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Opinion | JOANNA WEISS

Let’s evaluate youth sports, too

Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann is accused of having a history of abusive coaching.

Associated Press/File

Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann is accused of having a history of abusive coaching.

People often complain that youth sports is all about coddling kids: Everyone gets a trophy, nobody wins or loses, we’ve taken out the rigor in the name of self-esteem.

Square that with the ongoing saga in the Rutgers University athletic department. First there was Mike Rice, the basketball coach, fired in April after video emerged of him hurling basketballs and antigay slurs at his players. Now comes news that incoming athletic director Julie Hermann had a history of her own, as a volleyball coach 16 years ago at the University of Tennessee. Former players said she made fun of their weight, called them “whores, alcoholics, and learning disabled,” punished them with public humiliation.

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Hermann says she was “intense,” but never cruel. Maybe this is an issue of definitions. But maybe, amid the talk about college sports and money, we also need to get to the heart of why a coach could act “intensely” in the first place. And we need to admit that this kind of behavior doesn’t start with big money. Or big kids.

Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist in Amherst, specializes in performance anxiety: players who slump or choke under pressure. He helps them dig into their pasts to find the source of their fear. And he finds that many of them have been traumatized by coaches.

Goldberg once treated a high school senior — an offensive lineman, 6’5”, 285 pounds — who found himself inexplicably slowing down in every play. It turned out that when the kid was trying out for his middle school team as a fifth-grader, the coach paired him, in a blocking drill, with a much larger seventh grader who was instructed to knock the smaller kid down, again and again.

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It’s not just sports, of course, where adults can go too far, unable to manage the tension between letting kids be kids and imposing the discipline that will help them improve. Most of the nation was horrified two years ago when a self-described Tiger Mother outlined her reign of terror at her kids’ piano practice.

Yet, as Goldberg points out, the machismo in sports culture — the equivalence of pain with strength — makes us tolerate adult behavior that we wouldn’t permit in any other form of education.

“You have a kid in the classroom from 8 to 3, they’re not exposed to abuse, they’re not exposed to humiliation,” Goldberg said. “Does their nervous system change when it’s 3 o’clock and they get suited up and they get on the athletic field?”

Part of the problem, he notes, is that many coaches get scant formal training. Diana Cutaia, a former athletic director at Wheelock College, said that when she started coaching junior college basketball in her early 20s, she yelled at refs and players because she figured, from watching TV, that this was how coaches behaved.

She also figured she’d be judged by how much she won. And she learned that fearmongering sometimes got results. “Punishment works,” she said. “You’ll get someone to perform just to the level that they have to so they won’t get punished.”

It took maturity and time for her perspective to change — along with one jarring experience, early on in the war in Afghanistan. She was working at Mount Holyoke College, and happened on a fifth-grade community basketball game. In hippy-dippy Northampton, she heard coaches and parents yelling at kids as if they were soldiers in battle.

“There was this language around ‘kill, defeat, annihilate, crush,’ ” she said. Right then, she started drafting a plan for her consulting business, Coaching Peace, which runs training workshops for coaches in youth and community groups.

Cutaia has heard the arguments about self-esteem and coddled kids. She agrees that trophies shouldn’t go to everyone. But she insists that here, again, the adults are making assumptions: expecting that kids need or want a trophy at all.

“Kids around a playground will not whittle a trophy out of a stick and hand it to somebody,” she said. “They play because they enjoy playing.”

And she believes that if coaches focus on the fundamentals of the game, goal-setting, and improvement over the course of a season, wins will follow. And the players will leave college still loving their sports, instead of injured or burned out.

In the high-pressure, high-salaried world of college sports, it may be that no one cares whether the players enjoy themselves, or whether they leave with bitter memories, or what they might teach kids if they go on to be coaches someday. So maybe it’s worth remembering this, instead: Mike Rice, for all his salary and abuse, had a losing record.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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