Intimidating high school coaches pushed to tone it down

tstevens@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2014 

  • Some traits of abusive coaches

    • Regularly uses public embarrassment and humiliation of athletes.

    • Is not interested in the feelings and sensitivities of players.

    • Demeans players.

    • Is never satisfied.

    • Coaches through fear and intimidation.

    • Only cares about players as performers, not individuals.

    If you suspect a coach is abusive

    1. Speak to the coach at an appropriate time.

    2. If concerns are unresolved, speak to the athletic director, principal, superintendent and school board or, in youth sports, the appropriate authorities.

    3. Remove child from the situation.

    Sports psychologist Dan Goldberg

Paul Dinkenor grew up in Manchester, England, as a fan of English professional soccer, a tough game with fans who were sometimes as rough and bawdy as the coaches and players.

Dinkenor, who has coached teams to five state titles at Raleigh’s Leesville Road High and has 700 career high school soccer wins, imitated his childhood idols when he began his coaching career in England. Dinkenor coached by screaming and yelling, emulating the coaches he grew up admiring.

“But then I had a very old coach call me aside and tell me that I was making a fool of myself and I didn’t know it,” Dinkenor said. “I had been raised on professional soccer and thought I was coaching the right way. But he helped me learn that doing all that talking and yelling does much more harm than good.”

National, state and local high school athletic officials are working to move other high school coaches along Dinkenor’s path.

High school coaches have had leeway in the past and were regarded as athletic drill sergeants who could cajole, intimidate and motivate students to work harder and perform better. Tough, loud and often intimidating behavior by coaches toward players has long been tolerated at all levels of sports, but high school athletic officials say it is time to end the culture of physical confrontation, verbal derision and profanity.

Tim Flannery of the National Federation of State High School Associations said changing the culture among high school coaches is a top priority. He said some coaches don’t understand that the standard of acceptable coaching behavior has changed. Many high school coaches, like Dinkenor early in his career, don’t realize they are doing something wrong.

“They’re ignorant,” Flannery said. “They put winning ahead of educational outcome, and as soon as they do that, there are going to be problems. They coach the way they were coached. That creates a culture. The culture is passed down from coach to coach. The hardest thing we can do is change the culture by educating coaches, but that is what we have to do.”

Wake County has adopted standards for the ballfield that mirror those in the classroom.

Deran Coe, senior administrator for athletics in Wake County schools, said high school coaches are expected to coach without resorting to threats, physical confrontations or verbal derision. Coaches can be relieved of their duties for violating the policy.

“The language they use to teach and motivate should be similar to what they use in the classroom,” Coe said. “Any language or conduct that would be inappropriate in the classroom is inappropriate at practice or during a game. That is now the standard.”

Ray Stott, athletic director for Johnston County schools, said the county school system has no definitive policy on coaching conduct, but the expectation is for coaches to perform their duties in a professional manner.

“It is a different world but a better world,” Stott said.

Knowing their limits

T.J. Evans, an Apex High senior who helped lead the Cougars to the state 4A boys’ basketball title, said he wanted to be pushed by his coaches and didn’t mind seeing his coaches get emotional, but he said coaches should never verbally attack players.

“There are ways to push a player without personally attacking them,” Evans said. “But from a coaching standpoint, when they see a player not playing to their abilities, they might get fired up, and that’s normal. I don’t think coaches should have to use the same decorum on the court as in the classroom, because being a part of a team is different.”

Ama-Selina Tchume, a track star at Wakefield, said athletes are motivated in different ways. She prefers a coach who teaches but has seen athletes who respond better to what she calls “tough love.”

“I believe a coach should be able to get their point across simply through explanation and demonstration,” she said. “Harsh words weaken players’ self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with a little hard-core encouragement, but attacking or bullying a player is frankly unnecessary and unacceptable.”

Bill Gunger, a former assistant baseball coach at Wake County’s Broughton High, said he has witnessed coaches go too far, though not at Broughton.

“Mental abuse is just as bad as sexual abuse and physical abuse,” Gunger said. “What I consider to be mental abuse is excused as motivation. I saw firsthand what verbal and mental abuse can do to a child.”

Bobby Guthrie, the retired Wake schools athletics director, remembers about six years ago when a middle school coach was relieved of coaching duties the same day a complaint about profanity was registered.

“The coach called me and said he had been removed and wanted to know what he could do,” Guthrie said. “I told him nothing. There was no justification for profanity. We are talking interscholastic athletics.”

Profanity or occasional swearing isn’t as harmful to children as belittling them or ridiculing them, said Dr. Greg Dale, a professor of sport psychology and sport ethics at Duke University.

“In no other profession would some of the practices of coaches be acceptable,” Dale said. “They have to change.”

Coaching the coaches

Davis Whitfield is commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports in North Carolina for public and some parochial schools. He said changing the culture of coaching is one of the goals of a national effort to certify all coaches.

The NCHSAA requires all nonfaculty and newly hired coaches at NCHSAA schools to take courses and be certified before coaching in a game. Requirements include first aid, coaching fundamentals, concussion awareness and one sport specific class. There is no required course on coaching decorum, although coaching fundamentals touches on behavior.

The National Federation’s new “Creating a Safe and Respectful Environment” course addresses verbal, physical and emotional abuse and includes education on sexual harassment, bullying, hazing, inappropriate relationships and social media.

The federation course is not a part of a certification process for NCHSAA coaches but could be added in the future, said Que Tucker, the NCHSAA deputy executive director.

“There is no requirement beyond the initial certification courses, but I think our coaches will want to continue taking courses,” Tucker said. “We are taking baby steps.”

Some states, including Minnesota, require coaches to renew their certification by continuing to take courses. The Minnesota State High School League requires coaches to have 60 hours of coaching instruction before being certified to coach and to take at least one additional course every three years. One point of emphasis in Minnesota, and in several other state associations, is for coaches to understand that their practices are an extension of the school day.

“High school athletics are not extracurricular; we are co-curricular,” said Jody Redman, an associate director of the Minnesota State High School League. “Coaches’ classrooms are the field, but the teaching standards are the same. Coaches have to understand why we have high school athletics.”

‘They can do great harm’

Dan Goldberg, a sports psychologist in Amherst, Mass., said he has seen few signs of coaches being held to a higher standard despite efforts at the national, state and local level.

“I don’t see that type of movement on the national level, but there needs to be. Not only in high school, but in college and in youth sports,” Goldberg said. “Coaches, and our society, can get caught up in a ‘winning is everything mentality’ and believe the ends, winning, justify any means – even abusing children.

“Coaches can be demanding without being demeaning. They can do great harm.”

Coaching conduct has been under closer scrutiny since Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired in April 2013, when a video surfaced that showed him physically assaulting players and using homophobic slurs during practice.

Such language might have been the norm in the past.

Former Atlanta Brave Chipper Jones used Twitter to explain that he grew up in an environment where toughness counted.

“I got cursed at and called names by a ton of people growing up. Were they fired? Nope! Do I care? Nope! What’s the big deal? Toughen up!” Jones tweeted.

“Yeah, been hit w/ bball equipment on purpose, been dragged around a football field by my face mask and ran suicides til I puked! I ain’t mad.”

‘The coach destroyed him’

Jason Brown, a 300-pound former offensive lineman in the NFL, said abusive behavior is ineffective. He remembered a coach once berating a player so harshly that the NFL athlete later sat at his locker and quietly cried.

“The coach destroyed him,” Brown said. “The coach was so merciless that he tore this guy completely down.

“It was so useless,” said Brown, who attended Northern Vance High School and played at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Chewing somebody out doesn’t make a player better. It is senseless, and it has to stop, especially with a bunch of kids. If a coach can make a grown man cry, what are coaches doing to the young kids?”

A 2012 Clemson University study says college athletes respond poorly to verbally aggressive coaches. The research involved 130 Clemson athletes who were asked about coaching styles.

The athletes said coaches with aggressive styles were less credible, less trustworthy and less competent.

“This study shows that extra amounts of verbal aggression in the coach-athlete relationship is a negative thing – it’s not productive, and many athletes find it to be unacceptable,” Joseph P. Mazer, an assistant professor of communication studies at Clemson University and the lead author of the report, told The Chronicle of High Education.

Positive reinforcement

Ronnie Peoples, a former baseball coach at Wake Forest-Rolesville and Enloe, said that he coached with emotion and that he would have had to adjust his coaching style under current standards.

“It would have been tough at first, but I would have done it,” he said. “I think the kids who played for me, for the most part, responded very well and would tell you that it was a positive experience. I held the players accountable for their actions. We seem to be moving more and more away from accountability.”

Former Garner football coach Hal Stewart said that he occasionally used profanity in front of his players but that his language was about situations, not people.

“You can’t build them up by tearing them down, and you need to build them up,” Stewart said. “I was a heavy believer in positive reinforcement.”

Sarcasm and personal attacks were off-limits to Stewart. But he would chew a player out, especially for lack of effort or respect.

Stewart said that coaches are teachers but that the physical nature of athletics requires a different teaching style from what’s appropriate in a classroom. Chemistry, which uses experiments, is taught a different way from English, he said. He said he coached differently in classroom situations than he did in practice or during games. He also said he coached girls’ basketball differently than football.

“You have to be consistent,” he said. “You have to have high expectations, accountability and honesty. And the kids’ well-being always comes first.”

Coe, the Wake County athletics administrator, said he reminds Wake’s athletic directors that the system’s coaches are role models.

“It is hard to teach character,” he said, “unless you display character.”

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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