Our Coaching Values Part 1

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When the Unthinkable Happens

Just two days after Christmas, my team was boarding a bus as we headed for an eight-hour journey to a  basketball tournament in Florida. As players were loading the bus, I started to hear some quiet murmurs.

And then, someone asked me if I had heard what happened at another local high school.

“Nope!” I said with little interest, thinking they were just about to spread the latest gossip in high school sports.

“Three of the seniors on the team raped a freshmen with a pool stick,” one of the players said.

“What?!” I didn’t believe them, and my first reaction was that it was a sick joke someone was making. Even now, as I write this, I am uncomfortable. As the players went on to tell me more of the story, it became even more horrifying—and personal, when I realized I knew one of the young men who was being accused. Before high school, he had even been a friend to a few people on our team.

Over the next few days, I would come to learn more about one of the most disturbing incidents I had ever heard of happening in high school sports. And it happened right around the corner from the school I was coaching in at the time.

The timing of the incident was particularly challenging. The incident happened just before Christmas. Now, here I was, a few days later, taking eighteen young men to a basketball tournament, and all of them would be lodging in a house together.

During the week, I would step back and reflect on not just what happened, but how it could have happened. How could three young men brutally rape their teammate, sending him to the hospital? I would come to my own conclusion; one which had been growing in the back of my mind for some time…

Sports don’t really value what they claim to value.

The Values of Our Sporting Culture

“While sports can be a great way to grow in virtue, the culture surrounding sport can often make cultivating some of the virtues—like temperance, modesty, and humility—extremely difficult.”

—Dr. Bill Thierfelder

As the week in Florida went by, the young men on our team had a great time playing basketball, swimming, and hanging out. On the surface, all looked good, but the more I sat back and observed, the more I realized I was letting a lot of things slide.

“Boys will be boys” was my typical response when players made cutting remarks to each other, and measured each other’s value by the way they looked, dressed, played the game of basketball, and how many “girlfriends” they had. When I heard them calling someone “gay” or telling someone to “man up”, I would brush it off and think: They are just playing around.

But the more I observed the emasculating behaviors of my team, and the more I pondered the aggravated rape incident on a high school basketball team, the more I couldn’t help but realize a connection. People in the media and community were busy looking to blame the coaches and administrators for allowing those heinous acts to happen within that team. (The coach and athletic director would be arrested for negligence)  Yet, people were missing something: High school seniors do not sodomize a high school freshman because of a lack of supervision, or the negligence of one or two individuals! Something bigger was at play.

We weren’t asking the most important question; a question we needed to ask moving forward: What part do each of us personally play when our sporting culture goes awry? As individuals, parents, coaches, administrators, sports enthusiasts, and schools, we have created a sporting culture that tolerates—and even sometimes, exalts—intense and undisciplined rivalry, and the glorification and excusing of immoral and self-centered athletes. In men’s sports, we tolerate—and even promote—the hyper masculinity that plagues it.

We claim to value sportsmanship, education, and character, but it is all too evident that these values are not the focus of our sporting culture. In the last ten years alone, the money being pumped into athletics has skyrocketed, but it’s being spent on improving skill and performance with the goal of winning championships, earning scholarships, and “making it” professionally. Where is the investment in the person?

As I reflected on my own coaching, I realized I was missing the greatest opportunity athletics provide for our young people: Character development. Sports can provide an opportunity to instill values, develop character, and prepare our young people to be the future contributing citizens of society.

Instead of emphasizing this, I had spent most of my efforts on skill development, tactical study, and team performance. I was chasing championships, scholarships, and personal validation. Like the majority of coaches, I only pushed my teams harder than ever, with longer practices and a longer season.

Schools and clubs spend more money on improving facilities, equipment, and coaching, using the success of their athletics as key selling points. Parents spend more money on travel tournaments, individual trainers, and sports gear. Fans support athletics by spending most of their energy during games demoralizing the other team or referees, instead of cheering for their program. All of this aids the deformation of athletes—not their integral development.

Take Action

Check out part 2 of this blog next week for some unique and practical ways to identify your core values with yourself and your coaching staff!

-J.P. Nerbun

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