Friday, November 15, 2019

Coaches are Bullies

Marathoner Alberto Salazar is the latest coach to be exposed as a sadistic bully:
For Amy Yoder Begley, an Olympic middle-distance runner, four tumultuous years with Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project came to an abrupt end in September 2011.

“Alberto told me he was kicking me off the team for having ‘the biggest butt on the start line,’” Yoder Begley said.

Salazar’s critical assessments of her body, how she socialized with her teammates, even the sound of her laugh, had finally reached a breaking point. She was out of the Oregon Project, the elite training group Nike bankrolled to develop mostly American runners it hoped would become the world’s best.

Yoder Begley is the latest former Oregon Project member to publicly accuse Salazar of manipulating and verbally abusing the athletes who trained under him. The other runners include Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympian, and Mary Cain, a prodigy who skipped collegiate running to train with Salazar but quit the team within a few years, her body and her spirit broken by overtraining and verbal abuse.
Mary Cain quit after years of being told she was too fat.

Maybe Salazar was meaner than he should have been, and he didn't have the success that Nike, his main sponsor, hoped. But this sort of thing is very common in sports because it works. Very few people can train at the level needed to become a world champion without intense pressure, and for some people that means being screamed at for failing and mocked when they slack off.

Bullying is among the tricks that successful coaches deploy every day all across the world. One example I have looked into is San Antonio Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich, who has a great record and a trail of bullying allegations; when he was once asked why his teams played such good defense, he said, "fear." Some players have fled San Antonio, but others have thrived there and ended up with a profound loyalty to Popovich. He screamed at them and humiliated them, but he made them champions, and for that they respected him.

In sports, bullying works. Not always, and it is not the only way, but it is a very successful way to motivate extreme performance.

Other sorts of motivation can be just as brutal, for example the extreme hazing of recruits performed by some teams and some elite military units, which helps to create intense loyalty to the team.

The same can be said of other sorts of education. George Orwell has a moving description in one of his essays of his realization, at the age of about 15, that as much as he hated the regime of beatings and humiliations in his Public School it did "work," in the sense that it motivated adolescent boys to learn Latin and Greek. In fact, he said, it is probably impossible to teach boys ancient languages without beatings.

The Times ponders the intense burden we impose on promising young athletes:
We don’t typically hear from the casualties of these systems — the girls who tried to make their way in this system until their bodies broke down and they left the sport. It’s easier to focus on bright new stars, while forgetting about those who faded away. We fetishize the rising athletes, but we don’t protect them. And if they fail to pull off what we expect them to, we abandon them.
Exactly. The young stars who thrive under the intense pressure shine so brightly that the cast the grim suffering behind it into the shadows. Because, let's be honest, success in sports requires suffering, and success at the highest levels requires very intense suffering. It also requires that some people not succeed, that some who try to reach the heights not make it despite years of effort and sacrifice.

I used to think that a nicer world would be in every way a better world. I am still a fan of niceness but I now realize that not everyone feels the same way, and the many people believe harshness and cruelty are necessary to create some of the wonders that make our world an exciting place to live.


G. Verloren said...

I used to think that a nicer world would be in every way a better world. I am still a fan of niceness but I now realize that not everyone feels the same way, and the many people believe harshness and cruelty are necessary to create some of the wonders that make our world an exciting place to live.

Oh no! So if we don't brutalize people, then we won't have "wonders" like people who are real good at running very quickly? The horror!

And if we don't send millions of young men to die senselessly and horribly in the mud and trenches, then we won't have "glory" and "honor" like you can only get from war!

There's always some excuse for cruel and horrible people being cruel and horrible. There's always something or another they hold aloft as a desireable outcome that supposedly justifies their hideousness - and it's almost always framed as being "natural" or "necessary" or "to maintain order" or "for your own good" or "for the good of society" or even just "the will of God".

Don't you see? We have to keep the vote out of the hands of women! We have to sends gays to conversion camps! We have to practice slavery! We have to maintain apartheid! We have to occupy the West Bank! We have to send dissidents to the camps! We have to put children in cages because their parents legally applied for asylum! It's the natural way / necessary / to maintain order / for their own good / for the good of society / the will of God!

Don't you get it? We have to abuse young atheletes, because sports is too important! I mean, could you imagine if we didn't abuse people, and then they maybe didn't do the sports as good as they maybe might have otherwise? It's vitally important that people engage in recreational activities at the height of human potential! If human dignity and fundamental wellbeing are the price of making sports numbers get bigger, then it's clear we have a moral obligation to the numbers!

Katya said...


I... think there are other components in the mix.

I say this at a particular moment in time. Miriam Baer (she's on the internet if you are interested) was a *very* tough coach. She just died. She coached all three of my children, and certainly her reputation is for "telling it like it is."

Miriam cared a lot about winning.

But that was not the only thing she cared about. She cared about people. She was a truly wild person who cared about independence. She had no desire to control or own anybody. But for people who aren't born to a lot of resources, the kind of work Miriam inspired could have a very real, and very positive impact.

When I had Achilles Tendon surgery at the beginning of the year and could not walk fot several weeks, *only* Miriam showed up at my house with food.

She had many faults and foibles, and she was not a patient person. But if she was putting kids through boot-camp style training... it wasn't to break them down. It was to build them up.

She gave great smiles when she was pleased.

I wouldn't want a *controlling* coach. But a tough coach who loved and cared about my progress? That... I would love.