The headlines tell the story of a changing culture.
Maryland coach D.J. Durkin, has been under fire for allegations of abusive, uncaring conduct toward players by the football staff that came to light from reporting in the wake of a player’s death during offseason conditioning drills. George Washington University and Rutgers fired basketball coaches in recent years over issues of physical, verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. A Georgia high school football team just last week walked out on a successful coach, claiming mistreatment and unsafe practice conditions.
Gone are the days when Paul W. “Bear” Bryant could take his Texas A&M team to Junction, Texas, for a harsh summer boot camp, or when Bobby Knight could launch profane tirades at basketball players at Indiana.
Coaches know there has been an accelerating shift in the landscape of interaction with players. Alabama coaches in several sports acknowledge it and say they are adjusting to better reach today’s athletes.
“I’m very aware of it,” UA swimming and diving coach Dennis Pursley said. “I’d be surprised if there’s a coach in existence in any sport today that’s not aware of it.
“You have to change with the times. The times are very different. I can speak for myself, been coaching over 40 years, my coaching style and methods when I first started coaching that were embraced by the athletes, their parents, the community, are not acceptable today.”
While standards of coaching conduct and player relations are changing, coaches are still charged with winning, and with building the mental and physical toughness it takes to win. Meeting that challenge has required changes in method and approach.
Decades ago, the generally-accepted method of driving athletes was by berating them. Pushing players meant pushing their buttons like a drill sergeant.
Jay Seawell, who has coached Alabama men’s golf to a pair of national championships, went through those drills when he was an athlete at South Carolina.
“Even in the 1980s, golf was tough,” he said. “We played with a lot of fear; not that we were going to get beat up, but we were going to get whipped — maybe verbally, maybe some stadium steps — if we did not do exactly what (the coach) said.”
Said Alabama men’s tennis coach George Husack, “I was taught to do what I was told. It was a top-down, preaching mentality.”
That harsher, more military style of coaching doesn’t go over well these days. Yelling and screaming can be counterproductive.
“There are athletes who don’t take well to bluntness, and there are coaches who are blunt and they’re not going to sugarcoat things,” said Crimson Tide cross country runner Rebecca Buteau. “I do think sometimes it can be necessary where the athletes do respect it, but there can also be an abuse of power so there has to be a balance.”
Pursley, who began coaching at Alabama as an assistant in the 1970s and has coached internationally in the Pan Am Games and the Olympics, has seen shifting tides in coaching approaches. Bryant and Knight got results and engendered loyalty, but their ways wouldn’t work today. Figuring out what will work is the task.
“‘Bear’ Bryant, if he was alive today and coaching the way he did, they’d lock him up and throw away the key; same for me and same for everybody that coached back in that era” Pursley said. “And yet you talk to his payers and they’ll tell you, almost to a man, that he was the most positive influence in their lives.
“I’ll be honest with you, with the restrictions that we need to work with today — and I’m not passing judgment, I’m not saying it’s good or bad — the reality is that it probably is more difficult to develop mental toughness in the environment today. It’s no longer a my-way-or-the-highway approach, but there are ways to do it.”
Coaches have learned that modern student-athletes want to know why they are asked to do something as much as they want to know what to do or how to do it.
“There is more questioning,” Husack said, “not because they’re trying to be smart but because they want to understand it, they want to understand the process.”
Alabama track coach Dan Waters said it’s the job of the coach to understand how to get the best out of each athlete. Every athlete is a puzzle to be solved.
“I think especially with the track and field athletes it’s a lot of individual, one-on-one time, so you’ve really got to figure out what it will take to get the athlete to perform above and beyond what they thought they were capable of doing,” he said.
Athletes want two-way communication.
Said Buteau, “You can tell by the coach-athlete interaction how it is. A lot of times (things are) resolved by just going up to the coach and saying ‘This is where I’m missing what you want.’
“I think talking with your coach, that’s where the coach can be honest with you and say, ‘I’m not seeing it from you in practice,’ just kind of him being honest and saying, ‘I think you need to put in more effort here and here and here,’ and not saying you’re not tough enough but saying this is where you can get better, these are areas where I see you being weak.”
Coaches in all sports talk about building a family atmosphere. Families are sometimes dysfunctional, however, so the job of the coach is to create a nurturing environment that also creates successful results.
“You can cultivate a really good, positive, uplifting environment by addressing things and talking like you would in a family instead of ignoring it or brushing it under the carpet, especially when there’s conflict with teammates or coaching a player,” UA women’s tennis coach Jenny Mainz said. “If you have a respect level of talking about it and how can we get better, how can we be effective, how can we move forward, and that’s really the goal.”
Coaches also have to enforce discipline, just as parents have to sometimes make children do things that are good for them even when the children resist.
“I have to communicate with my guys all the time,” Husack said. “That doesn’t mean be buddies with them. It’s no different than parenting my own children — I have to have trust in them, I have to listen to them more than anything and not constantly tell them what to do or tell them my opinion but listen to where they’re coming from and allow them to express themselves.
“I think it’s easy to jump on a kid (but) I think it’s important to really breathe — I know that sounds kind of corny — and really figure out what I’m trying to accomplish here, what lesson am I trying to teach, am I trying to just say it’s wrong or am I trying to say this is how it should be done?”
Coaches remember how they were coached and take the best from those experiences.
“I try to put myself in the mind of a player and what did I like about the coaches that during the course of my career — youth, high school, college, pros,” UA soccer coach Wes Hart said. “There were so many coaches throughout that affected my life both positively and negatively, and everything I do today I try to take from coaches I liked.
“What motivated me was coaches that helped instill confidence in me and encouraged me to express myself and play freely and knew that I was going to make mistakes. That’s how I believe I try to coach. I’ve never been one that has tried to intimidate by fear; I don’t believe that that’s long-lasting.”
Seawell has come to a similar conclusion.
“I’ve never been somebody that thought someone being belittled helps you get better because I was raised in that generation, and every time I got beat down a little bit I didn’t respond,” he said. “So I’ve always coached against that grain anyway.”
Kids take to sports at first because they’re fun. Even though collegiate athletics is a higher competitive level, they still want to enjoy the experience.
“Our coach wants us all to be happy, and if we’re not happy he wants us to let him know about that,” said Emma Welch, one of Hart’s soccer players. “He tries to make practices light and fun and at the same time make sure we get all of our stuff done. I appreciate that.”
Encouragement and kind words go only so far. Coaches also have to prepare athletes for the physical and mental rigors of competition. Getting athletes to push themselves is still the goal, but the approach is different.
Hart, for instance, has his soccer players do much of their conditioning work by setting up three-on-three matches that require a lot of running. Three-player groups go head-to-head until one scores five goals.
“Sometimes soccer coaches try to punish players through running, and Wes, when he got there, said that’s not the way that he does things,” Welch said. “He normally gets our fitness in and really have competition within the game of soccer.”
Said Hart, “I don’t think building mental toughness is screaming at a kid, belittling them and making them feel insignificant. To me that’s not building mental toughness, that’s just bullying someone. Can we put our players in environments where it’s not easy for them, they’ve got to work to find solutions, think quicker, act faster? I think you can accomplish those things without mentally or physically abusing a person.”
Seawell has taken four Alabama golf teams to match-play national finals, high-pressure situations where every shot counts.
“It’s my job to put them through the practices, the schedule, the mindset, everything so that they’re prepared for that,” he said. “We set that agenda early to prepare for that, so all of our practices are about competition, about performance, how do you handle that?
“It’s about putting them as close as you can to the fire so that they understand what the fire may be like when they get there.
The UA women’s tennis team builds a lot of toughness training into its strength and conditioning regimen. Some parts are set up so a player has to push through one difficult task to graduate to the next, making it more of a competitive exercise.
“Not a lot of people want to do that stuff, but that’s what you have to get through to get better,” Mainz said.
Coaches don’t have to look hard to see situations where their peers at other schools have lost jobs over interactions with athletes. They know an athlete or parent can go to an athletics director or take to social media to lodge complaints that will be heard.
“There’s obviously lines that obviously in no circumstances in any era that you cross,” Pursley said. “You have to consider the best interest of the student-athlete in your coaching style and methodology.
“What we today consider to be in their best interest is maybe different from what was considered in their best interest 40 years ago. There’s opinions on both sides of the fence, but that’s a moot point. It is what it is today whether you agree with it or not, whether you like it or not. If you don’t respond accordingly you’re putting your career and your program at risk.”
Said Waters, “I think everybody has to understand that anything they say to an athlete can be reported or taken out of context. You better be sure it’s super-positive and your message is super-clear and that there’s nothing that you wouldn’t want to see in the newspaper the next day. That’s good practice for all coaches, just finding different ways of reaching the athlete so they’re not going to go to an AD’s office and say so-and-so said this.”
It comes down to keeping the purpose of coaching in the forefront when interacting with athletes. Coaches who lose sight of that can find themselves in deep trouble.
“You’ve always got to be true to yourself and maintain your integrity and your character and remember that we all coach really important sports,” Mainz said. “And it is important, but the way that you treat people and treat athletes, they’re the most important thing.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.