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The fine line between coaching and tyranny

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David St. Hubbins knows of fine lines.

As a coach — or anyone who manages people of any age, for that matter — one of the trickiest parts of the job is knowing when to push, and knowing when to step off the gas. Making that trick even more complicated is that you want your players, even if they detest you at the time for pushing them, to look back someday (the next day, the next week, when they’re sitting with their grandkids) and realize that you did the right thing. As a youth coach, you hope the parents feel the same way — especially because the definition of “pushing too hard” is very, very flexible in their collective eyes.

In one of my favorite books, Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls,” a history of the American Basketball Association, a general manager explains this philosophy as he relates ex-NBA all-star Cliff Hagan’s mindset when he became an ABA coach: “I had eight coaches in the pros. I liked six of them and hated the other two. The only ones we won with were the guys I hated.”

Of course, executing this philosophy was a little simpler for Hagan than it is for your everyday youth coach today. For one thing, Hagan was managing pros, so he didn’t have to worry about parents, equal playing time, or the after-game snack. Also, this was the 1960s, when coaches from pee-wee level up were practically expected to yell, or else it didn’t sound like coaching. (Part of what made the late John Wooden so radical was that he didn’t raise his voice.) As a youth coach, you always have to strike a tricky balance between teaching and pushing your kids to excel, and not pushing otherwise engaged kids right out of the sport — or pushing parents to yell at you.

Recently an article appeared that had me thinking of the high-wire act that is coaching my 7-year-old son’s baseball team. On the Chicago Tribune website, the story was titled: “Teacher or Tyrant? What do you do when your kid’s hard-driving coach — or ballet teacher — steps over the line into full-fledged cruelty?”

When former U.S. Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu said her coach Martha Karolyi once slammed her face into a phone and that Martha’s husband, Bela, twice berated her for her weight in front of teammates, the sports world was shocked.

Kind of.

Other gymnasts downplayed the complaints of Moceanu, who was only 14 when she competed on the 1996 gold-medal team, and praised the Karolyis’ results. …

And therein lies the dilemma for parents of children who are seriously involved in sports and the arts. Many of the best coaches and instructors are disciplinarians who push kids hard and get results; a few are tyrants who push their players too hard or berate them cruelly.

How are parents of hard-driving kids supposed to tell the difference? And even if you know you have a tyrant on your hands, how much can you really do to contain the behavior of an adult with the power to bench your sports-loving son or derail your daughter’s college scholarship?

First, to answer that question before I get to how this applies to those of us who coach or have kids in far less elite situations. If you and your child (or just you, pushing your child) are investing heavily in a career as an elite anything, at some point your child is going to get pushed — hard. With so many parents and children competing for the same spots, coaches know that if you don’t like it, there are 1,000 others waiting in line to take whatever guff they’ll give. Don’t count on other parents, even if they are appalled by the coach’s behavior, to join you in some sort of boycott or fight.

In most cases, your option, cruel as it sounds, is like it or lump it. If the cost of being an elite athlete or performer is you and/or your child’s sanity, maybe that Olympic gold is worth too much.

Now, for the rest of us: where is that fine line between coaching and tyranny? In the eye of the beholder, that’s where.

In the 1960s, as a coach I could be Cliff Hagan, yelling at kids, and no one would have thought anything of it, in part because parents didn’t go to every practice and game like they do now, so they would have never seen it. When my father pulled my brother and I off a Little League baseball team in 1980 because he thought the coach was such a raging asshole, even for that time that was an unusual move. (It paid off — the next year my brother and I were on a different team with more mellow coach, and we won our league championship, while raging asshole’s team was at the bottom of the league.)

People write stories about whether coaches yell more than they used to, but the truth is that coaches on the whole probably do so less than they did even back in my day, when I was walking with no shoes in a snowstorm to school, which was five miles away, uphill both ways. Parents at the time hoped that sports would be a positive experience, but they didn’t demand it be a positive experience as they do now. Not that the demand is a bad thing. But what it’s done is, for some parents, move the fine line between coaching and tyranny to a place where a coach might not able to say anything without getting grief.

Twice this season in coach my son’s 7-year-old baseball team, I’ve had parents upset with me because they’ve felt I’ve pushed their kids — and the whole team — too hard. No doubt, I do push. I expect the kids to pay attention, to be good teammates, to not climb the backstop fence, to not hit each other, to do what their coaches ask. As I explained to one parent, I’m not asking anything that their teachers don’t ask them to do in school. I know I have a loud voice, and I know that sometimes I test the limits of how far to push a 7-year-old. It’s a no-score league, so I’m not pushing them to win. I’m pushing them to become better baseball players and teammates. (Note: It’s my blog, so I can make myself sound like the hero.)

That parents would quibble with my style is to be expected. It happens to every coach. What has shocked me, however, is something I’ve never heard, ever, until now. Both sets of complaining parents, when I said that I expect the kids to listen (say, when I’m giving instruction, or when I’m telling them not to swing a bat in the dugout), responded, each with almost these exact words: “They’re just kids. If they don’t want to listen, you shouldn’t make them.”

Is that where the fine line between coaching and tyranny is? That if I expect kids to do anything other than exactly what they want at the time they want it, I’m a raging asshole?

The second incident with a parent came after I told their kid he wasn’t going to bat because he refused my request for him to pinch-run for a teammate. His teammate, the first batter up, got hit on the hand with a pretty fast pitch, and was very sore and upset. I asked this particular kid to pinch-run because he was last in the batting order. He said, no, he wouldn’t. I asked him again. He said no. I asked him again. He said no. I said he wouldn’t have his turn at bat if he didn’t get on first base. He said no. So I sent another kid out (who dutifully and smartly put on a helmet and ran to first base), and told the refusenik he wasn’t going to get his turn at bat.

That might seem harsh, but I try to teach these kids that there are consequences for your actions. I wasn’t asking the kid to clean the dugout with his tongue. I was asking him to do what 7-year-olds normally love to do — run the bases. (Again, it’s my blog, so I can be the hero.)

The reason this fine line between coaching and tyranny can be so tricky at a youth level is because, particularly with younger kids, you’re colliding with parenting styles. Maybe, at home, there are parents who let their kids do what they want, when they want, and there’s never a consequence for doing anything wrong. I don’t know. But I do know that when you’re coaching, one parent can praise you as a good coach and teacher, while the next thinks you’re a raging asshole.

And if you’re a youth coach, that’s how things are going to be. Like it or lump it.

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