When I was a senior in college, just finishing my swimming career, my teammates laid down bets. Their gamble? How much I would weigh by the time I finished school in just a few months.
I was in the best shape of my life that year, a slim 6'1, 180 lbs. The heavy money was on 200 lbs,. and they ended up being right. Inside, I felt shame. Shame was just one end of a pernicious cycle- wherein I would isolate myself emotionally and try to push away shame with food and alcohol. Doing so would only lead to more shame.
The swimmers didn't come up with the idea to shame me on their own. A permission structure was already in place from my coach. His primary tactic for getting me "in shape" was to shame me.
A lot of coaches think that shame works. It certainly invokes strong emotion, and sometimes that strong emotion can lead to change. But use of shame is playing with fire- a game that many coaches may not even be aware of.
Shades of Shame
Let me ask you a question. Have you ever publicly reprimanded an athlete in front of their peers? I know I have. That's shaming. Although it may feel "right" and "necessary" in the moment, I want you to reconsider.
Have you ever used group punishment for individual behavior?
I cringe thinking about the time I pointed out that a 13 year old girl should "close her mouth" when eating. As a mom chaperoning our trip pointed out, her braces prevented it.
Have you ever compared one athlete to another? Even if your intention was to use one athlete as a positive role model, there's a good chance you elicited shame.
As with any good rule- ignorance of it is no excuse. Shame has serious consequences. So what kind of positive coaching can we replace it with?
One objection coaches will immediately say to me is "so I have to stop telling people they are wrong ever? That's how we got this spoiled generation". I am not saying that at all. There is a way, however, to still set boundaries around what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behavior.
It's harder, but you must communicate one-to-one to swimmers the specific action you consider inappropriate. Be clear that you do not believe that the action is a part of who the swimmer is. Express optimism that they can improve in the future.
For swimmers that struggle with fitness, as I did, there is often a lot of emotional coaching to be done. All of the commonly employed shaming techniques (weighing in swimmers, public comments, etc) only make things worse. As a coach you cannot start from expectations of fitness, but you can have a huge impact on the emotional health of your athletes.
Instead, you can help your athletes to feel positive emotions. Make them feel connected to you- communicate often that you care about them and show it with your actions. Express empathy for what they are struggling with. Show them what they are capable of doing and empower them to do it.
Learn to recognize shame and talk about it openly with your athletes. Teach them to be empathetic to each other and recognize what things may be leading them to shame.
Let's drop shame from the coaches toolbox forever.
Want to incorporate Positive Psychology into your coaching? Write me!