The Coach’s “Dog Test”
Tino Martinez, the popular former Yankee, resigned Sunday afternoon as the Florida Marlins’ first-year hitting coach following allegations that he verbally and physically abused players since spring training. Martinez acknowledged that he grabbed a rookie second baseman by the front of the jersey in May, but he denied reports that he had grabbed the player by the neck. One player told the Miami Herald that Martinez “uses intimidation. It’s been a problem since Day One.”
Martinez is the latest high-profile coach to hit the headlines for failing what I call the “Dog Test.” The test says that if a coach would not do or say something to the family dog, he or she should not do or say it to a player either. More on that below, but first some other recent stories of abuses by coaches.
In early April, Rutgers University terminated men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice after ESPN aired a video that, quite frankly, was difficult to watch. As described by the network, the video showed “numerous clips of Rice at practice firing basketballs at players, hitting them in the back, legs, feet and shoulders. Rice was also seen pushing players in the chest and grabbing them by their jerseys and yanking them around the court. Rice could be heard yelling obscenities at players and using gay slurs.” A former Rutgers basketball student manager told a Philadelphia radio station that assaults like these were standard fare at “every practice.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wZ3z0HeLq4 (4:57).
Rice’s termination led to the resignation of the Rutgers athletic director, who was replaced on May 15 by Louisville senior athletics administrator Julie Hermann. Within two weeks, charges emerged that Hermann had verbally abused the women’s volleyball players she coached at Tennessee in the 1990s. On May 26, the Newark Star-Ledger published a letter signed in 1996 by the players of that year’s team. “The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable,” wrote the players, who explained that they had “been lied to, publicly humiliated, and ripped apart as both players and people” by coach Hermann, who would call them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.”
In June, suburban Detroit’s Oakland University terminated its successful women’s basketball coach Beckie Francis for “[i]ndications of conduct and behavior. . . that if true could be malfeasance.” Several players charged that chronic mental abuse marked her coaching, and that she obsessed about their weight and pressured them to embrace her religion. ”It was just head games,” one former player told the Detroit Free Press, “just constant head games.” “I tried to avoid as much conversation with her as possible,” said another player, “I got stressed out just thinking about talking to her or going to practice or having something to do with basketball. . . . To have someone make you feel so insecure about yourself, or for someone to have that kind of power over you, is . . . just insane.”
“Leaders Lead and Bosses Drive”
The charges against Tino Martinez, Mike Rice and the others go to the core of the coach-player relationship in any sport, and at any level of play, including the youth leagues. The coach’s authority as a leader stems from respect willingly conferred by the players. A player might obey when forced to choose between enduring or quitting, but respect must be earned.
“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss,” said President Theodore Roosevelt, “The leader leads, and the boss drives.” British writer G.K. Chesterton distinguished obedience from respect this way: “If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.”
Coaches are teachers, psychologists, mentors and role models. Books have been written about how to motivate players from kindergarten to the pros, but I suggest here the “Dog Test” as the bare minimum, a start for coaches who aspire to lead. The test means that coaches should not treat their players worse than they would treat the family dog. If the coach would not do or say something to the dog, the coach should not do or say it to a player either.
After practice sessions and games, Mike Rice would return home. If a cocker spaniel awaited, I doubt that he would fire basketballs at the animal, yell obscenities or slurs, or yank the animal by the scruff of the neck around the living room. His players deserved at least as much consideration as a dog.
“A Sacred Trust”
In my experience, most youth league and high school coaches take their instructive and mentoring roles seriously. Torrents of verbal abuse are rare, and outright physical abuse is even rarer. But I also think that if we shook the youth sports tree, particularly at the more competitive select levels, some coaches lacking basic self-control and respect for their players would fall out. Candidly taking the Dog Test would prove uncomfortable for them.
These coaches could learn plenty from UCLA’s legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden, whose ten NCAA national championships confer an aura of wisdom for his approach. “We who coach have a great influence on the lives of all the young men who come under our supervision,” Wooden began, “It is essential that we regard this as a sacred trust.”
“[A]pproval is a great motivator,” he explained. “I try to follow any criticism, whenever possible, with a pat on the back, realizing that I cannot antagonize and influence at the same time. . . . I seldom punish players at practice or in front of others. . . . I want the boys to come out to practice, and I want them to get a certain amount of pleasure out of basketball. It’s a game. It should be fun.”
Former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, with 11 NBA championships under his belt, says that “[m]anaging anger is every coach’s most difficult task. It requires a great deal of patience and finesse because the line between the aggressive intensity needed to win games and destructive anger is often razor thin.”
Oklahoma’s three-time national champion football coach Bud Wilkinson similarly advised that “you can motivate players better with kind words than you can with a whip.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former Army football player who knew a thing or two about military and civilian command, offered this distinction between motivation and intimidation: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”
Coaches can be demanding, and many of the best ones are. Demanding the best from players, however, is different from humiliating them. The best coaches can tell the difference between positive reinforcement and intimidation, and so can their players. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was right that “[e]ven a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.”
[Source: Cindy Boren, Tino Martinez Resigns After Abuse Allegations, Washington Post, July 29, 2013; Rutgers Fires Coach Mike Rice, http://espn.go.com/new-york/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/9128825/rutgers-scarlet-knights-fire-coach-mike-rice-wake-video-scandal (Apr. 3, 2013); Players Say Ex-Oakland Women’s Basketball Coach Beckie Francis Fixated on Weights, Pushed Christianity, Used Intimidation, Detroit Free Press, July 21, 2013; John Wooden, The Call Me Coach, pp. 99, 109, 115 (1972)] Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, 268 (2013).