Coaching By Criticism; Partly What is Wrong with the World

Let me preface this post by saying these are MY thoughts. They are not necessarily the thoughts of a group of parents, players or any other individual (including our son). Having said that, I do believe my thoughts could easily represent the thoughts of many parents and players not just in our community but across the nation. I know I am not alone in my frustration however at this moment I am solely taking responsibility for my actions and words in this post. I mean, come on, this is my blog and thanks to my right for freedom of speech, I’m expressing my thoughts! Be fair warned, it is a long read but I think it is worth your five minutes if you have kids who play organized sports.

Our oldest son, Stevie, plays football (yes, at almost 16 years of age, I still call him Stevie even in front of his friends). He also plays baseball. He does both of these sports wearing his high school colors. He is very good at both. Is he the best, well, no. But he is definitely more than good at these sports and offers a lot to the team, the school and the community. My son is somewhat an introvert. He very rarely yells or screams. He processes his thoughts before speaking (well most days…he is after all still a teenager and does react out of emotion). He doesn’t use profanity freely. He is not the “get-in-your-face” type of person. His words are his actions. What he doesn’t say, he does. He goes to every practice and team function. He actively participates in every aspect. He is quick to lift another player up. He freely gives pats on the back and is quick to say, “next time”. He gives 100% in everything he commits to. His leadership skills are literally rooted in his actions. For all those reasons and many more, we are very PROUD parents.

I am really big on the “it’s not if you win or lose but how you play the game” speech. Sure, winning is fun but what I love about organized sports is everything learned outside of winning and losing. A few short years ago when I was a nurse manager and an applicant would say, “I excel at being part of a team” my expectations would shoot straight up! Who doesn’t want to work with a team player? I probably shouldn’t have gotten so excited over hearing “team work” because nowadays it doesn’t have the same meaning as it did when I was playing organized sports. I believe the concept of “team-player” has been lost. The “T” and the “A” were dropped and the remaining letters got all rearranged in the word “TEAM”. Somehow the concept of unity was lost to individuality again. It isn’t a “team” process, but a “me” process.

I think many players and parents are delusional about their son’s or daughter’s athletic abilities. Too much emphasis is put on Pro sports in America. It is so unrealistic to expect a multi-million dollar contract deal. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but that shouldn’t be what sports is all about. The adage that “everything I know I learned in kindergarten” is quirky but true in many aspects. Organized sports has the same life lessons being taught everyday on the field, court, track, mat, etc. What is taught? Respect. Strong Work Ethic. Perseverance. Courage. Hope. Being Humble. Strength (not just physically but mentally). Confidence. Identity. Healthy Life Habits. Autonomy. Team Work. Camaraderie. Leadership. I can go on and on about why organized sports are important in a child’s life.

I have spent the greater part of today reflecting on the events of this past weekend. It was a tough weekend all the way around with football. Both the Varsity and JV team lost. I watched team “leaders” attempt to emerge at the Varsity game however I feel they horribly failed at it. I saw other leaders almost fade away into the darkness. It wasn’t a great weekend for football, nope, not at all.

We were losing at the Varsity game. This has unfortunately become a pattern for our team. You can’t really put a finger on exactly one reason why we are losing because there are many reasons. All reasons the team needs to work on. As the team was down by a whole lot of points, a couple players came off the field “pumped” and attempted to motivate the team. I say “attempted” because although their passion was evident, their message was all wrong. There were a lot of F-bombs, B-bombs and so on as these players screamed at other players. I was absolutely mortified by this. The coaches didn’t intervene. Some folks in the stands even cheered on these players. It was at least a good 8-10 minute yelling match of obscenities that went so far as one player pointing to specific players screaming they “didn’t have heart.” Those players being ridiculed on the spot really weren’t doing anything to warrant the label other than they were in close proximity of the player yelling his head off. Our son happened to be one of them branded with “no heart.” Our son, who has been to EVERY weight lifting day, EVERY practice, EVERY team event and EVERY game. Who is of the very few who has all A’s and just a couple of B’s on the team and doesn’t have to worry about not meeting the GPA requirement to participate. Trust me, at least 1/3 of the team if not more was academically ineligible to play at the start of the season (meaning they earned less than 2.0 GPA at the end of last school year). They all opted to sign a waiver to sit out of the first 2.5 games of the season because of their grades. This is a one-time waiver that can be used by athletes during their high school career. I could go off on a tangent on the academics issue because trust and believe if my son dropped to a 2.0 or below that, playing a sport would be the last thing we as a family would be thinking about. But I’ll save that thought for another day. I can also go on another tangent about what happened when all the sudden 1/3 of the team became eligible to play and what that did to the kids who were playing but lost their spots. But again, I’ll save that thought for another day. The point is, I am not being biased when I say our kid is “all heart”. He is someone who actively takes part even if he isn’t feeling his best. He never quits. Our son came home from the game very upset having been called out like that and humiliated by a fellow teammate. He didn’t deserve to be the target and certainly didn’t deserve to be a puppet in the nonsensical, negative screaming match between two other players who thought they were “elevating” the team. Let me tell you what they actually did do, they cracked our son’s spirit. And when you tear down one player, you are actually chipping away at the whole team’s cohesion.

The irony of it all was the very next morning, our son was chosen by the coaches as a team captain at the JV game. The coach told our son it was because they recognized the effort he has put in having not missed any practices all year long (I am talking about all of the weight lifting, two-a-days and other practices thus far in 2012 that started back in January). So that tiny fracture from the night before was already healing. Good, because being called out like that could have seriously shattered his soul and taken away the passion he has for the game of football. Do you really want to know what makes an effective leader? It isn’t the person who screams the loudest, it isn’t the biggest player on a team and it isn’t the fastest player on the team. A leader is one who leads by example. A true leader only has to say a few words, it’s all about how he acts. “Actions speak louder than words!”  It is really that simple. Steve’s strengths have and always will be rooted in action not blah-blah-blah-profanity-blah-blah screams.

Toward the end of the 2nd quarter, the quarterback tossed a throw on a curl route to Steve. I am not a football expert. I can’t even name every position on the offensive side let alone the defensive side. But I can tell you this, slant and curl routes are tossed in hopes of getting a first down. Sure it would be nice if the receiver can break down the field and make it into the end zone but realistically, slants and curls are meant for just enough yardage to get to a first down. They should be thrown low to the receiver. Why? Because the opposing defense is right there, ready to hit. Steve ran his curl route and he jumped high to get the overthrown pass only to be hit hard by the corner while still in mid air. The ball popped loose as he never got the chance to pull it in before getting hit. He dropped to the ground like a ragdoll.

I can tell you that my heart was pounding in my throat as I watched the coaches and trainers working with Stevie. The noise was deafening. What noise? The beating of my heart, my shallow breathing, the wind, the birds flying over, the grass crunching from players dropping to their knees because a player is down…everything seemed so loud as I was lost in that moment of complete fear. I only broke from this trance because behind me I could hear a man yelling, “He should have pulled that down!” repeatedly. That man happened to be the quarterback’s father. I couldn’t believe his concern was that our son “didn’t pull it down”. After a couple minutes listening to his obnoxious banter, I turned around and yelled, “Give him a break, he tried.” What I wanted to say was “your son threw a crappy pass, it was too high and it set up the receiver to getting nailed!” But I didn’t. The quarterback’s father though, realized then that the player he was spouting off about was our son who at that moment was laying on the ground in pain. He didn’t dare say another word about the “dropped catch” but he certainly spent the rest of the game screaming about the missed blocks, the poor offensive line and frustration over why they weren’t passing the ball more often. Funny though that he didn’t mention the interception his son threw right before the 2nd quarter ended or the couple of other throws his son had that were by all accounts overthrown. The worst of all though was when it was evident in the final couple of minutes that we were going to lose, this same quarterback took off his helmet and walked away from the players on the sidelines to go sit on a bench a good 20 yards away from the team to pout out the remaining minutes of the game. And as tempting as it was to yell out all of this particular player’s failures, I refrained. Oh was it tempting, lol. But I refuse to be that “bully” in the stands screaming at kids.

I appreciated that the trainer for the other team (team trainers do not travel with the team for JV games) took the time to explain our son’s injury. The first thing the trainer said was that no one would have caught that and those are the throws that you go back and yell at your quarterback for because when it is thrown high on a short route, the receiver is going to get nailed in mid-air with no way to protect themselves because they are fully extended and vulnerable. The trainer said his intercostal within the floating ribs were bruised and to expect him to have a lot of pain for the remainder of the weekend. He further stated, he is definitely out for the rest of the game and maybe longer. Our son reluctantly took off his shoulder pads but put his jersey back on. He stood on the sidelines telling his teammates good job as they came off the field while encouraging the players who took the field. Not once did I hear him drop the F-bomb or any other bomb while he was encouraging his fellow teammates.

So between the “no heart” event and the obnoxious tyrants of a bully in the stands, I really had it. I spent the greater part of the weekend frustrated with it all. I wanted so badly to tell our son all of this is bull-bomb and to F-bomb them all. But I didn’t. Instead, I told him how proud we were of him for battling through the pain while he encouraged his fellow teammates to push harder. I told him that I was also proud of him that he didn’t let the “no heart” nonsense break him down.

So once I battled through my frustration this past weekend, I spent the greater part of Monday reflecting on how all of this came to be? Want the truth? It is because of the culture these kids have been raised in. The epic fail of leadership from those players Friday night is because they have been on the receiving end of negative criticism and don’t truly know any other way to motivate. So in a Facebook group in which parents share football info and pictures of our football team, I posted the following:

“Some food for thought for the “sideline coaches” that are in the stands every Friday night, Saturday morning or any other time a game is played. I have sat idly for years, listening to over-bearing yells and taunts from parents in the stands. I have always said that coaching out of criticism is detrimental to not only the player in question but for the entire team. Overt criticism is NOT a self-motivating tool. It immediately puts the person on the receiving end on the defensive. It often leads to anger, humiliation, or both, and thus warps any helpful, give-and-take dialogue. It makes finding positive and forward-looking solutions that much more difficult. Make the feedback process positive, even when it is initiated to correct something negative. So I ask parents that before they yell about an overthrown pass, a dropped catch, a missed tackle or a botched play, think before you speak. Words may not break bones but it certainly can shatter the soul of not just one player but the entire team. So he threw an interception, so what? So he missed his block, so what? Yell, “Next time you’ll hit your mark! You’ll lock him up next time!” because that WILL encourage him to try harder next time instead of yelling “Horrible pass! You missed your block!” which only feeds the “self-doubt beast” in all of us. Coaching out of criticism hurts everyone. This isn’t just coming from the stands; I can hear this on the sidelines from the players yelling at other players on the team. Leadership is about elevating your team not beating them down. There are many more ways to encourage your teammates than just pointing out what they have done wrong. There is not one perfect player on that field; everyone has made mistakes. But football isn’t an individual sport; football is a TEAM sport. What one player lacks, another player has an abundance of. It is a balance of everyone’s skills. So no, there is not a perfect player, but we certainly could have the PERFECT team. I also wanted to remind folks that it is always easier to “coach from the sidelines” than it is to actually be a team Coach. They have the challenging task of actually coaching not only what is in the playbook, but also raising self-esteem, building team morale, utilizing constructive criticism, monitoring individual and team behaviors, dealing with parents who always speak up when something is “wrong” versus when something is “right” and so on. Coaches aren’t coaches only on the field…they are in the classrooms, they are in the halls, and they are part of our community. They coach 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days a year. If we truly want a dominant football program, then the work begins at home, not on the field. Encourage your player to ELEVATE and not TEAR DOWN the team with their words and actions. If I have offended anyone with this post, I offer my deepest apologies. Just wanted to share my thoughts on this beautiful Monday afternoon. No worries, I will continue to take and share pictures of all the players because I do believe that EVERY player on the team is valuable. (I freely and liberally used language from the article, Lots of Feedback, Not Criticism by Nicholas Nigro to make my point).”

I feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Just as I feel it is my responsibility to not “coach by criticism”, it is my responsibility to speak up against it. Sitting idly in the stands only perpetuates the culture of negative criticism and bully leadership. I am not angry at the dad in the stands. I fully understand he was just being passionate when it came to his son. I am also doing the same. I am passionate about both of my children. I also am not angry at the players from Friday night. I get it. They were trying to “pump” up the team, I really do get that. I merely suggest that if you are going to scream your head off, do it in a positive way. Motivation should be an UPlifting experience . . . let’s get back to that way of thinking!

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One thought on “Coaching By Criticism; Partly What is Wrong with the World

  1. Amen!!! Well said, Kathy! (As I stand and give an arrousing clapping ovation.) Tell Stevie that I’m proud of him and congratulations on being captain! Get well soon. Love you both! ❤

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