Lessons Learned From The Death Of American Footballer Jordan McNair

by Jeremy Hickmans
31st Aug 2018

I have followed with interest (and sadness) the reporting of the untimely death of Jordan McNair after a football workout in US College Football in June. It, along with other recent events, has caused me to reflect on the developing role of the Performance professional within elite team sports and the balance that needs to be achieved between the physical and mental development of the new generation of athlete and the safety and wellbeing of the person.

The stories that have come out of the University of Maryland paint a picture of a program based upon bullying and intimidation as seen in the points from a recent article on espn.com.

  • In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players….
  • The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
  • Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
  • Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.

Unfortunately, from experience, these events are extreme but not unusual and are often expected and justified as part of the process of ‘toughening up’ and identifying and exposing the ‘soft’ players. The traditional (or old school) role of the Performance Coach has included the expectation of delivering physical and verbal intimidation and punishments as the coach’s right hand man justified as promoting the resilience and toughness needed to succeed at the highest level.

From a personal point of view, I (and my team of performance staff) have often been criticised as not being tough enough on players with the stereotype of the abusive, intimidating strength coach a constant shadow. However, I will argue that regularly berating players creates the same environment of intimidation rather than cooperation which easily leads to examples of the behaviour seen above. This does not mean that we compromise on the standards required, rather that we see the long term benefit of working with players to achieve their goals in conjunction with the standards and performances required for the success of the team.

To this end, it is key that the performance professional (and coach) develops a culture of excellence, individual responsibility and accountability which promotes and upholds the standards required for each player to maximise their (and consequently the teams’) potential. This may be through the identification of physical standards that have no room for negotiation, but also through the agreed development of areas of improvement and the processes needed to reach these goals. At times this may be achieved through a form of ‘tough love’ allowing individuals to alter the expectations of their limitations, but, without being too warm and fuzzy, this should never include the physical or verbal intimidation and vilification that is often encouraged within contact and team sport.

When your fall back stance is to challenge and characterise people in such an agressive and demeaning manner, particularly if they don't have a skill level you think they need to aspire to, or they may never get, then it’s a reflection of your own character and ability as a coach rather than a process of ‘toughening up’. It is a fine line we tread between developing the extreme physical abilities demanded by many team sports that require regular overreaching and, at times, extreme fatigue and the type of sessions that put players in an environment of undue physical duress. Sometimes we will step over this line but, by working with players striving to be the best in a scientifically sound, well developed program we can minimise the risk.

Care for your players future and their development as good people is not weak and should not be criticised or frowned upon.

Empathy, working together and the development of a strong, resilient team culture are not mutually exclusive.

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