we most hope for, then we can align our behaviors accordingly.
So if we want to teach life lessons, we must first identify what those lessons are. If we want to empower young people to negotiate complicated ideas and think critically, then we should be explicit about those teaching opportunities. In his book, The Parents We Mean to Be, Weissbourd includes a chapter on “the morally mature sports parent,” wherein he acknowledges that one way to empower would be to allow “opportunities to co-construct rules and to determine sanctions for violating them.”
If you want your athletes to be obedient, then identify yourself as “the law,” and remind them that what you say, goes, “absolutely and without discussion.”
There is certainly room for the Gene Hackman approach. At times, the coach should be the sheriff. Rules have to be upheld. But if we consider this a tool, and equipping athletes with decision-making power as another another tool, then we can begin to see ourselves as builders of culture, rather than wardens.
It is worth our efforts to do this well. Coaches have an incredible opportunity as educators.
“The good sports environments can be incredibly powerful,” Weissbourd acknowledged in Episode 11 of the Good Athlete Podcast, recognizing that the field of competition is a fantastic place to help kids manage destructive feelings like anger, violence, and shame. “You can have those feelings, and you can overcome them. And at the end of the game you can shake hands.”
Bad coaches can fuel that negativity. Poorly cultivated environments can permit and encourage aggression and rule-breaking with a win-at-all-costs mentality.
At one Chicago-area school (School A), a wrestling coach believed an opposing athlete was being “too rough,” before refusing to shake the athlete’s hand, which is customary. When the athlete from the opposing school walked up and said “good match,” School A’s coach looked the young athlete in the eyes and shook his head, “nope.” The situation went unaddressed by coaches from either school – a missed learning opportunity, at least.
Worse still, at the same school, football players routinely made attempts at illegal hits to the head of an opposing team. One Friday night, when an opposing player was injured, the sideline cheered. When the player from School A was “flagged” with a penalty for an illegal hit, School A’s head football coach stormed onto the field to dispute the call. He was yelling at the referee while the opposing player lay injured on the field. (This incident was investigated by the state’s governing organization.)
Though it might be impossible to identify where exactly the sports culture at School A went off track, it should serve as an important reminder that, more often than not, you get what you coach for.
So here’s the essential question: What do you Coach for?
Regardless of where you are in your coaching journey, the next step is a simple one: identify the outcomes you want. Whether you are aiming for grit and resilience, growth and optimism, or goal-directed behavior and accountability, it is essential to identify your goals and keep them in mind.
Life lessons are not taught as an ephemeral byproduct of participation in sports, they are taught by you, intentionally, within the culture you create.
Once you identify a set of intended outcomes, then you can begin to cultivate an approach which falls in line with those standards. If we do this, we will be on the path to “transfer our best moral instincts to our children.”
And if you ever feel like you are running on autopilot, or you’re not getting the results you seek, return to another essential question: Does Your Behavior Match Your Goal?