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Ego-Driven Coaching promotes a Culture of Disrespect in Youth Football

James Ryan

“The public holds the coach responsible for the team. His orders must be obeyed. He is responsible for the system and the carrying out of the system, not necessarily the winning of the game.”—Coach Knute Rockne

For as long as I’ve been coaching, I have come to expect certain on-field behaviours from each and every one of my players. How do my players know exactly what I expect from them? Simple—I tell them. And then I make the choice to lead by example.

Football, we must remember, is an aggressive and violent sport, and therefore, without any of the proper adherences to the rules or to the safety of the players, football has the real potential to be the most dangerous sport on earth. It is for this reason why so many coaches (not all of them unfortunately) place such a high importance on the respect for one’s self, his teammates, and of course, the opposing team on the field. Any coach who fails to demonstrate this, is clearly only involved in youth sports for himself and his own precious ego, and not for what’s truly best for the reputation of the game or for the future of his players.

Respect, fair play and sportsmanship are just a few of the tenets of being a good football player, as well as, a good citizen.

Reality check: Throughout a game, there will always be a couple of players on both sides of the ball who will lack the self-discipline and the upbringing to control their emotions and/or actions on the field. This unfortunately reflects poorly on an entire team and of course, its coaches, even if they aren’t specifically the ones to blame. But in some cases, they are.

There seems to be this growing culture that exists amongst youth football coaches, who will actually encourage the members of their team to play with the intent of injuring other players on the field in the hopes that the victim will either retaliate (defend himself), or in an extreme case, become permanently injured, and thus, removed from the game. We’ve been hearing about this sort of thing at the professional level lately, and we’re starting to see it more and more at the minor level as well.

Dirty play works as follows: The initial foul is often missed by the referees. It’s the retaliation that they often end up seeing instead. It’s nothing more than a cheap and cowardly way to force a penalty onto another team. Some coaches may view this as “gamesmanship.” Win at all cost, no matter what it takes, right?

Wrong.

That would be like saying “diving” is fair gamesmanship in hockey, when in reality, we all know how cowardly and unsportsmanlike that type of playing really is.

“When things aren’t going right, patience is an energized belief that things will eventually go your way. As a result, you don’t give up and start to cheat or lose control or begin to take uncalled-for risks to get the results you want right now.”—Coach Don Shula

At the end of the day, the only thing that cheating truly demonstrates is the poor character of the coaching staff, and that ends up being the only true lesson that gets passed down from the coaches to their players. Not the wins. Not the losses. Plus, it also demonstrates the overall weakness of a team and the entire organization that they represent, better known as the “trickle-down” effect.

I remember one year in particular when my own son had suddenly become a target from multiple players on the opposing team. We had already beaten this team prior to the play-offs, and there we were again, facing each other only one week later in post-season action. The last game had ended with the other team’s coaching staff refusing to shake my hand and hurling obscenities (gee…poor loser much?), and so, what could we then expect from a rematch?

My son played defense at the time and I immediately noticed that on the first four plays of the game, several of the players on the other team were intentionally going after and targeting my son from behind by diving directly at his Achilles (ankles). This was a play was quite clearly pre-designed to do one thing and one thing only—to take my son out of the game with an injury and to even perhaps ruin his entire future as a player. “One” player might have been a mistake—an error in judgement, but four in a row? It didn’t take a genius to realize that this was not something that the players were just doing on their own.

I have always taken player safety on both sides of the ball VERY seriously (my motto from day one has always been to “play mean, but clean”) and so to me, this was no joking matter. When I confronted the referees (they hadn’t even bothered to call a penalty at that point), I told them that if they weren’t going to protect the players on the field—I would take matters into my own hands (and reassured them that they didn’t want that to happen). It pains me to admit that I threatened the referees, but it got the result that I needed—they listened, appreciated the seriousness of the issue, and reacted immediately. Two minutes later, they came back to me with the other head coach’s response: “They keep going after our number 45,” was his justification.

I couldn’t believe it! Not only did he admit his guilt (which went without penalty), but he tried to justify this massive breach of ethics by claiming that it was a trade-off because we kept going after their best player, who just so you know, happened to be the running back (and the other coach’s son) who carried the ball on EVERY SINGLE PLAY. No joke.

Wow! Really? We kept going after the ball carrier? Imagine that! And in football nonetheless!

After that little on-field confrontation, things settled down pretty quickly and the dirty play more or less stopped. Both teams went uninjured, and we defeated them fair and square by a score of 45-7. After the game was over, one of their coaches (the one who refused to shake my hand after the first game) actually opted to stand on the sidelines during the post-game handshake. How’s that for teaching our youth?

I remember feeling very sorry for that other team. No doubt they were all good kids stuck in an uncomfortable and unfair position. After all, we teach players that they must obey a coach’s orders at all times, right?

Best advice: The surest way to beat a team, especially when they play “dirty” is to put it up on the score board. Do not retaliate. The initial instigation (dirty play), in my opinion, is garbage football, and is only played by garbage teams with garbage coaches who would sooner see a child injured than to lose a game and have it damage their precious ego. Even if they win the game, what are they really teaching their kids? What are they accomplishing? Win at all cost? Cheat if necessary? Show no respect to your opponents?

This is not the football that I want for our youth in Ontario.

The lack of values will quickly bite these children in the ass once they reach adulthood and life manages to get a hold of them. True, it’s difficult to find good coaches who are willing to put in the time commitment (it’s a second full-time job for sure) and who know the game well enough to be able to teach it (assuming that they can actually teach), but that to me only reinforces the severity and importance of setting the character of these players as the highest possible priority.

Our kids deserve better.

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These are my opinions. If you don’t like them…I have others. Check them out at www.mrjamesryan.com

READ: Coaching Youth Football: Setting Priorities

James Ryan
James Ryan

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