The psychology and effects of bad coaching

Uncontrolled emotions combined with old-school coaching habits can leave lifelong scars

Editor's Note: This article, which you can read by scrolling down this page , was part of an investigative two-part series on high school coaching in Palo Alto published in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 14, 2010 and May 21, 2010. Additional articles appeared only online.

Here is a complete list of all stories with links to them:

Out of bounds? Part 1: In the first half of this special report, published May 14, the Weekly described five recent coaching controversies at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools and explored attributes and examples of positive coaching.

Out of bounds? Part 2: In the second half of this special report, published May 21, the Weekly examines how specific complaints were made and handled by school administrators.

Editorial: Reforming Palo Alto's high school sports

A confusing complaint process: An article about the confusing administrative maze facing athletes and parents when they seek to raise issues about a coach's behavior.

Tips for high school sports parents: Advice to parents of sports-team members from the founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Who oversees high school athletics?: Athletic directors have big jobs managing teams and coaches, with little time and no extra pay.

Sports Boosters help fund athletics: How Palo Alto parent groups fund major athletic projects and team expenses.

Documents and complaints: Complaints submitted by parents, letters in support of coaches, e-mail exchanges with officials and responses of administrators related to baseball controversies at Paly and Gunn, softball at Gunn and girls' basketball and water polo at Paly.

The psychology and effects of bad coaching: Uncontrolled emotions combined with old-school coaching habits can leave lifelong scars

What makes a good coach good? Complex mix of factors results in outstanding coaching, player experience, experts say

Sports and coaches at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools: A comprehensive list of the sports offered at the two schools, plus statistics on the number of athletes and types of coaches who work or volunteer in the athletics programs.

The job of coaching: a review of the working conditions high-school coaches face. For many, the work means long hours, low pay, high expectations and shifting personnel.

Club sports add challenges to school athletics: how the emergence of private club sports in the past 20 years has created a pool of experienced coaches in high-school athletics -- but also has raised concerns about conflicts of interest and favoritism when a club coach has club players on a school team.

Positive Coaching Alliance seeks to eliminate 'poisonous negativity' in youth sports: A national program, based in Mountain View, aims to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.

The psychology and effects of bad coaching

A coach's ability to manage anger and frustration is the key to avoiding abusive coaching, along with redefining a longstanding coaching culture that condones drill-sergeant treatment of players, according to specialists in the field, locally and nationally.

There is increasing recognition nationally of the long-lasting damage such coaching behavior and language can cause to individuals who become targets.

Verbal abuse is the most common type, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King. Such emotional abuse includes name-calling, hurtful comments regarding performance, swearing at players and comments meant to demean a person's integrity.

It "impairs the child's concept of self," according to the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation.

"Emotional abuse is, perhaps, the most difficult abuse to identify and the most common form of maltreatment in youth sports," the foundation concludes. Its website lists examples as rejecting, ignoring, isolating, terrorizing, name-calling, making fun of someone, putting someone down, saying things that hurt feelings and yelling.

The coach's ability to manage anger in the face of feeling frustrated and powerless is key to avoiding abusive situations, according to Michael Loughran, a Palo Alto adolescent psychoanalyst and Stanford University adjunct clinical professor.

"Intense feeling states are brought on by anxiety about performance, the heat of competition and all the pressure that brings," Loughran said an interview with the Weekly. "Coaches need to learn to tolerate their own intense emotions under stress and pressure without offloading onto the kids their frustration and anger.

"Coaches who can't do this make the kids the problem."

Loughran said angry coaches without appropriate self-control seek out more emotionally sensitive people as targets. If the anger is ignored or deflected by an intended target, the coach will seek a more vulnerable mark -- because the anger needs to be absorbed by another in order to be alleviated, Loughran said.

"Kids with tough exteriors, who can shake off a coach's negative remark, will be dominant in this culture," Loughran said. This dynamic raises gender issues, as boys are more likely to be trained from an early age not to take attacks personally. Girls are more likely to absorb criticism or demeaning treatment.

Coaches may be caught in a vicious cycle, Loughran said.

"Coaches were often raised in the same system, which then gets perpetuated. They were brilliant in their sport, they make this their career, and then realize they can't control the performance of these kids. That only serves to make them tougher, resorting to more yelling, more outbursts, more riding of the kids."

Gunn High School's Athletic Director Chris Horpel agrees that anger management is important.

"The basic problem is that if your personality is such, that you get angry easily or were coached by an angry coach and you haven't learned another way, you're going to have problems," Horpel said.

At the same time, Loughran and other experts say, coaches can be immensely important to the development of a teen's self-esteem. The mirror coaches hold up during these formative years is crucial to their development.

"If an important adult treats them badly, that has a profound impact on their emerging identities," Loughran said.

Shame and humiliation tend to silence athletes who are emotionally attacked and create painful feelings of isolation, Loughran said.

"You're not entitled to how you feel, that is the message."

The Women's Sports Foundation cites "debilitating consequences" from any type of abuse.

Paly sports parent and physician Barb Peters agrees, citing her own observations of coaches who engage in shaming behavior when they pick on kids.

"The results are profound and long-lasting."

Palo Alto psychologist Jeffrey Miller, who also works extensively with adolescents, emphasizes the importance of coaches modeling acceptable adult behavior.

"Adolescents respond best to positive discipline and feedback, to being supported and validated as human beings while being guided and encouraged and challenged to do their best," Miller said in an e-mail to the Weekly.

"Isn't this what coaching is all about?"

Loughran advises that when athletes are confronted with an angry coach, they should try not to take the anger personally. This technique will provide some defense from continuing to be a target for the anger, he said.

Loughran also has suggestions for adults working to resolve problems with a coach, whether school officials or parents. One-on-one interviews can make kids anxious, he said. Even when there are problems, most kids do not want the power to get their coach fired, Loughran said.

He suggests framing the inquiry positively, considering small-group interviews to capture the complexities of the interactions, and providing a good role model for constructive problem-solving in relationships. He suggests approaching kids with statements such as: "I'm collecting descriptions of interactions. Let's not blame or judge anyone. Tell me what's happening on the team. What are your observations when there is coach frustration? What interactions seem to cause problems? We're trying to improve things. How could we improve?"

He suggests working to collect the facts about the positives and negatives and then work on solutions that make sense, including helping the coach learn to express frustrations in different ways.

In cases where kids are targets of alleged abusive behavior, Miller believes it is "unrealistic, perhaps even destructive" to expect the student to approach the coach directly as a first step in resolving conflict. (Loughran agrees.)

"Because of the inherent power differential and the fact that the adolescent already feels unsupported and unfairly dealt with, this is a formula for further distress and disempowerment," Miller said. He suggests instead a neutral ombudsman to help teens find safe support in working through issues. This creates an added bonus of the teen seeing that "healthy adults have rational, realistic ways of dealing with the kind of conflicts that come up in human relationships," he said.

(Both Palo Alto and Gunn officials, however, said they expect athletes to approach their coaches first with their concerns.)

The Women's Sports Foundation similarly recommends opportunities for neutral direction and assistance for athletes outside the athletic department. The foundation also proposes that coach conduct guidelines be distributed to all involved in sports programs and include descriptions of potential violations and sanctions. It recommends educational and training sessions for all coaches about how power and dependence can influence relationships and result in abusive behavior. And it promotes the use of investigatory guidelines to make sure officials follow proper procedures for fair investigation and effective resolution of problems.

These measures would counteract two barriers to emotional-abuse prevention identified by the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation: that people may not be clear what behaviors constitute maltreatment or abuse; and that young athletes may not recognize that what's happening to them is abusive.

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Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 14, 2010 at 8:54 am

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