On the surface, the appalling coaching behaviors of Rutgers University basketball do not seem like content for a fitness column. Closer consideration makes it a good study in acceptable leadership behaviors in sport and exercise. The abusive behaviors exhibited are an addition to a list of questionable coaching actions in the modern era of sport. There certainly seems to be a cultural zeitgeist that is enamored with the idea of “tough” (Tough Mudder… Spartan Challenge… boot camps… etc.). Regardless, “tough” seems to be done quite poorly and quite dangerously too often… and this extends to exercise programs and fitness instruction.
Considering coaching is an important part of being a good consumer of fitness. Wellness does not occur in a vacuum. It is reasonable to seek out a personal trainer, to have guidance from an instructor of a group fitness class, or to employ a coach to prepare you for an upcoming athletic event. It even makes sense to look for a bit of a task master to put you through your fitness paces. Upon quick inspection, it can be tough to differentiate between a stern instructor and an abusive one. It does not seem like it should be so tough, but it is and poor choices have terrible emotional and physical consequences. Although drill sergeants may be glamorized in the movies and tough love is popular reality television, appreciating positive coach-exerciser relationships is important.
First, a good exercise program is challenging both physically and mentally. Appropriate challenge is at the core of wellness gains and a fulfilling life. Nonetheless, the challenge and healthy torment should come from the activity itself not a social environment of manufactured meanness.
Next, be wary of expecting “motivation” from a fitness instructor. Coaches encourage, but our most powerful motivation comes from our own desires and attitudes. Dramatic motivational tactics at best are good show… at worst are emotionally scarring. Goals provide an exerciser with motivation. The personal trainer provides education and support.
Lastly, no one should feel hostage to their fitness program. Emotionally abusive coaches create an environment where exercisers feel obligated to participate and unable to choose other wellness options. A gym driven by guilt and fear may appear to train hard and shed pounds, but the emotional costs involved tip the scales towards poor overall health. A wise fitness consumer must ask, “Is what I’m doing about my wellness or the instructor’s ego?” Coaches ought not control exercisers, but rather empower them.
Perhaps when considering these things it is wise to view a coach as a teacher. Then ask one’s self, “Would I accept these behaviors from a high school teacher or college professor?” Stern fitness professionals are terrific. They are no nonsense and they guide an exerciser through challenges. They do not torment the exerciser along the way. Breaks from training are encouraged. The exerciser’s efforts regardless of their outcomes are appreciated. One finds both physical and mental health at the end of the day. Sacrificing one for the other at the hands of an overzealous coach is not necessary and should not be accepted.
Find a great fitness professional to guide you, embrace the challenge, and enjoy it all.
Note: This can also be a challenging topic for youth sport parents. For some thoughts specific to the youth sport environment see Benched with Fear and Confusion.
Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos Sport Psychology Consulting and is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Boston University’s School of Education. He has a decade and a half of experiences working with professional through amateur athletes – of note: US Open competitors, NCAA champions, Olympians, Stanley Cup winners, and UFC martial artists. Beyond sports, over the past five years he has served as a corporate performance and wellness consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ahnaylor.