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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Mangino

Mike Leach gets fired, or how not to handle injured prima donnas

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Texas Tech fired Mike Leach as its football coach on Dec. 30, ostensibly because he sent wide receiver Adam James to solitary confinement in a shed and electrical closet (says James’ father Craig, a former NFL running back and current ESPN college football analyst) or in a garage and a media room (says Leach and his attorney) after James was diagnosed with a mild concussion.

Of course, as clear by the argument over what to call where James was stashed, the situation is more complicated than that, with Leach accusing James of being a prima donna and malingerer, and his father of being overbearing like a “Little League parent,” players coming out pro and con on how Leach treated them, and the specter of Leach’s past, very contentious contract negotiations providing some insight as to why the Texas Tech athletic department thought him more pain in the ass than their previous feeling, savior of a generally hidebound program. (He’s the second Big 12 coach to make that fall in a month, following Kansas’ Mark Mangino, fired after players and parents alleged various mental and physical abuse.)

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Mike Leach shouldn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

As a youth coach, I look at a situation like Leach’s and wonder, is there something I and other coaches can learn from this? Why, yes indeedy there is. While I am never going be fired before I get an $800,000 bonus (because I never will be getting an $800,000 bonus), I can see some lessons here on the relationship between a coach and a player who, for the sake of argument, was a prima donna and malingerer with an overbearing, Little League parent. There are three main lessons I see coming out of this, for youth coaches on any level — even (or especially) the college level:

1. You can’t magically turn a prima donna into a model citizen.

The speculation in the Leach case is that if James wasn’t being punished for being hurt, this was a chance for Leach to punish him for being an asshole. After all, what doctor recommends a concussion patient be sent to solitary confinement in a shed, garage, electrical closet, media room or Windsor Castle? Leach and other Texas Tech coaches portray James as being a prima donna, and apparently tried to hard-ass the prima donna right out of him.

My experience — at the kindergarten- to eighth-grade level — is that if a kid has a lousy attitude, you can’t yell it out of them. You can’t run it out of them. You can’t lock them in a closet out of them. One of the traits of a prima donna is a disrespect and distrust for authority, and you getting all Sgt. Hartman on them is not going to change that. Particularly at the youth level. You only have players for a short amount of time, and it’s not like you can threaten to take away their scholarship.

I’ve found the first step to dealing with a prima donna is to accept that the player is a prima donna. That way, you don’t overreact to everything and end up creating friction on the team. For example, on a basketball team I coached, I kicked one particular pain-in-the-ass to the sideline. Not only did that have no effect on him, but it also had his teammates wondering why they had to keep working when they were following the rules. I tried running the kid — same problem. It didn’t work on him, and his teammates were distracted because one of their own wasn’t doing drills with them.

The best I can do now is try to impress upon him the importance of being part of the team, and point out (which is true) that we win when his attitude is good, and we lose when it’s bad. I do this because I know his mood swings are subject to whether he thinks his team is good enough to be around him, and whether we’re winning or losing. You might find other ways to motivate a prima donna. But I don’t expect miracles, and neither should you. Your best hope is that, eventually, the prima donna gets to trust you and see it your way. Whatever I do with prima donnas, I tell them, whether they believe or not, that I like and respect them. Then I hope for the best.

I am a coach, not a magician, no matter how much I might like to think I have an incredible life force that turns children into the greatest human beings of all-time.

2. You’re a coach, not a doctor.

In Leach’s case, he had a team doctor to advise him on what to do, although team doctors are notorious for bending to the wishes of coaches to get players back on the field right away rather than their long-term health. Generally, unless you are a doctor also serving as a youth coach, it’s not up to you to judge whether someone is capable of playing. If they say they’re hurt, you have to lean toward taking them at their word.

That doesn’t mean you can’t teach them how to push through small amounts of pain. When my coed fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team had only five players show last week, I told them there wasn’t going to be any rest, so they would have to save being tired until game’s end. I also once had a kid tell me he couldn’t do a passing drill because his arm hurt. I said, OK, take a rest. When he went back out onto the court to shoot three-pointers, I told him he lost the argument about his arm. I’m no doctor, but if your arm hurts, you’re not shooting long bombs.

On the other hand, I have two asthmatics on my team. Even if they were among the five that had showed up on the day we only had five (and neither did), I would have never told them to work through the pain of being tired and losing your breath. I tell those kids to raise their hands immediately when they need a rest. I tell the referees to please stop the game when they do so. I also tell their parents to feel free to run onto the court if something looks wrong. They know better than I do.

3. You have to deal with parents.

It is every coach’s dream to have parents who drop their kids off at practice and games, and never make a peep. Every coach lives in fear of the overbearing parents who questions everything they do. Well, every coach has to get over that. You’re the coach, but you’re being trusted with somebody’s child. You will have many children under your watch for a short time. The parent has only that one child, or a few more, under their watch forever. Any parent who feels like a coach is risking their child’s well-being should speak up. That’s a good parent.

The problem with most parent-coach confrontations is that they’re confrontations. The parent comes flying in upset about something, and the coach gets defensive and tells them to pound sand. As a coach, you have to have this attitude: on first blush, the parents has every right to be unreasonable. It is your job as a coach to explain why you do what you do, and why you feel like that is in the child’s best interests. I’ve had a parent pull his kids off a team I’ve coached because he didn’t like what we were doing (he thought we weren’t intense enough). My reaction: I’m sorry to hear that, but they are your children, and you know best.

I’m not sure Mike Leach could make any reasonable explanation for locking a player in solitary confinement for any reason. But as a coach, you have to accept that parents have the right to ask you anything. You have the job of giving an even-keeled response. That might not help. The parent might not always be right. You might have to get others in your league involved. It’s a pain in the ass. But when you’re dealing with children, you’re also dealing with parents, so you had best accept it.

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Do coaches yell more than they used to? DO THEY??????

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Recently University of Kansas officials began looking into allegations from players and their parents that football coach Mark Mangino… well, the Kansas City Star didn’t say exactly what, but it’s widely believed that it has something to do with his temper, which is on display in this oft-seen YouTube clip of Mangino going ballistic (in a possibly NSFW way) on one of his players who drew a taunting penalty after running an interception back for a touchdown.

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Rated “R” for language and threat of violence. No nudity.

So Star reporters Dave Helling and Diane Stafford, riffing off of Mangino, proceed to write a story called, “Aggressive coaching is a growing problem, but how much is too much?” I know reporters don’t write the headlines. But the story promises exactly what the head says — a look at the growing problem of semi-abusive coaches.

Except that there is zero evidence in their story that there is a “growing” number of semi-abusive coaches.

One problem I have with stories like the one in the Star, and with the coverage of youth sports in general, is that it’s always either-or. Either coaches are violent hooligans destroying the fragile psyches of young children, or they’re don’t-keep-score weenies pussifying America.

Of course, both kinds of coaches are out there. I’ve seen no scientific evidence determining what percentage of coaches are hard-asses vs. bleeding hearts, but I do know that since I was a kid, leagues are far more upfront, at least on paper, about making teaching children and getting them to enjoy a sport a greater goal than winning. That’s why I have a hard time buying sentences like these from Helling and Stafford, who, to be fair, are only regurgitating what they’ve been told:

Yet the problem of overly aggressive youth coaching is growing in America. Indeed, three out of four young players quit organized sports before the age of 13, according to one survey, blaming overly aggressive coaching more than any other reason.

“The win-at-all-costs mentality that’s filtered down from professional sports has colored youth sports,” said Jim Thompson, founder of a California-based organization called the Positive Coaching Alliance, which counsels coaches at the high school level and below. “Youth coaches are imagining in their heads that they’re an NBA coach or an NFL coach.”

A survey by the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance gave youth coaching a C- grade in 2005, calling the lack of focus on effort, skill development, positive reinforcement and fun “unacceptable.”

“Youth sports has lost its child-centered focus, meaning less emphasis on the child’s experience and more emphasis on adult-centered motives, such as winning,” the group concluded.

The Positive Coaching Alliance and Citizenship Through Sports Alliance do some wonderful work, but if they believe youth sports has “lost” its child-centered focus, they’re not looking at the same world I see. If anything has changed, it’s not that coaches yell more. It’s that youth sports has grown more professionalized as a result of parents willing to pay big bucks to get their kids, the centers of their lives, everything they could possibly want and need for that elusive college scholarship or pro career.

The story of the reaction to Mangino and others allegedly like him is not that coaches yell more. It’s that a coach who motivates through fear and yelling stands out much more than he or she used to — a point Helling and Stafford make later on, thus contradicting the thesis of their story:

Complaints about overly aggressive coaches aren’t limited to big-time college programs. Raytown South basketball coach Bud Lathrop lost his job after more than 40 seasons [in 2003] after stories surfaced that players were paddled for missing free throws.

At the time, some of Lathrop’s fans defended his approach, which they said was considered perfectly acceptable 30 or 40 years ago. …

Every management guru in America preaches that collaboration is the best way to get good work out of the “team.” Even the military, the bastion of top-down, do-as-I-say leadership, has tried to tone down the archetypal drill-sergeant abuse.

Yet society generally casts a more permissive eye on successful coaches who behave badly. Bob Knight and Woody Hayes were legendary for outbursts, physical and verbal, although it eventually got both in hot water.

Yeah, about that hot water. Hayes, Ohio State’s legendary football coach, was fired in 1978 after punching an opponent who was forced onto his sideline after returning an interception.

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Woody Hayes, losing his shit.

Knight, the legendary Indiana basketball coach, was fired in 2000 after he violated a zero-tolerance policy put on him after numerous controversial incidents regarding his behavior.

So let me ask this. If aggressive coaching is so much more of a problem, why are aggressive coaches being tossed out? Why are youth sports leagues emphasizing to their coaches the importance of teaching over winning? Which is it, Kansas City Star — are coaches being allowed to run wild, or are they being told to hold their temper? You’ve got a serious mixed message when you’re trying to send a firm one about the prevalence of abusive coaches.

Of course, as I mentioned before, it’s not an either-or situation. A lot of youth coaches, whether they yell or not, are focused on winning. Often, the parents whose kids are on that coach’s team emphasize it as well. Indeed, a recent study by a University of Washington professor found that children whose coaches emphasized mastery of skill rather than winning had less “sports anxiety” and were more likely to stay with a sport.

I think where reporters like those at the Star get the mistaken impression that coaches are yelling more is because there is so much emphasis from organizations like the Positive Coaching Alliance to make sure ALL coaches are creating a positive environment. By the way, that’s not as simple as praising everyone. In the coed fifth- and sixth-grade team I coach, sometimes you have to give ’em a carrot, and sometimes you have to be more forceful about what you want. Some kids respond to the carrot, and some kids need the stick. What I try to do is make sure they know I’m doing what I’m doing because I care for them and want them to get better. I don’t use a paddle.

Does winning matter? To me, no. But I know from my experience that if kids never win, or don’t win much, that’s as discouraging as an environment that is only about winning.

The big problem with youth coaching, and where organization like Positive Coaching Alliance prove valuable, is that because coaches are drawn from the ranks of parent volunteers, you have people who don’t know how to coach. So, they draw on who their old coaches were — yellers, like back in the day.

The next time someone writes a story about yelling coaches, I’d like to see either a study showing that indeed more coaches are abusive, or something that reflects the reality of youth sports today — where some coaches yell, and some don’t, where some kids are in professionalized programs, and some aren’t. Just because Mark Mangino yells doesn’t mean most coaches do, or that just because he yells he represents a growing trend.

The story really is that if a coach does cross the line toward abuse, parents, players and others in the outside world are much more likely to call the coach on it.

Written by rkcookjr

November 19, 2009 at 11:33 pm