Rethinking the Coach on That Pedestal

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Why do we so readily and cavalierly place sports coaches on pedestals?

Despite the seemingly non-stop accounts of coaches behaving badly, from the University of Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, who’s toxic culture surrounding the program contributed to the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year old lineman, to the revelations that several college basketball coaches were involved with cash payments for recruits, to Urban Myer of Ohio State, apparently turning a blind eye to rumors of abusive behavior of his assistant coach, we continue to blindly place coaches on pedestals as models of virtue. The iconic image of coaches as leaders who become coaches because of their unyielding commitment to education and to molding young people into responsible adults, is as much a part of the American psyche as motherhood and apple pie.

In a recent essay in the Huffington Post, titled “Coaches are not Heroes,” Jessica Luther wrote,

“We must overcome our ingrained belief that being a coach is the same as being a good person.” It’s a simple but profound thought and something that we all should consider, particularly for coaches at the youth, high school and college levels.

To be fair, Luther offered other professions and positions that could also be placed in the same category such as doctors and Catholic priests. Clearly, the inclination to place people from certain professions on pedestals is not unique to coaches.

The point is not to attack coaches. The majority of coaches are good people who are committed to using sports as a tool to inspire, mold and educate young people. Rather, it is to examine ways in which we can better prepare our coaches to be more effective educators. This is a critical issue in our schools because the fundamental justification for coaches being apart of the academic community is that they are, first and foremost, educators. Further, despite the fact that coaches have such an enormous influence over and impact on young people, in far too many cases, the only requirement to becoming a coach is being able to place a whistle around your neck. That being the case, we need to take a closer look at ways to enhance the “coach and educator” model.

Consider this. There are no national standards regarding educational backgrounds or credentials for coaches. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national governing board of high school sports, less than half of high school coaches teach in a school.  Your child’s high school coach could just as likely be a used car salesman or a store manager than a teacher. This is disturbing as there is not much that is more critical than the preparation and credentials of those who teach our children.

That said, how do we strengthen the “coach as educator” model?

The first step is to discuss and clearly identify the expectations, responsibilities and desired behaviors of coaches. What is a coach? What credentials should a coach possess? How should a competent coach act? What are the responsibilities of coaches?

The first responsibility of a coach is to establish a healthy tone or environment within his or her program. Specifically, the relationship and emphasis on the proper balance and expectations between the academic, social and athletic components and responsibilities of the athlete must be paramount. They must be held more accountable for providing the necessary time, support and encouragement to allow their athletes to perform successfully in all matters personal and academic. Coaches have the leverage and power to influence athlete behavior both on and off the field as they control what every athlete wants most - playing time. As a result, coaches have the responsibility to set the tone of their programs to strike a balance between athletics and academics.  If coaches consider themselves, first and foremost, to be educators, we should expect nothing less.

Further, the issue of coaching credentials is critical. In the academic community, educational attainment is respected and carries great influence. Whether such an attitude is right or wrong is not the point. What is important is that athletic departments function within an educational entity. As such, there should be minimal academic degree standards, requirements and expectations of coaches. Coaches must be teachers who happen to coach rather than simply someone who places a whistle around their neck and expects to be called “coach”. The title of coach must be earned. In the education world, academic background and credentials matter, even for coaches.

Once coaches are hired, they must be provided meaningful opportunities to refine their teaching skills and to develop more fully as educators. Many professions, including the medical and legal fields require in-service training on a regular basis.

Finally, if we are to restore the “coach as educator” model, we must rethink the criteria upon which coaches are evaluated. Any effort to change the behavior of coaches will be fruitless unless the criteria upon which they are evaluated are altered. Coaches must be evaluated on things other than pure wins and losses. For example, on the college level, where a football coach has been expected to maintain a 10 – 1 record and receive a major post-season bowl bid every year, may have to adjust those expectations to accept a 9-2 or 8-1 record, particularly if the coach runs a clean program that produces quality, well-rounded young men who graduate, are positive role models, and contribute to society after their playing days are over. Coaches should not be forced to decide whether they can afford to take the time to build a program the right way. If pressured to win at all cost, coaches will take short cuts, whether relating to the academic culture of the program or the ethical responsibilities to play by the rules.  

If we expect coaches to be positive educational role models and conduct their programs with integrity and a focus on education, we must create an environment where such behavior is encouraged, valued and rewarded. Academic achievement, whether it be a coach’s academic credentials, his or her professional development, or improved graduation rates of athletes, must be rewarded. Only until we make a concerted, long-term effort to create an environment that nurtures a coach’s commitment to educational responsibility and integrity will the “coach as educator” model be restored.  

Justin Rule

Coolidge Project, 110 Gamber Lane, Lancaster, PA, 17603