Recently, the training methods of such notable athletic coaches as Alberto Salazar—American track coach, former world-class long-distance runner, and head coach of the defunct Nike Oregon Project— have come under increased scrutiny and criticism. It’s about time.
As both a sports psychologist and child and adolescent psychologist, I’ve railed for years against the imbecilic, ill-advised strategy of trying to extract best performances from athletes by prodding them with shaming barbs about their speed, weight, dedication, coordination or commitment. Such techniques came to light last month when several female runners who had trained under Salazar spoke up about years of manipulation and verbal abuse in the form of public weigh-ins and remarks about being overweight. Salazar has denied some of the allegations, which came from multiple women. He instead explains their anguish away as an “unintended” consequence of his admittedly insensitive comments that were meant to “promote athletic performance.” (Salazar is currently serving a four-year ban from the sport for violating antidoping regulations.)
I’ve yet to meet any athlete who played better, ran faster, or threw more accurately as a result of being humiliated by his or her coach. I’ve known plenty of athletes who tried harder when scolded, but that usually doesn’t work out too well for them. All that means is they’re going to choke, having become self-conscious about their performance and concentrating more on not making a mistake than on refining their mechanics—a sure-fire formula for disaster, disappointment and disillusionment. Second guessing his or her instincts and afraid to take risks, a chided athlete backs off the more daring plays and avoids making the kinds of quick, independent decisions that win games and competitions.
I know what it’s like to buckle under that kind of scrutiny. When I was seventeen, growing up in metro New York, I competed in horse shows up and down the eastern seaboard. I hid from my trainer whenever I ate, fearing his scrutiny over my choice of foods. He never bullied me but he didn’t have to. As a teenager participating in a sport that prized long, lean bodies, I internalized the communal judgment.
Hardly an inspiration, my own preoccupation with body size distracted from what was my otherwise impenetrable focus on training and competing. It was nothing like the indignities Salazar’s runners described, but I remember feeling as guilty about eating as my fellow barn mate felt about the cigarettes she was sneaking. Imagine that — when all I was doing was eating lunch.
The paradoxical and ruinous effects of harsh criticism on the part of a coach—inevitably leading to an increase in self consciousness in the athlete—remind me all too well of Katherine Craster’s delightful and spot-on poem, “The Centipede’s Dilemma”:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
If you want to help athletes to perform their best, you’ve got to help them to feel their best. That doesn’t mean showering them with gratuitous praise, but they do need their coaches to respect them. Those coaches under whom kids and adults perform their best are the ones they like being around, appreciate learning from, love playing for, and in whose company they feel valued. They’re not the coaches who demean them, thinking it will light fires under their butts. Being demeaned doesn’t make people more competitive — it just makes them angry, an unreliable motivator at best.
Besides, athletes at that level don’t need to be externally motivated. Nobody trains or works that hard unless they really want to be there. They come already hungry, already wanting to win. They sacrifice physical comfort, time with loved ones, hours and hours of every day working toward a goal; they hardly need to be impelled toward victory. Anyone who believes that belittling, ridiculing, or bullying is necessary for success knows little about sports performance, and even less about human psychology.
Janet Sasson Edgette is a clinical and sports psychologist, speaker, and author based in Exton, focusing on children, teenagers, and parenting.