Challenge Gone Wrong

Challenge is necessary. Stress is necessary. When they occur in appropriate doses and are balanced by proportionate recovery, challenge and stress create growth. Elite coaching cultures balance challenge and support, stress and recovery, in a way that makes growth not only a consistent possibility but an expectation.

As a young coach I didn’t understand that, erred on the side of challenge, and occasionally pushed myself into negative and embarrassing outcomes.

The first few years of my coaching career feature countless stories of athlete empowerment to supplement a sincerely rewarding experience. But from that garden of positive stories, a few “weeds” inevitably pop up. One weed in particular has served as an important reminder of what not to do in my coaching career. I’m still embarrassed by my decision…

I was coaching defensive line for a high school football team and loving every minute of it. I was intense, full of energy, and still playing football myself (so I was big). I would play a season in Ireland or Spain then head back to Chicago to coach for the fall. It felt like the perfect fit.

I replicated the strategies of my peers and what I had experienced as an athlete. And I turned it up a notch.

On a crisp fall Friday night, at halftime of a big game against our crosstown rival, we found ourselves down by 6 points. One of our senior leaders on the team was, in the opinion of many coaches, under-performing. I was given the task of “hyping” him up before the second half. He was a 6’2”, 200-pound high school linebacker – he was a big kid and a very talented athlete. 

I took the challenge of motivating him seriously. I wanted him to do well for himself and for the good of the team, but my techniques were raw and unrefined. At the time I was not a student of psychology or coaching methodology. So without any depth of understanding, I replicated the strategies of my peers and what I had experienced as an athlete. And I turned it up a notch. If some was good then more would be better, right?

The team circled up for a stretch before the second half. I noticed where the young man was warming up and took a beeline toward him. I got so fired up, so intense, and challenged this young man so directly (and not in a positive way), that before I knew it he was in tears. I hesitate to go back to the memory. When I do, and when I picture his face, it still feels like a punch in the gut.

He was a kid. Although he looked like a young man in many ways, he was a teenager just figuring out school, his peers, and how to play football. Which makes the dilemma even worse… we were playing a game. There is plenty of room for intensity in the game of football. That’s where I lived as a player. I made a career on working hard and bringing everything I had to every game. It is unwise to approach football casually. Nevertheless, it is a game. In that moment I had lost perspective – I was yelling at kid playing a game not for something he did wrong, but in hopes of motivating him. This is an entirely flawed approach.

There were two truths which became immediately apparent: 1) from an ethical perspective, there is no way that I made the appropriate decision and 2) from a performance perspective, there is no way that athlete was ready to go out and perform at a high level in the second half. A faulty attempt to “motivate” him had been beaten him down psychologically.

He wasn’t foaming at the mouth ready to knock over anything that moved, he was in tears hoping that his teammates wouldn’t notice. I had really messed things up.

As I talked to some of my peers about sharing this story publically they noted that many coaches would just tell the young man to “toughen up” and “don’t take it so personally.” Fair enough. Although I agree that there is room to both toughen up and not take it personally (by separating critique of a play from critique of a person), there is also room – a need – to slow down and try to understand the potential trauma a young person has experienced.

I don’t know what this young man had been through in his life. It is entirely possible that he had experienced aggressive male figures and even been exposed to abuse. If so, my aggression would not have been received as coaching, but an all-too familiar stimulus which would cause him to shut down. And while previous trauma is not absolute, or even likely, it is most certainly possible. In those cases, the emotional toll on the child far outweighs whatever “motivation” the coach was hoping to impart. In all cases, it is at least worth considering.

Regardless of his previous experiences, it was clear that I had crossed a line.

We lost the game and, unsurprisingly, the young man did not put on an all-star performance in the second half. In fact, the whole team looked less like it was working to thrive than trying to survive. Our opponent’s skill and intensity outmatched ours. And I felt terrible.

Even if we had won the game, I would have felt like I had let him down.

The next week I found the young man for a quick conversation. I made it clear that my intentions in the previous Friday’s game were to motivate, not degrade, and acknowledged that I went too far. I told him that I would still push him and expected a lot out of him, but I would work to make sure I respected him as a person and an athlete.

I said all this, of course, in the more colorful language of a 23-year-old “football guy” but that was the message.

I return to this moment often. The “weed,” the undesirable moment where I provided an inappropriate level of challenge and not enough support, has actually nourished the metaphorical garden of my coaching experience. I don’t want to pull it and I cannot ignore it – instead, it serves as a quick and poignant reminder of what not to do. It guides my behavior.

Let’s be clear: what fuels my behavior (think gasoline) is a passion for the game, countless positive moments with young people, and an intrinsic competitive drive. But what guides my behavior (think steering wheel) is the feedback I receive from the methods I attempt. That is the biggest lesson learned from the moment.

You have to listen closely to the feedback you’re getting from your environment.

I’m going to continue to push hard, stay creative, try new things – and I’m going to continue to learn from the feedback of my environment. There will be no championship, award, or public recognition that could make me complacent in this. Good coaching is hard. It’s a life’s work.

I’m in. Are you?