Is Victory Worth Violence? Coaching vs. Cruelty

One of my favorite shows is “King of the Hill,” in which Hank Hill, a beer-drinking, church-going, Texas good ole boy is dad to a whimsical, diminutive and…let’s say “rotund” 12-year-old, Bobby.

Bobby is an average student. He likes girls, but he also likes to grow roses. He doesn’t want to follow Pop into barbecue grill sales; he wants to be a prop comic. And he…gasp…doesn’t care about the Cowboys!When Bobby finally joins a local soccer team, Hank breathes a small sigh of relief, only to learn there are no losers–everyone gets a trophy. “I’m one of the nine co-captains!” Bobby announces.

Oh, you won a trophy. Too bad it's silver, &^%$@#!!!

Oh, you won a trophy. Too bad it’s silver, &^%$@#!!!

Meanwhile, in another part of Texas (bear with me, Lone Star State), Jon Voight’s “Varsity Blues” football coach Bud Kilmer curses and slaps players and ignores their pain, physically and emotionally, until one is permanently injured and another attempts suicide. Yet he is revered as a saint as the players keep silent.

Wednesday morning, Rutgers University (N.J.) fired head basketball coach Mike Rice for attacking and taunting players and using homophobic slurs. He hit players, jerked them by their jerseys, threw balls at their heads. Repeatedly. And all caught on video.

Yet it wasn’t until the footage aired on ESPN that Rice was finally cut. Despite several years of complaints, warnings, fines, and suspensions, the Rutgers administration backed him until their hand was forced. When radio host Don Imus called the Rutgers female basketball players “nappy-headed ho’s” several years ago, he was fired almost immediately—and he didn’t even work at the school.

What gives? (And yes, Imus deserved to be fired. He found another gig, and so will Rice.)

When I was a grade school cheerleader, we were commanded to tumble in a park field rife with brambles that stuck in our palms, becoming gory splinters. Our Nikes tore skin from shoulders as we climbed on one another, and were instructed to slap our thighs so hard in cheers that blood blisters appeared. Girls who couldn’t master a skill were heckled—by adults—until they got it, or collapsed in tears.

Oh, and we were nine. And if “Dance Moms” is any evidence, nothing has changed. Most of my later coaches were tough, even angry. But never crude or violent. They are the ones I credit with my life lessons. Yet as Americans we still seem fascinated by bulldog, drill sergeant coaching methods as a rite of passage.

Proponents of these in-your-face types of coaching say they develop toughness, leadership, and self-sufficiency. Opponents say everyone deserves a chance, and it’s not always about winning, but team camaraderie.

Both sound reasonable—until laws are broken. Or kids are treated so fairly that their true talents can’t shine through in deference to others. (And later, real life kicks them in the cojones.) What is the difference between toughening kids–and terrifying them?

I don’t know. I never wanted a trophy I didn’t earn. But it’s one thing to achieve because you push yourself for the win, not to avoid the woe you would encounter at the (literal?) hands of a coach who is supposed to be your mentor and example.

What do you think? Let me know…

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