Earlier this year, a video of Canadian youth hockey coach Martin Tremblay went viral after he tripped an opposing player in the handshake line after the game, breaking the young man’s wrist in the process. Tremblay received 15 days in jail, and his actions had social repercussions. But the incident also raised many questions about the type of people we have teaching children about sportsmanship, honor and responsibility.
As the incident happened at a youth hockey game in Canada, it didn’t get as much press as it should have. Recently, however, a similar issue took place on a much bigger scale: Mike Rice, former Rutgers basketball coach, was fired due to an infamous video that showed him viciously firing basketballs at his players’ heads and legs, violently shoving and grabbing his players, as well as hitting and kicking them. The video also shows him calling his players names that degrade gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
In this case, the nation saw on repeat the level of ignorance and bigotry that had crept its way into the team leader on one of America’s biggest stages in Division-I men’s basketball. While Rice is probably one of the worst cases, the reality is that similar behavior occurs in varying degrees throughout sports, ranging from the extreme Rice to the inappropriate behavior of Tremblay.
Now, we are forced to take an extra look at the men and women that we trust to teach athletes about the games that they play and – more importantly – about life. Many successful athletes will tell you that they had at least one coach growing up who taught them to love the game, to always do their best and to be proud of their accomplishments. Even looking past superstar athletes to those of us who aren’t going to make our careers playing sports, that positive influence is still there. Doctors, businessmen, lawyers and countless other professionals apply the communication, teamwork and dedication that they learned in childhood sports to their careers today.
These lifelong lessons can most effectively be taught through a coach. For a great example, look no further than former St. Olaf Head Football Coach Jerry Olszewski. “Coach O.J.” was known for challenging his players to be men and not boys, to treat each other with respect at all times and to give their best on the field and in the classroom. The result was a football program that not only put big wins together, but also and more importantly was dominated by a culture of people that would go on to be successful in their endeavors and to be positive, contributing members of society. This is just one of many such examples that come from being a St. Olaf athlete.
As future parents and coaches ourselves, we have to be constantly monitoring those teaching our youth the life lessons that come with playing a sport, whether that sport is part of a “Learn To Play” program or under Division-I sanction. Public incidents, like at Rutgers and in Canada, show that we have to be careful what messages are getting sent to our youth, especially at impressionable and malleable ages. In a time when respect and responsibility aren’t always prominent, and violence can happen at any time, it is even more important to be using what modes we can to foster responsible, hard-working and positive people. Coaches are and will continue to be some of the most valuable people filling this role.