College football: bucolic settings, pulsating stadiums, swooning cheerleaders. And, yes, hyperventilating coaches. From an enraged Woody Hayes to a shrieking Jim Harbaugh, apoplectic coaches are more common than Natural Light on university campuses. And, at times, even more biting.
As I Netflixed my way through a Saturday night, I stumbled onto the latest “Last Chance U” documentary. “Last Chance U” takes us into the college football netherworld, specifically Scooba, Mississippi. Here we are introduced to the inimitable Buddy Stephens, the red-faced East Mississippi Community College head-coach/full-time tyrant.
Buddy is a television producer’s dream: a hyper-competitive football coach who appears one offsides penalty away from a coronary. Pleading to “coach the kids up,” Buddy espouses a tough love doctrine–in between vulgar tirades crasser than any Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor promotion.
As Buddy unleashes his latest venom-filled harangue, the players retreat into a shell of downcast, mumbled “yes, sirs.” His assistant coaches glance down, making eye contact with their shoes. As for the viewers? Even for the testosterone-fueled world of college football (and, yes, I am a self-described sports fan), the crassness shocks.
But more than picking on Buddy, I am picking on the coaching profession–and society’s dutiful obedience to coach as taskmaster. For every coach as counselor, there is a jowel-faced Buddy Stephens screaming obscenities at a bewildered kid. Considering sports’ advances (from diet to training regimens to sleep hygiene), why do we still embrace coach as Neanderthal?
When I look at the most revered coaches, their demeanors are more professorial than pugnacious. John Wooden and Dean Smith immediately come to mind. Both were even-tempered and their preternatural calm rubbed off on their respective teams. These coaches were more than tacticians; they were sportsman–arguably as revered off the field as on.
Critics might contend, “Don’t be naive, Matt. College sports is business. And the kids signed up for it.” Yes, college sports is a business–a multi-million dollar one. But so is Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom–and, well, you get the idea. In any of these businesses, is it considered customary or appropriate to belittle a 17 or 18 year old employee? Is it considered motivating to attack a subordinate effort’s (“Be a man. Get off your lazy a**”) in the most personal, derogatory of terms?
Somehow in sports, this is considered acceptable–even laudable–behavior. “That coach–what a motivator. Those kids bolted out of the locker room like a pack of lions,” conventional wisdom dictates.
But while society rationalizes a coach’s abusive behavior (he is “competitive–the moment just got the best of him”), those verbal blows scar. Imagine you are a East Mississippi College player and Buddy publicly disparages you week after week in the coarsest of terms. More than jeopardizing your playing time, these continual verbal assaults jeopardize your self-confidence and even self-worth. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), 41% of athletes “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” In response to a profane coach, Rhode Island players developed ulcers and eating disorders; some even engaged in self-harm.
Study after study refutes coaches’ ossified coaching methods. From Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, “Negative emotions grab people’s attention more. So there’s a perception that the best way to get what you want out of employees or players is by negativity or threats, or being stressful or intense. But in terms of bonding, loyalty, commitment to a team or a group and personal development over time, negativity doesn’t work as well as positivity.” Dr. Ben Tapper adds, “The studies all say there’s no incremental benefit to being hostile. Even when you control for a leader’s experience and expertise, hostility always produces diminishing returns.”
And yet Buddy continues to shriek and curse and demean into the sultry Mississippi air. As he lathers himself into a frothin’ frenzy during another East Mississippi victory, he has already lost the most important game.
Even if he doesn’t know it.
Wolff, Alexander (2015, September 28). Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2015/09/29/end-abusive-coaches-college-football-basketball
Loeb, M. (2018). Personal Foul. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/personal-foul/