Negativity in sports among coaches and players

I referee a lot of soccer: Recreation, club, and high school. Nearly every week, if not every game, I am astonished at the behavior of the coach toward the players, and the players toward each other.

In many teams, it appears that there are pre-ordained scape goats. When something goes wrong, everyone yells at this player or these players, but when a different player makes a mistake, not much is said. 

Last week, I refereed a game. It was a blow out. Early in the second half, a player shot from just inside the penalty box and missed. As shots go, it was relatively easy, but it certainly was not a surefire goal. Sure enough, the player was one of the scapegoats, and everyone had a go at him. The coach even yelled out, “Jim [not his real name], you can’t miss those.” Later in the half, another player had a shot into an open net from inside the goal box. He missed. Of course, he is the coach’s son, so nobody said a word.

Yesterday, I refereed a girls’ junior varsity game. Neither team was very skilled. Most players appeared relatively new to soccer, which is great that more players have an opportunity to play, not just those who have played club soccer for their entire childhoods. Early in the game, a left midfielder tried to make a move down the wing past the opponent’s right fullback. She beat the defender, but she played the ball too hard, and it went out of bounds for a goal kick.

The coach yelled out from the sideline, “Jill [not her real name], just cross the ball next time.”

Under her breath, she mumbled loud enough for me to hear a few feet away, “I was trying. I just kicked it too hard.”

Naturally, the coach already had sent a substitute to report for her because that mistake was clearly unpardonable.

The self-fulfilling prophecy may affect the player’s and coach’s comments; they have made a decision about a player, and the negative plays confirm their beliefs. When a coach does not believe in a player, “all evidence of skill errors by the athlete will reinforce the coach’s belief that the athlete is incompetent, and all skill success will either be ignored or simply considered to be ‘lucky’ events and not indicative of the athlete’s sport skill” (Horn, Lox, & Labrador). Of course, when the coach believes in the athlete, the opposite is true: Skill successes will reinforce the coach’s beliefs, whereas mistakes will be ignored or considered not to be indicative of the player’s skill. The player who missed initially is not considered to be a good player, and his miss confirmed this belief, whereas the coach’s son is considered to be a good player, and his mistake was ignored.

These are two recent examples, and fairly innocuous compared to others. I recently saw a coach get in a JV player’s face and yell at him because he did not fall to the ground fast enough when injured. I frequently watch one player get yelled at throughout games by his teammates although he is one of the better players on the team who simply does things, like being in the right position, that go unnoticed. Often, they’re yelling at him when he is trying to clean up their mistakes!

Yesterday, I heard a forward yell at her midfielders and fullbacks, “Do not play another ball unless it is on the ground!” She was clearly one of the favored players on the team, with an entitled attitude, but for my money, she was one of the worst players on the team. She was bossy and vocal, but she never took on opponents, but often turned over the ball. I preferred another player who looked like she had less experience, but who tried new things and played with greater strength and athleticism. Of course, when this player moved from fullback to striker when the game was out of hand, and her first touch as a striker was not perfect, her teammates yelled at her. She clearly was not part of the “in” clique, as their first touches often resembled balls being kicked at a wall, but they never criticized each other for the first touch.

I am not a coach who likes fake positivity. I am very direct. I am honest. Some take that as harsh or mean. I also am okay with players policing each other. I do not feel like these situations fit any of those. Instead, I see coaches whining at their players because they don’t know how to instruct. I see players blaming each other to deflect the blame away from them. I see cliques of players blaming the outsiders. Unfortunately, in several of these instances, the outsiders were also different racially (African-American or Middle Eastern) than the dominant group (white or Latino), and this is even more troubling. As I wrote previously, using Bandura’s hierarchy of needs, safety is the second level from the bottom; when feeling stressed or insecure in an environment, players are unlikely to learn or perform well.

As reported by Sarah Sparks in Education Week, “High-stress environments in which students feel chronically unsafe and uncared for make it physically and emotionally harder for them to learn and more likely for them to act out or drop out.” If the talent-development process is essentially learning, these high-stress environments, whether classified as intense practices or abusive practices, negatively impact learning and consequently talent development (not to mention other potential negative psychological and emotional outcomes).

After safety is belonging. Clearly, at least from my perspective, some players feel a greater sense of belonging than others. I see the frustration on one player’s face every time that his teammates yell at him or when he is inevitably the first player substituted from the game.

Often the actions of teammates or coaches can affect one’s feelings of belonging or inclusion in the group. For instance, if a coach always bats a player last and plays the player in right field, he or she may feel less a part of the group. On some teams and at some levels, every player is not going to play, and certainly not every player is going to get repetitions at quarterback or pitcher. However, it is important that every player feels like a member of the group.

When the athlete does not feel like a true team member, it is a little like being the third wheel: Sure, you were invited and you are a part of the activity, but you feel like the others involved would prefer if you were not there. How does one develop his or her skills in this type of environment?

When I talk to other referees, I often make judgements about coaches based on these interactions and feedback that I see during games. Often, other referees defend the coaches and talk about their qualifications, their record, their championships, their style of play, and other things. To me, the basic needs are more important. If you are a great tactical coach, but treat the players terribly, creating a verbally abusive environment, you’re not a great coach. If you allow players to pick on and demean certain other players in nearly every game, you have not created a good environment for the team. These things are the starting points. These areas are the non-negotiables for me. Once those are in place, we can talk about whether or not the coach’s use of a 4-3-3 is appropriate or whether he should play a 3-5-2. Otherwise, the more that I referee youth and high school sports, and see the different things that happen with players, parents (fights in the stands, screaming at players, etc), and coaches, the less that I can recommend to others to put their children in organized team sports.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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