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Fixing Sideline Behavior: A Coach’s Perspective

June 9, 2014    3625 Views

By TJ Buchanan | @usltjbuchanan

Sideline Behavior: A Coach’s Perspective

On May 28, Blake Gaudet penned a really well thought out blog post titled “Officials and Sideline Behavior: Something Needs to Change.” With so many views and comments from parents, coaches and officials alike, I wanted to offer my perspective as a coach and coach educator on how we can all work together to curb inappropriate sideline behavior.

Dear Blake –

I’m sorry to hear that the vocal minority has overpowered the silent majority in your experiences, and that as a result, you’re considering hanging up the stripes. The problem you face in Idaho is not unique. It is hard to find quality officials everywhere. Interestingly enough, this problem exists in the coaching world too.

Our sport is experiencing tremendous growth. As such, many programs are quite literally forced to take whoever can show up and coach the kids. If an individual can commit to two hours a day, 4-5 days a week, chances are they’re hired. These programs aren’t in a place to be able to select the best candidate, but rather the only candidate. Sometimes this works out for the best and sometimes not. Talk about growing pains…

Why do some coaches encourage their players to act in a manner that they would never condone with their athletes off the field? That, my friend in stripes, is tough to diagnose.

In my experience as a coach as well as a coach educator, I would chalk it up to several factors:

Stress

Two or more hours a day for 4-5 days a week over the course of 3-4 months is a long time to keep your stress level low in a competitive environment, especially for an inexperienced coach. Here in the United States, educating coaches is not a priority in the youth sports community. We do not yet have a culture in place that supports new coaches through mentoring and education to help them deal with the issues that arise in a season.

US Lacrosse is working hard to create that culture within our sport that expects educated coaches, and we need parents, officials and program administrators to all support this by requiring that coaches be certified. As a parent, I would not send my child to a dentist that was not trained. Why should youth athletics be any different?

It’s not just game day that causes stress. There’s the fundraiser, the parent who thinks you don’t play their kid enough and has emailed you each of the past five days, the spouse at home who is missing you while you’re gone, and let’s not forget the day job. It all boils up and unfortunately there are people who subconsciously believe that officials are there to offer some sort of therapy session through yelling.

Who is there to hold these coaches accountable, help them set the standard as role models and let them know that this behavior is not OK? The answer to this one starts at the root of the youth sports food chain.

We would never allow our child’s math teacher to address a student in the way some coaches talk to their players or allow a physical education teacher to promote play that is not within the spirit or rules of the game. In the youth sport world, money talks. When parents stop financially supporting organizations that condone the behaviors you describe, those coaches either change their ways or are removed.

As the saying goes, “You teach what you tolerate,” and when parents tolerate boorish behavior from coaches, they are by default teaching those coaches that it is OK to act in that way.

Poor Role Models

I won’t point a finger at any one person in particular, because when I point one finger at someone else, there’s bound to be three pointing back at me. Many coaches watch other coaches (specifically those with higher profiles in the sport) and try to mimic their behavior based on their record of success. Inexperienced coaches may believe that this is the magic solution to underperforming teams.

“If I yell more at my team or at the officials, things are bound to get better because that’s what Coach X does and his/her team seems to be pretty good every year.”

Other coaches may be modeling what their coach did because of a lack of training. If a coach doesn’t know any different model for coaching than their own first-hand experience, then one would expect them to revert to the comfort of that experience.

Competitive Nature

Let’s be honest: In the heat of the moment, the best decisions are not always made. Think about the grocery store. Why do they put the candy in the checkout aisle? You’ve just spent 45 minutes walking up and down aisles, navigating the cart maze, and now you’re waiting for your turn to check out for another 15 minutes. What could be better than a nice cool drink and a little snack? Impulse purchase!

Sports are no different. There’s two minutes left in the game and you’re down by one goal. The official makes what the coach perceives to be a “bad call” against his or her team. Coaches want to win so badly that impulse leads them to berate the official and blame him or her. The coach is already in a state of emotional arousal, the adrenaline and endorphins are pumping and the part of the brain that provides rational messaging is basically shut down.

Ego

I’ve heard this comment countless times in games I have coached or watched.

“I can’t believe this official. I’ve been coaching for XX years and know the game better than him/her.”

We need to understand that at one time as a coach, we were the least knowledgeable person on the field, and yet the officials didn’t scream at us for making a poor decision.

I have personally made some horrific decisions in game management. For example, I once took a timeout while my team was on a 5-on-3 fast break. You know how many officials yelled at me for that move? Zero. They knew that I goofed and that we probably would have scored on that play, but they did not berate me for making an ill-advised and potentially game-changing decision.

Listen, Blake: None of the above is meant to be excuses for poor sideline behavior from coaches. Poor behavior should not be tolerated.

That being said, it’s darn near impossible to change behaviors with rules or penalties as you suggested with ejecting coaches. Behavior change has to come from within.

I’ve received a few speeding tickets in my 20-plus years of driving. Do I still go 65 in a 55 on the highway? You bet. What will make me drive the speed limit? I have to want to. When my four-year-old daughter is in the car with me, the cruise is set on 55 and I don’t care how many people pass me.

It’s not the fear of the ticket that changes me. It’s the internal mechanisms of my brain telling me to do the right thing for her benefit. We have to find a way for coaches to want to change, not force them to do so for any real difference to occur.

So, what will change sideline behavior?

Education

When coaches know how to properly manage their emotions and more effectively teach their athletes how to play:

  • the game becomes more fun
  • stress levels decrease
  • we become a positive role model for our athletes, and
  • our egos get lost because we’re realize we don’t know it all.

When we as coaches understand the reason for the rules and the rationale behind them, we will become more accepting of “bad calls” and that they call was made because the official perceived the situation to be dangerous or disadvantaged the other team.

Collaboration

Officials who listen and acknowledge our concerns see far less confrontation from coaches. Likewise, we as coaches need to respect that that officials have listened to us and trust that the people in stripes are doing what is in the best interest of the kids and keeping the game fair and safe for all.

In closing, I sincerely hope that you don’t hang up the stripes. Just the fact that you took the time to write this blog post shows your passion. The sustainable growth of the sport relies on dedicated people like you to help set the standard.

I’m a firm believer in the mantra that you teach others how to treat you, and we need people like you out there as positive role models to initiate behavioral change. We simply cannot have a game without officials, and if coaches continue to disrespect the men and women in stripes, I genuinely fear that more will follow your path. As a coach, I may not always agree with your decisions, but I have to respect them.

If we continue to vilify officials and they continue to leave the game, the only officials we will be left with are those that will tolerate the sideline antics that have no place in our game. That’s not good for the officials, and in the end, it will be the kids who pay the price.

Thanks for all you do,

-- T.J.

TJ Buchanan is the coaching education content manager at US Lacrosse. Have more suggestions on how to improve the coach-official relationship? We’d love to hear them in the comments section.

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