Abusive Coaches Cross Line

Sarah Orbuch, Sports Editor

We’ve all had that coach: the one who makes you do extra laps after practice, unnecessarily blows the whistle and makes you wake up at the crack of dawn to foster “mental toughness.” It’s the coaches’ jobs to be tough on their players, make them work harder and push them past their limits. Given the job description, it can be difficult to determine how much pressure is too much.

Every player takes criticism differently. For some, being told that they are underperforming can be motivation to work harder, while for others it can be emotionally damaging. Athletes are always told to toughen up, work under pressure and constantly improve. But there is a fine line between constructive criticism and emotional abuse. When does a coach yelling “You’re too slow!” become a personal attack?

If and when players feel targeted, they are often uncomfortable speaking up because they fear it will impact their playing time or be detrimental to their already shaky relationship with their coach.

At Boston University, members of the women’s basketball team found themselves with no choice but to report their coach after one teammate felt so emotionally damaged that she contemplated suicide. Two other players said that their coach’s emotional abuse ruined their love for the sport, while another sought mental health care. All four women were attending Boston University on $60,000-a-year athletic scholarships.

This is the second time that their head coach Kelly Greenberg has been accused of “unwarranted and damaging personal attacks” against BU players. In 2008, two members of the team, also on scholarships, quit because they could “no longer tolerate [Greenberg]’s mistreatment.” Boston University conducted an investigation based on these players’ complaints and came up empty-handed. The official statement was that the allegations “helped Coach Greenberg appreciate that her style has been difficult, and that she has also made substantive mistakes that she deeply regrets.”

Clearly, the school did not conduct a thorough investigation. Of the four women who left the team this season, two have left the school for good, one plans to graduate in May and the fourth is unsure of her scholarship status.

All four women indicated that they recognize the difference between an aggressive coach and a bully. Greenberg was the latter. “All the screaming and yelling about basketball was fine,” said Dionna Joynes in an interview with The Boston Globe. “Basketball is a contact sport. We have all played for tough coaches. But I went to BU because I believed [Greenberg] was a great coach, and I was shocked by how it turned out.”

Joynes reported feeling suicidal and was rushed to the hospital after communicating these feelings to a BU staff member. She eventually left school in November.

A coach has the power to make or break your athletic experience. That’s a lot of responsibility centered on one person. Coaches need to strike a balance of constructive criticism, emotional support and player development, instead of making tyrannical attacks on individual players.

So what style of coaching is the best? There’s no clear cut, best choice, but there are many examples to follow, such as NFL legend Vince Lombardi. The all-time great was named head coach of the Green Bay Packers after a 1–10–1 season, the worst in franchise history. In his first season as head coach, Lombardi led the Packers to a 7–5 record and was named Coach of the Year. Lombardi was known for his extensive training regimes and his expectation of dedication from all of his players.

Lombardi’s style worked and has garnered him a tremendous amount of respect. He led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships in seven years. The NFL Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

No one expects Greenberg to become the next Lombardi, but nevertheless she has a lot of changes to make to her coaching style. She crossed the line and emotionally abused her players. Hopefully this is merely an isolated incident and not a trend. Current NFL and other professional and collegiate coaches should take note. There is a line between constructive criticism and emotional abuse, and to become one of the greats, like Lombardi, that line should be crystal clear.