The Coaches We Mean to Be

When fall rolls in, the leaves on the old oaks lining Appian Way provide an idyllic view from the corner office of Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Rick is also the Co-Director of Making Caring Common, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child raising.

We had the privilege of sitting down with him to record an episode of the “Good Athlete Podcast”, which seems as appropriate now as ever. The discussion is an essential one. After all, sports don’t teach life lessons, intentional teachers and coaches use sports as a platform to teach life lessons. Rick agrees, as he does “not think there’s anything about sports, per se, that build character.” There are good sports environments and bad sports environments. It’s coaches. It’s culture. It’s not automatic.

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Photo credit: The Harvard Gazette

Similar to the research outlined in his book, The Parents we Mean to Be, Rick notes that some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught by the mentors in this space, though they are not necessarily. In sports, one’s intense feelings are colliding with the intense feelings of another. A coach has the ability to create an environment that values competition but frames it in a healthy way so that both teams shake hands by the end of the game. On the other hand, the coach can also fuel negative feelings and demonize an opponent. Both of these situations regularly present themselves.

There’s clearly potential to influence young people through sports. The questions for the coach is, what will you do with it?

Empathy, for example, has become a staple concept in modern classrooms. Sports offer the opportunity for young people to empathize with people that are different than them. When the culture is appropriately created, they provide the opportunity to take other perspectives, to work together toward a shared goal.

Emotional regulation has provided massive psychological benefit for young people by assisting with stress-management, ability to focus, and ultimately resulting in feelings of self-worth. Healthy sports cultures teach young people to regulate their emotions in emotion-rich environments. Rick adds that “intense competition can be really good for kids” IF, in keeping with the theme, coaches help young people frame these moments. Intense competition does not include excessive violence and rule breaking. It can include full effort, quick decision making, and the prioritization of team over self. Emotions need to be regulated. That skill can serve as a successful strategy in many other areas of the student’s life.

What is so refreshing about Rick’s perspective is that he acknowledges that feelings of aggression and competition should not be met with shame. It is rarely okay to chastise a child for feeling any sort of way; rather, we have an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with those feelings. That, coaches, can be a life lesson.

He notes that these life lessons are not always conveyed in the ways we assume. Coaches who cultivate us-vs-them or win-at-all-costs cultures often include explicit or implied permissions of violence and rule breaking. Those are the toxic situations which undercut healthy adolescent development. Rather benignly, they create unpleasant experiences in sport and do not allow students to reap the full benefits of the experience.

If those toxic mindsets continue, how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. “Being a man” in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.

That said, Rick’s mission is clearly aimed not at finger pointing, but at accurate looking. Counterbalancing those violent, toxic cultures, there are “everyone-gets-a-trophy-cultures.” These too can be harmful, since “kids need to learn to cope and deal constructively with underperformance.”

Unfortunately, popular opinions of sport seem to include either 1) win at all costs, or 2) you’re all perfect.

At the Good Athlete Project, the goal for students is to win as a team, with the win serving as the product of healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement.

We realize that the win is not all that matters, which is why the “healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement” line is so essential. Win or lose, students who learn that sort of lesson will undoubtedly be on a positive path.

So when the leaves change color this fall, let’s be intentional with what we teach. It could be deliberate practice, growth mindset, grit, or any character trait that might associate with longitudinal success.

Whatever it is, let’s align the coaches we are with the coaches we mean to be.

For more information regarding Rick’s work with Making Caring Common, find him here: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/