A Few Words for Youth Coaches: How Not to Motivate Your Players
By Doug Abrams
Several errant high school and youth league coaches lost their jobs in the past two weeks. On three teams, failed efforts to motivate players produced well-publicized resignations, suspensions and arrests. On at least two of the three teams, the coaches’ conduct smacked of the sort of bullying or abuse that Rick Wolff explored well on Sunday’s show. Each coach should have known better.
For Making a Bad Play
The first casualty was Leake Academy’s Doyle Wolverton, the nation’s second-winningest high school girls basketball coach with a 1,245-181 record in 37 years. The Madden, Mississippi school’s basketball court is named for him, and he is a member of the Mississippi Private Schools Coaches Hall of Fame. Wolverton resigned last week following allegations that he angrily bit one of his 15-year-old players on her face during a time-out at the bench in the Rebelettes’ November 12 game at Columbia Academy.
According to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, the girl’s father alleged that the coach grabbed his daughter “‘by the shirt and then bit her on the right side of the face,’ as if he was getting on to her for making a bad play.” After the game, the girl was taken a local hospital with (according to sheriff’s deputies) a “bruised bite mark on the lower right side her face” that drew blood and broke the skin. When Wolverton resigned, the father decided not to press criminal assault charges.
“You Feel Bad For the Kids”
Little more than 300 miles from Leake Academy, Marion County (Jasper, Tenn.) High School head football coach Mac McCurry and three assistant coaches also left their jobs last week after two were arrested for vandalizing the school’s field house. The coaches sought to motivate the Warriors by pinning the blame on supporters of local rival South Pittsburg, their opponents in the upcoming district championship game. According to the Associated Press, vulgarities in South Pittsburg’s colors were painted on the field house’s front door and outer rear wall, causing several thousand dollars’ damage.
One of McCurry’s assistant coaches also stands accused of breaking into South Pittsburg’s field house and stealing the Pirates’ play sheets and game plans a few days before the teams took the field. The Warriors staff also paid a former college running back to suit up at practice to provide the high schoolers stiffer preparation, a major violation under the regulations of the Tennessee Secondary School Activities Association (TSSAA), the body that administers the state’s interscholastic sports leagues.
One member of the TSSAA Board of Control sums up the ongoing Marion County criminal investigation this way: “If you have no better morals than this, you don’t need to be around kids in any way. . . . You feel bad for the kids at Marion for having men like this as their role models.”
Cash Bounties and Verbal Abuse
Last week, I wrote about three Halifax pee wee AAA hockey coaches who were suspended for a year by Hockey Nova Scotia, the provincial governing body. After an independent investigation, the governing body found that the trio conducted a pay-for-play scheme and verbally abused their 11-12-year-old players last season.
Some parents reported that a coach would tape a $5 bill on the locker room wall before the game, a bounty awarded at the end to the player who delivered the most violent hit. One parent also told CBC News that his son feared going to practice because he thought that the coaches would target him for the swearing, insults, and name-calling that the trio had already leveled at several teammates. “A lot of the kids left the environment in tears, not from physical incidents but emotional incidents,” said the father, who explained that players “were often called ‘bitches’ and ‘buggers.’ The F-bomb was dropped repeated times.” The coaches gave some youngsters nicknames, including one whose nickname was “Stupid.”
Motivation Gone Awry
Each of these coaches was trying to motivate the team or individual players, but each coach was an outlier – someone who is off the scale that judges youth coaches. Thousands of other youth coaches would never engage in, or even consider engaging in, similar irresponsibility or criminality because they understand that working with children begins with setting the right example.
The best youth coaches motivate through the force of their personalities, the quality of their leadership, and the persuasiveness of their positive appeals to team pride. Most players know that winning is more fun than losing, and most respond. Particularly at the high school level and on elite youth league teams, non-response can bring the sort of reduced playing time that Rick discussed on Sunday. Youth coaching holds no place for gutter antics such as those that landed the Mississippi, Tennessee and Nova Scotia coaches in the headlines.
Motivation that depends on unethical behavior or downright criminality can scar young athletes emotionally and physically during the season and long afterwards. That troublesome prospect is reason enough for youth coaches to think twice before acting in ways that any reasonable adult would reject out of hand. But if coaches need another reason for prudent self-restraint, they should consider the potentially devastating effects that wrongdoing can have on their own futures in high school or youth league sports once their deeds go public locally, and perhaps even go viral. These days, very little wrongdoing witnessed by an entire team or other large group goes unnoticed or unreported for very long. People talk, word gets around, and onlookers often video events as they happen.
Doyle Wolverton was near the climax of a coaching career that, on the basketball court at least, seemed superlative at Leake Academy, whose website boasts about “educating the mind, body and spirit . . . for the 21st century.” Mac McCurry’s Marion County Warriors played in post-season playoff games, but now the TSSAA will reportedly decide whether the school may field a football team at all next season. As pee wee AAA coaches in a youth hockey program that expects its coaches to “teach the values of respect, responsibility, honesty and integrity,” the Halifax trio seemed destined to advance in the local coaching ranks.
But then came the resignations, suspensions, and arrests for bullying and other coaching abuse. In interscholastic sports and youth leagues alike, falls from coaching grace for misconduct can quickly erase prior accomplishments on the field. Benjamin Franklin was right: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”