Opinion: Compassion in Coaching Counts

The “Zen Master,” Phil Jackson, at work. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Take some Advil, keep your head down, keep playing, and most importantly, win. For thousands of athletes, coaches preaching the gospel of victory over all else has pushed them to compete on fractured bones, practice through sickness, and train in the aftermath of significant trauma. For many, losing simply isn’t an option. 

“Old fashioned” coaching tactics, including blaming, belittling, and undermining athletes have been the default mindset in sports for a long time, but athletes have begun speaking out. The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology reported that such coaching tactics, while common, “may lead to negative consequences for athletes, such as high levels of anxiety and depression.”

As athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka open the discussion about the mental toll that sports take, the role of a coach in an athlete’s mental health has risen to the surface. A 2021 NCAA survey found that just 53% of college athletes say their coaches take their mental health concerns seriously. Similarly, 22% of female athletes and 15% of male athletes listed their relationship with their coach as a major factor negatively affecting their mental health. 

Here at USF, coaching scandals have plagued the athletics department. In March 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article on the filing of a class action lawsuit against two USF baseball coaches, who were later fired. That lawsuit, originally filed by three anonymous players, has grown to include 12 current and former USF baseball players. The following summer, another lawsuit concerning abusive coaching came to light, this time filed against USF women’s basketball coach Molly Goodenbour. USF isn’t alone either. In January, St. Mary’s College fired their winningest women’s basketball coach of all time after an internal investigation.

These lawsuits and whistleblowing point to the change in coaching culture that is needed across the country. 

Coaching requires awareness of athletes as whole people, beyond athletics. To protect athletes, player-coach relationships need to include positive reinforcement, healthy boundaries of communication outside of practice, and space for athletes to grow from their mistakes. 

Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA history, and an inductee into the NBA Hall of Fame as a player, had a famously unique approach to cooling the adrenaline and ego fueled culture of a professional sports team. Jackson worked his entire coaching career to fuse mindfulness and meditation into the routines of all his players. Jackson saw the big picture, the way that life and basketball intertwined for his players, and he strove to make them better in both regards. Between asking his players to read Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and teaching them to meditate, Jackson earned the nickname the “Zen Master.” The unconventionality in Jackson’s coaching has changed not just the world of basketball, but the world of sports. His contributions have made Jackson widely regarded as the greatest coach of all time.

Coaches should have an ethical responsibility to care for their players and not abuse the unique power they have over the minds and bodies of their team. Tough love has a time and a place, and the best coaches should be able to read their players and know when punishment is not helping them grow. 

Dr. Laura Miele, an expert in sports psychology and coaching consulting wrote in Psychology Today that “When an athlete is in an environment where they can take risks or make an error without being reprimanded, it helps them grow. Athletes learn by their mistakes, just as coaches learn by their mistakes” With a conscientious approach to coaching, a 2021 study found that “athletes who feel valued and understood by others (e.g., elements of the team) performed better and presented higher levels of psychological well-being, and lower levels of perceived stress.” 

Sports are meant to push the limits of physical exertion and mental toughness. However, when coaches do not respect their players’ well-being, players may make unnecessary and dangerous sacrifices to their health that no game is worth. Coaches who value their players more than they value the game are far too scarce. As we look to the future of sports, we ought to be looking for coaches with compassion, as well as impressive drive and experience. 


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