07.06.16Blaming the Kids: A Reflection on Coaching and Teaching
My daughter played in a tournament with her soccer club this past weekend. The experience was a case study in what happens when coaches don’t understand their responsibility as teachers. Sadly, this is not uncommon and is important for reasons that I will discuss at the end of this post.
First the details: My daughter is on the B team at her club. This has meant, for most of the season, the girls participating at least once per week in an “academy” practice run by the Head Coach. During those sessions the girls on the B team were thrown in to whatever training session was convenient with little thought or foresight. They were usually in with girls two years younger. They never received tactical training. There were no sessions on defending. No sessions on combination play. They’re 13 mind you and while the A team got tactics, they weren’t really even encouraged to pass. They got what 11 year olds got. Low expectations and inattentive teaching, in other words.
At this weekend’s tournament, the B team coach—an earnest hard working guy who’s gamely learning his trade–was away, so the Head Coach stepped in.
When the girls started to lose she began to shout at them to “stop just running around.” She shouted that they were out of position. She shouted that they were making the wrong decisions. She yelled at them for lacking first touch. In short, she yelled at the girls for not doing all the things she and the club had neglected to teach them all year. And—this is the key–she did not appear to connect the fact that they made terrible decisions, were out of position and were just running around with her own job responsibilities in any way. Rather, she blamed the kids. She should have been taking notes on all the things she or the B team coach needed to address (and do differently) in training but instead she yelled at them and sat on the bench making sarcastic comments under her breath to a colleague (e.g. “Wow. Just. Wow”).
When students struggle to execute, though, a teacher takes responsibility. Perhaps she recognizes that her own decisions played a role in the failure of her students to execute. If not she endeavors to fix it anyway because that’s the job. Blaming students creates cultures of low expectations. It encourages you to think students cannot be taught. It erodes a teacher’s own sense of responsibility. It causes you to question something intrinsic about your students, which was where things went with my daughter’s team.
I should note that it was brutally hot and the coach was right about at least one thing: our girls were indeed “just running around.” But here’s the catch: the other team wasn’t. They went up-back-and-thru and cut us apart with diagonal runs that other players were anticipating. They used sequences of 8 and 10 passes to wear us down. We had to run back and forth across the field on defense. Our longest sequence of passes was four and this happened just once. The rest of the time we tried to out run them with solo dribbles or long balls up the wing, just as we’d been coached to do. We lost the ball quickly, over and over, and exhausted ourselves chasing fruitlessly. They were disciplined about pressure, cover and balance. Our girls had never even heard the phrase ‘pressure cover balance’!
So the heat magnified what is obvious. There is no way for a team that does not understand the game to keep up with a team that does. They weren’t lazy; they squandered their energy quickly and uselessly. They were poorly taught.
I mention this because after the game, the coach called the girls to a corner of the field and berated them about their ‘lack of pride’ for 15 minutes. The A team would have played with pride, she said. This was why they were the B team. Theirs was a failure of character.
I didn’t see a lack of pride though. I saw a team that was out-coached; we were playing a program that taught the game better. Look, effort matters. A lot. I love it when a coach tells one of my kids out if he or she isn’t giving full effort. That’s fair and good. But one kid not trying their hardest and a whole team apparently not trying their hardest are very different things from a teacher’s point of view. If everyone on the team is behaving in a given way, there’s a reason for it. I mean, it’s possible that every one of those 15 kids lacked character or gave up, but assembling a group of 15 kids who all suddenly lack pride is a statistical long-shot. If you’re a coach and that’s what you think you’re seeing you should instantly start looking for some environmental cause. That’s doesn’t necessarily have to mean it is your teaching—though it could be and should ask yourself that question—but it is clearly the result of something in the environment- something, in short, that you control- are supposed to shape.
But let’s go back to that meeting again: the coach told a group of young girls that they were fundamentally lacking in character with almost no evidence. Why? Because questioning the character of groups of students is the logical next step when you don’t connect your own teaching to the outcomes. You have to start looking for some deeper flaw. If the results of your teaching are public, as a coach’s are, you have to turn up the blame to continue to explain your embarrassment or manage your anger. So you go to character. And you tell a group of kids they are unworthy or flawed in some way. You go from ineffective to destructive.
I think it’s important for coaches to ask themselves when they start to attribute negative traits to a group: Am I sure? Is it plausible that every one of my kids lacks character or heart or desire or pride? It’s plausible that that might happen once or twice in a coach’s life. But not much more than that. And even if the answer is yes, the next question should be: Why? If you are a good coach you will be holding up a mirror as you ask that question.
Anyway, on day two our girls were again dismantled by the other teams. The opposition had first touch and excellent vision. They moved the ball quickly. We played foolishly and selfishly as we had all year and, as a result, our lack of “pride” (i.e. learning) showed up again.
But now the coach was silent. She sat slumped in her chair and the thing I noticed most was her body language. You could see how much she resented the girls for their incompetence and it was impossible that they didn’t sense this too. Her body language was full of scorn and disgust and she moved her chair fifteen feet to the right to leave a huge gap between her and the girls. She didn’t even want to be associated with them. And never once did she give a kid a high five or offer a hand shake as they came off the field. They jogged off the field to the bench and she would barely look at them.
This is the final stage of what happens when a coach does not understand that her job is to be a teacher. You make it clear that you think the children who have put their trust in you are unworthy of your time. You give up on them and maybe even let them know that you think they are hopeless.
I’m telling this story because I think every one of us who teaches or coaches has been, at least for a moment or two, where this coach was in the first game: the moment when learning breaks down and for an instant—maybe longer–we want to blame the kids for not learning. That’s natural. But the point is that we have to catch ourselves there. To remind ourselves that if the students in our charge are not learning we first have to examine ourselves and our actions. And though we don’t want to admit it sometimes it is on us. John Wooden said that the essence of coaching was distinguishing “I taught it” from “They learned it” and embracing that the job was to bridge that gap- to always work to find a way to teach so students learn; to embrace that there always is a way. That makes us better teachers, even though it is hard and emotionally grueling. Our job is to own it and assume that if we do it right the kids will thrive.
But embracing that is also important because of where it leads if we fail to do so. It leads to destructive behaviors like the expression of scorn and the assertion of character flaws that drive kids away from sports. Nobody wants to be the person who does that to kids. And yet we’ve all seen it happen. To do the job is to put ourselves at risk of becoming that person. So the time to catch ourselves is at the moment when we start to blame kids for not learning and to remind ourselves that it is our job to figure out why- to know that that moment and how we react to it is a watershed.
After 9 years as varsity cross country coach I was demoted to assistant. The new HC ran the kids hard 5 days per week. Fartlek, tempo, faster than race pace intervals, you name it. When I pointed out midway through the season that some of the athletes were struggling and could probably use a few more easy days, the HC’s response was that those athletes lacked courage. I resigned the Monday after the State meet (where the team finished 14th out of 16)