The Mental Game: Impact of Coaches

Coaches are some of the most influential people in the lives of athletes, from childhood through
college. Every single student-athlete man for whom I have worked alongside has at least one
transformational memory of a coach from their time growing up. These memories may be
glowingly positive and continually reinforce who they are and why they play the game, but they are too often negative and serve as the root source of insecurities, self-esteem issues, and mental blocks while playing. Throughout my research, I have worked to understand how coaches impact players from their earliest years competing all the way through the present. What I have learned won’t be shocking to those who have ever had a coach, but it is convicting to see laid out alongside its impact on players.

Simply put (and I understand the backlash this statement might produce), too many coaches are
ill-equipped to handle the off-court complexities and psycho-social development of student-
athlete men and often cause more harm than good for their players, regardless of intention.
Within the Division III landscape, many coaches have earned a degree in something
other than coaching while playing the sport they now coach at the college level; that is the
baseline for most institutions. What is often left out of that equation are skills such as clear
communication, understanding of young adult development, personal identity development,
leadership, and the ability to holistically mentor, counsel, and support students.

In a recent study I conducted which utilized Division III Male Volleyball players as
participants, many of the guys shared both positive and negative experiences with coaches. They often spoke about how their coaches growing up (regardless of sport) directly influenced how they view themselves as men and athletes today. What was clear with the participants in my study is that almost all the men directly tied impactful and sustained memories of their coaches to how they were conditioned to be men. Many participants had to work hard to deconstruct negative and toxic lessons they learned from coaches in their youth. Some of these negative lessons included making inappropriate jokes about women or femininity, destroying self-worth by directly tying work to skill/play, and tying masculinity to purely physical performance. One participant recalled a positive story of his coach from freshmen year in high school where the coach called him aside and corrected a negative behavior in a constructive manner, whereas another noted how he was taught timeliness by a coach on his club team.

Negative Influences

The young man who had a coach that frequently made inappropriate jokes about women told me his coach “would just crack jokes about women…He was just kind of that guy that you
could just tell did not treat women well, but I looked up to him because he was my coach…he
was a good player, and we were a good team”. He also mentioned that this specific coach would
call players “little girls” when they did something wrong and often use derogatory language in
regard to women which then became acceptable terms within the team. This coach often yelled at players who got emotional, telling them crying did not have a place for men in sports. The player who experienced this coach vividly recalls learning he was not allowed to show emotion on the court except for anger and that he was expected to use certain words to describe women and men who were not the “ideal man”.

Another participant told a deeply impactful story of his club volleyball coach in high school who
left him with emotional baggage he had to work through as a college player. This player
described his coach as a non-emotional tough guy. He said his coach “destroyed my self-
esteem. Incredibly. “He told me ‘you need to do this and if you don’t do it, you’re useless to
me’ and it really tied my self-worth to how I was playing”. It reinforced the idea I needed to be
doing something well to be valued”. This player utilized numerous services in college including
counseling and mentoring to undo much of the mental damage done to him by his high school
club coach. Luckily, by his junior year, he was able to see his value again and no longer tied his
worth to his performance on the court. He began to enjoy the game and started playing to his best potential.

The final negative example I will provide is from a third participant who had an impactful high
school strength and conditioning coach. This coach told him that he was not “a real man” and
had no lasting athletic ability if he could not bench press a certain amount of weight by the time he was 15 years old. This player spent days and nights lifting just to prove his manliness and athleticism to this coach and was not able to reach the lofty weight goal during his high school years. It took this player through college to be truly comfortable with his coaches and trust that they had his best interest in mind as they gave him constructive feedback.

All three of these examples show how coaches, from youth sports all the way through college,
have a deep and lasting impact on how players view themselves, their self-worth, and their
purpose in college. Many Division III volleyball players for whom I have worked alongside have
told me they chose their specific institution/school for the team culture and for the coach(es). This puts a lot of pressure on coaches and athletic departments to know how to properly develop and grow players, both on and off the court. For the Head Coaches reading this, I would encourage you to bring these types of conversations up to your Athletic Director and utilize staff on your campuses to do professional development with your staff, if needed. More on that in a bit.

Positive Influences

A fourth participant in my study told me a story from his Freshmen year in Highschool about his volleyball coach. How he was taught to be accountable for his actions. At the start of his freshmen volleyball season, he began to flirt with the girl who was serving as the team manager. He ended up kissing her after a game one day and then immediately ended it, shutting her down. The student manager quit the team the next day since she was embarrassed this player had “led her on”, she was afraid he was going to tell the entire team about their interaction.

His coach, having noticed the flirting, asked the manager why she was quitting. He called his player aside and had an authentic one-on-one conversation where he explained how he expected his players to treat other people, how to treat people you are wanting to date, and what harm can be caused by immature decisions. Now, this might sound like a very juvenile story/issue, but try to remember the social pressures of being a freshman in high school and what a rumor or story can do to someone’s social viability. This young man carries that story with him to this day when he thinks about the unintended consequences of how he speaks to his teammates and family members.

A final participant told me how he learned timeliness and responsibility from his 18’s club
coach. He told me that his coach consistently told his players that “early is on time, on time is
late, and late is unacceptable”. This was his first realization that responsibility, and punctuality,
was not only an expectation of him as a player but was directly tied to his responsibility as a man
and a young adult. This lesson stuck with him throughout college and he, in turn, became a
champion for showing up to lifts, practices, and games early as a team in order to show
dedication and commitment.

Moving Forward

So why am I sharing these stories with you and what does it have to do with Division III men’s
volleyball today? Every single player currently on a college team can think back to both positive and negative experiences they had with coaches growing up and throughout college. Many of these experiences never get talked about, especially at the team level, and therefore never get worked through fully. Players should feel empowered to talk to their coaches about past experiences and baggage with other coaches, but that is keenly dependent on the coach having the skills and ability to provide players with the necessary resources to work through any mental blockades instilled by former coaches. Players will never feel truly comfortable sharing their feelings and issues with coaches if the coach doesn’t first model vulnerability and openness to their team.

There are several ways that athletic departments, coaches, and captains can model this type of
openness within their teams. Here are just a few that I have seen be successful:

  • Athletic Departments: Work with your institution’s counseling or health center to see if
    there are workshops that can be done to encourage players to reflect on their previous
    experiences and conditioning as men and athletes.

  • Coaches: Collaborate with your student affairs staff or faculty with research agendas in
    athletic, gender, or young adult development to come alongside your team and be an
    outside voice to your players. The vast majority of players who I have mentored have told
    me that even though they may trust their coach, the person who controls their playing
    time and athletic future is not always the person they want to divulge all of their struggles
    to, so having a professional that can provide a sounding board and resources can
    complement the support offered by a coaching staff.

  • Captains: Have team meetings/conversations, potentially with players only, about
    previous experiences with coaches, what works and doesn’t work for your team, and
    encourage teammates to reflect on what baggage they brought into college from previous
    teams/coaches. Normalize seeking counseling and utilizing sport psychologists to tackle
    mental barriers and allow for authentic emotions to be present within your team. Every
    team I have worked with has talked about their “brotherhood” as one of their strongest
    assets. My marker of true brotherhood for a team is if players truly feel comfortable being authentic and emotional with their teammates without fear of retribution or repercussion. Modeling this as captains or senior leaders is more impactful than you imagine.

In my next article, I am going to talk about the additional pressures student student-athletes
often feel throughout college and how these pressures can be addressed or worked through as a
team. There are many unspoken pressures which can lead student-athlete men to poor academic performance, declined athletic performance, and even leaving the team/school due to immense stress and pressure. I hope to help surface these for you all, and introduce to you proactive steps in the journey of figuring out how to balance being a student, an athlete, and a young man.

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