Put me in, Coach

All too often, damagingly aggressive coaching is tolerated under the pretense of high expectations.

In the eight years that I’ve played lacrosse, I’ve had my fair share of coaches. Between the school team, summer travel teams, and winter leagues, they’ve ranged from college students picking up a part-time gig to experienced coaches who have been around the sport longer than I’ve been alive.

Anyone who has played a sport will tell you that almost every single one of their coaches has influenced them in one way or another. Usually, young athletes spend upwards of two hours a day, several days a week, with these figures. They’re supposed to be leaders, mentors, and role models.

Over the years, I have had coaches who have inspired me and made me want to work hard to perform better, but I’ve also encountered a few who have made it difficult to enjoy the sport I’ve always loved. The difference between the two has always been their attitude and how they treat the players.

To me, being a good coach means being kind, supportive, and patient. It means setting an example for the players and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable. Sure, they can be disappointed and angry when things go wrong, but they should assure their players that they know they’ll do better in the future.

I’ve been in situations where a coach just keeps screaming at individual players, and oftentimes, it only gets ugly.”

More than anything, the best coaches I’ve had have just been good, reasonable people. They expect a lot from their team, but they earn the respect of everyone of their players. They know how to challenge kids without putting too much pressure on them, and they know how to pass on important values.

Let’s face it– most student-athletes won’t do anything with their sport after they graduate high school or, at the latest, college. For the overwhelming majority of kids, the real long-term benefit of playing a sport will be the principles they learned and the friendships they made.

So, it makes sense that the environment fostered by the coaching staff should be more important than the team’s record or an individual’s skill level. Of course, we should all want to improve and do our best, but sports for kids and teenagers are more about the journey and the lessons learned along the way.

That’s why I don’t understand the other kind of coaches– the ones that consistently yell at their players, are unnecessarily aggressive, and create very negative environments all in a misguided attempt to win.

I’ve been in situations where a coach just keeps screaming at individual players, and oftentimes, it only gets ugly. Girls look around with raised eyebrows or whisper to each other about how toxic the situation is becoming. Everyone feels like they’re on edge, and the anxiety is almost palpable.

Screaming at a player in front of their teammates is intentionally degrading. There’s really no other way to excuse it. Coaches who do so are just hoping to embarrass that player enough to ensure that it won’t happen again.

But fear isn’t a good way to rule, especially when it comes to kids. In my experience, a yelling coach usually just makes a player more nervous, which just causes them to play worse.

It also makes them not want to play. There comes a point where every athlete has to wonder why they’re doing this — why they’re putting so much work in, why they’re dedicating themselves to something that feels like such a rollercoaster. Most of the time, it’s for their genuine love of their sport, for that absolutely surreal feeling after they win a game, for that rush of emotions that comes when they accomplish something they’ve worked so hard for.

But if a sport, or a coach, is making you downright miserable, those anticipatory moments don’t matter. All you can think about is the butterflies in your stomach before practice and the dread you feel stepping onto that field. You’re so distressed by the current situation that you cannot see the long-term advantages of being an athlete.

I think I get so frustrated when a coach ruins a player’s experience because I genuinely love playing lacrosse. I know that when I look back on my high school years, I’ll think of how incredible it was to hear my name announced at Newman Stadium and dance with my teammates in our locker room and huddle together during halftime. I truly believe that playing a sport can greatly enhance any kid’s life, so I’m angry that a particular circumstance can ruin something that has the potential to be so beautiful. 

If a teacher screamed at a student in front of the entire class for getting one question wrong, most people would not consider them to be a good instructor. Why is it any different with coaches? Why do they get a free pass to yell at athletes for making basic errors?

The second we stop making excuses for aggressive coaches and toxic teams is the same second we can finally start to make athletics the inclusive learning experience they were supposed to be all along.”

Poor coaches haven’t been exclusive to my lacrosse experience, either. Off the top of my head, I can name a list of coaches at other schools that I’d expect to horrifically scream at players for dropping passes or letting a girl get through them. I can think of several coaching staffs that bench their players for the rest of the game if they make one little mistake.

No one’s saying that a coach needs to act like everyone’s best friend. Obviously, sometimes an athlete needs some assertive instruction. In fact, a lot of athletes respond to some levels of pressure, and having a coach who is harsh but fair can teach a player a lot about growing up.

However, when a player begins to feel insecure and even ashamed about their performance, we’ve taken it too far. When a coach gets to take their anger out on their players through passive-aggressive comments, raised voices, or anything of the like, we need to think about not putting kids in those situations. 

I’ll be the first to admit that sports matter. For years, lacrosse has been my non-academic outlet. It’s kept me sane, and it’s taught me how to truly work hard to achieve my goals. I’ve learned how to cooperate with others, how to put the team’s success above my own, and, most of all, how inspiring it can be to believe in something bigger than myself.

But an athlete only reaps all of those benefits if they’re in a supportive environment that allows them to grow. That culture is fostered by kindness and patience. 

No amount of WPIAL titles excuses poor coaching, and no amount of authority gives anyone the right to degrade others. The second we stop making excuses for aggressive coaches and toxic teams is the same second we can finally start to make athletics the inclusive learning experience they were supposed to be all along.