On August 11, Maryland placed head football coach DJ Durkin on paid administrative amid allegations of abuse in the program and the ongoing investigation surrounding the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. One day earlier, ESPN published an inside story on the “toxic culture” that coach Durkin created at Maryland.
Former players and staff shared with ESPN that the program endorses a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation, that it is common for coaches to belittle, humiliate and embarrass the players, and the players are often on the receiving end of extreme verbal abuse.
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Unfortunately, when it comes to our sports culture today, I would argue that fear is often still the primary driver at every level of play among coaches trying to motivate performance. It’s really time for this to change.
The alleged culture created at Maryland—and make no mistake, this type of culture does not grow on its own—is not an isolated case.
A Regime of Fear
One of the initial lawsuits against Larry Nassar in October of 2016 made striking accusations against Bela and Marta Karolyi, saying that they "turned a blind-eye to Nassar's sexual abuse of children at the ranch" and "instituted a regime of intimidation and fear at the ranch for the minor children under their custody."
A regime of intimidation and fear. The lawsuit alleged that the young women were hit, scratched until they bled, and that parents were even encouraged to hit their children. Obscenities were screamed at the gymnasts, accusing them of being fat. At one point, the lawsuit alleged, they were required to strip to their underwear to be judged in front of their peers.
Perhaps acquiring the prize of a bunch of round objects made of gold justifies the behavior in some minds, but that’s a mentality that should be challenged until it’s wiped out.
Best for the Athlete?
Ironically, coaches do a disservice to athletes when their primary motivational tactic is fear. Aside from being both occasionally dangerous and cruel, it does not set players up for optimal success, which is what every coach should be striving towards.
We could use the Bible to support a coaching method that elevates encouragement but sometimes common sense works just as well.
This may come as a surprise to most people, but athletes are pretty normal in this regard. With this normality comes the shared human experience of having a fear of failure. Piling on more fear only makes the burden of failure that much heavier.
What if coaches worked to eliminate fear instead of adding to it?
If the ultimate goal is optimal level of play, we need to admit that sometimes fear is a helpful motivator. An athlete’s fear of failure does not need to be reinforced with more fear tactics. Instead, helpful coaching and encouragement to get them over this fear so they can play at an optimal level would be much more effective to bring about the results coaches want.
If a coach knows their athlete well and believes they will respond positively in the moment to being motivated by fear, I believe that is fine. But if this is the case, some questions must follow:
Would the athlete agree that was the best way to motivate them at that time?
Is this a circumstantial exception or the norm?
Does the coach have the player’s good in mind as an athlete AND as a human?
Sometimes the most effective parenting strategy is to threaten to take away something your child loves if they do not fix an unhealthy behavior. If this becomes a habitual strategy, however, I am no longer a parent. Instead, I resemble a tyrant.
There is a time and a place where fear is an appropriate means of motivating, but what my experience has taught me is that most of the time fear gets wielded as a weapon, not as an instrument of change.
Here are four reasons I believe fear is often a default method of motivating in the coach-athlete relationship.
One of the most challenging realities for coaches is the fact that their paycheck depends on the performance of the athletes they coach. For the vast majority of coaches, that means their ability to pay the mortgage and put food on the table rests on the hands and feet of 16-22 year old men and women. If you do not win early and often, you are out and your replacement is in.
That is scary.
Coaching is a dangerous profession to enter into for an individual who struggles with insecurity. Why? People who are insecure are constantly looking for validation from others. A quick google search of specific coaches show you what they are ultimately measured by—the amount of wins and losses they have accrued over the years.
For someone who struggles with insecurity, the win-loss record becomes an extension of their identity. Thus, when the team struggles or individual athletes underperform, they have a tendency to lash out.
One of the quickest ways to feel better about yourself is to make someone else feel small. A good question for anyone to ask when they motivate out of fear: Am I acting this way because this person just made me look bad or am I really trying to get the most out of this person?
I’m concerned that using fear reflects the sad reality that many coaches lack the ability to control their emotions in the moment. This is unfortunate.
Athletes don’t get a free pass for being out of control on the field. Likewise, coaches should not get a free pass for uncontrolled outbursts under the guise of motivation.
I have been involved in sports at some level for the past 25 years. One thing I have noticed is most coaches who motivate their athletes by fear are not trying to motivate at all, they are unloading their own anger issues at the easiest target.
As a parent this is understandable. When my kid spills milk on the carpet, my gut reaction is to yell “If you do that again, you will never ever be given milk again!” Is that motivating by fear?
At my core, however, I’m just trying to feel better by unleashing my anger on the easiest target. My job, in that moment, is to be the adult and rise above my emotions of frustration and assess what is the best course of action to take for the betterment of my child.
While insecurity and immaturity use fear reactively, the desire to leverage power over a vulnerable athlete is often a proactive tactic.
Every coach in authority over a player—especially in non-professional environments—understands intuitively that he or she has power over that player. Being on the team at all, playing time, and overall experience within the team is entirely controlled by the coach. Often, players feel powerless to “fight back” when they are being verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused by a coach.
This is not only dangerous, but arguably also evil. It may produce wins in the short term but at what expense over time?
A Better Way Forward
Coaches, perfect love casts out fear. You have an opportunity as someone who has been given stewardship over an athlete to help them move beyond their fear of failure. We are drenched in a sports culture that places a premium on fear tactics.
The gospel teaches the exact opposite. And it works, in both life and sports!
Love is a much more powerful motivator than fear. We need to stop equating love and encouragement with participation trophies and orange slices at halftime. Studies consistently show that athletes who play free perform better. If study after study shows athletes whose play is guided by a fear of failure are actually more likely to fail, we need to wise up!
When we lead with love and pick our spots to appropriately give tough love, we model Jesus. He had every right to play the authority card. He could have lost control when His followers just didn’t get it.
Yet, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!