Curbing abuse allegations and transfers will take communication

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For the last few years, the refrain among coaches that young people are a different breed today has been growing louder. This spring, among the usual coach firings and hirings, evidence of those differences are manifesting more visibly.

Not only are there once again a high number of player transfers, but several coaches are facing lawsuits or accusations of player mistreatment. In some cases, such as with former Nebraska coach Connie Yori, those allegations have cost a coach their job.

Indicators that coaches and athletes are not seeing eye to eye as much anymore are everywhere. Before she retired in 2012, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt commented that young people had become difficult to communicate with. At last month’s Final Four, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said it is “getting much much harder to connect with every kid on the team in the way that you need to, that they need you to.” Rhonda Rompola retired after 25 years as SMU’s coach because she “kids are not as coachable as they were years ago.” These sentiments are shared by coaches all the way down to the youth basketball level.

Old-style coaching methods like raised voices and punishments don’t seem to work anymore. Instead of inspiring fear and self-correction in athletes, old-fashioned discipline is more apt to result in raised eyebrows and alienation from coaches, at the least.

I’ve been talking to Division I coaches this season, and especially since it ended, to gauge the issues. “They have no respect, no fear,” is a common refrain to describe today’s athletes.

Last month I reasserted an observation I’d written about last year, that today’s young people are soft. This could have helped inspire an ESPN piece two days later on the trend to accuse coaches of abuse. The writer took issue with the characterization of today’s young people as soft, but also said it is immature of them to expect sports to be stress-free. I agree that each college program’s situation is different, and we all know there have indeed been – and that there still are – abusive coaches. But the degree that such allegations are being made indicates there is a profound disconnect between generations.

It is easy to blame the rise of social media for polluting the brains of the young. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other venues and applications have turned everyone into interconnected, self-made celebrities. But that’s not where the Failure to Have Respect (FHR) and Failure to Fear Consequences (FFC) that we see in youth came from. That imprint in today’s young people was there long before social media.

I began teaching and coaching basketball in 2005 in inner-city Los Angeles, when people were just beginning to use text messaging, when no one knew what Facebook was yet and before Twitter was invented. The high incidences of FHR and FFC in schools were evident to me immediately at that time. When my coaches yelled at us back in the day, we jumped. Young people today question everything – and every person. A coach’s word used to be taken for gospel; now an athlete might be apt to say she/he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

It’s the same at non-inner city schools, of which I’ve also been a part. There, young people show respect to coaches and teachers, but they don’t fear any consequences, don’t respond to yelling, and their underlying skepticism about what the adult knows weakens the coach/teacher-student power dynamic to almost nothing. And I have indeed seen players back talk to coaches at college practices – something that used to be unheard of anywhere.

Non-athlete students today have FHR and FFC in the classroom, as well.

In recent years, I’ve settled into a teaching style that works for me: firm insistence with a relaxed framework, where raising my voice is saved for special and extreme occasions. I get much farther with this approach than I did with one that was more traditional, ala Summitt.

Today’s college coaches need to find approaches that fit their individual style, which also take into account the 21st century athlete.

Long Island University coach Stephanie Oliver knows this. She works with her staff consistently to make sure communication between coaches and athletes is at a premium.

“We talk about it every day, how to reach student athletes,” Oliver said. “Everyone says ‘it’s just this generation’ to explain why they have trouble communicating with athletes. But it’s not enough to say that. We’ve got to figure out ways to talk with them and coach them.”

Oliver’s practices are a blueprint for every coach. But it may have to go even further than that to bridge a gap that only seems to be widening.

I envision a WBCA summit where coaches can hear from athletes about what motivates them, as that seems to be at the heart of the issues that are cropping up today. It’s why coaches don’t know what to do: young athletes don’t respond to the coaching practices many have been using for years. What do they do now? How do they reach these youngsters? If scholarships, great schools and a bit of a foot in the butt don’t work, what else is there?

I think we may need to hear from the young people themselves to get the answers to those questions. Because right now, even in some places where coaches are finding success, there are some chasms.