Good coaches tough, not abusive

David Hahn/Icon SMI

Kelly Greenberg resigned as Boston University women's basketball coach after allegations that she derided her players' characters, not just their performance on the court.

Last week, Kelly Greenberg resigned as women's basketball coach at Boston University after an internal investigation revealed that some of her interactions with players were "incompatible with the expectations and standards of university employees," according to the school's official statement.

Also last week, Butler women's basketball coach Beth Couture was relieved of her duties after several former players made allegations of verbal abuse and mistreatment.

The news about both women comes a year after Rutgers fired men's basketball coach Mike Rice when he was caught on video berating his players, using anti-gay slurs, kicking them and throwing balls at them.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Beth Couture, fired as Butler coach, was accused by players of making emotionally abusive comments.

Each of these incidents has sparked a conversation about the relationship between coaches and athletes, about what kind of behavior is acceptable for coaches, what crosses the line and how much of the blame might rest on the shoulders of the athletes.

Playing college basketball, or any college sport, is an unpredictable, life-changing adventure. Incoming freshmen are just 17, 18, 19 years old -- kids, really. Their minds and bodies are still developing. And yet there they are, going through the fire, trying to hold it all together through punishing workouts and tests of emotional strength, all while juggling schoolwork. (Yes, the vast majority of student-athletes really do study.)

Throughout this process, there is one person above all others who is ultimately responsible for guiding them: their head coach.

We often describe coaches as hard-nosed, strong-willed, disciplined, controlling, precise. Perhaps this language is why so many people seem to believe that coaches walk a fine line between tough love and emotional bullying, sometimes blurring the distinction on a daily basis.

It's a dangerous assumption to make.

The difference between a demanding coach and an abusive coach is not a thin line that someone can drift over if he or she loses focus for a second before peeling back to the other side. It's a wide gap -- a mile wide -- and it takes a long time for a coach to get from one side to the other and back again.

Some people believe there should be zero tolerance for a coach whose style drives numerous athletes to quit the team or the sport. Others believe the problem is with the athletes themselves, that today's players are too coddled, too soft. This latter argument seems rooted in the belief that one of the main objectives of a coach is to separate the "weak" from the "strong" -- to determine who is truly ready for the demands of big-time college sports. According to this survival-of-the-fittest mentality, if an athlete can't stand the heat, regardless of the temperature, then he or she doesn't deserve a spot on the team.

But arguing that it's a thin line between right and wrong does a disservice to good coaches everywhere. Good coaches know how to be demanding yet supportive, disciplined yet understanding. They appreciate the balance between challenging a player physically and bolstering her emotionally, the push-pull of breaking bad habits and building better ones.

Good coaches are like magicians, turning self-doubt into confidence. They don't try to separate and chase away those perceived as weak -- because dividing the weak from the strong is herding, not coaching.

Good coaches shoot arrows around the feet of their players, keeping them on edge while teaching them how to dance.

No good coach would ever shoot an arrow at a player's heart.

Sit in a room filled with former college basketball players, and they'll rattle off stories about all those times when their head coaches turned red with anger. They'll tell of basketballs whipped into the stands to prove a point, of profanity-laced tirades about stupid passes into traffic, of endless sprints and drills that bordered on torture.

There are thousands of players who have had their IQs questioned by an exasperated coach in the heat of the moment.

That was the dumbest play I've ever seen!

You're killing us right now with your decision-making!

Get your heads out of your asses!

What all these "tough love" stories have in common is that the criticism, the disapproval, was specifically about basketball and their performance as players -- not a laundry list of their perceived flaws as people.

The players who accused Greenberg of emotional abuse said she would often call them into her office, behind closed doors, and attack their personalities, questioning their overall character. Several of them claimed she would tell them, "You're worthless."

Some people might see little difference between "You're playing like an idiot" and "You're worthless." But one is an arrow landing near the feet, while the other is an arrow straight to the heart.

It's not just semantics.

All coaches set hurdles. The best coaches empower everyone to clear them.

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