Self-Esteem and Bullies

Last year, I wrote about the disastrous failure that was the "Self-Esteem Movement". One aspect of this that I didn't get into was the role that self-esteem can play in bullying or abusive behavior. To the following point, I own a debt to the work of Roy Baumeister of Queensland University (at Florida State when I met him).

One of the central misconceptions of the self-esteem movement was that bullies were bullies because they suffered from "low self-esteem". They felt bad about themselves, therefore they lashed out.

Baumeister posited that we actually got that wrong. That in fact, bullies (and their large scale counterparts, despotic rulers) actually had very high, inflated self-esteem. The reason they lashed out? They were constantly running into situations that challenged their inflated self-image, and each time felt like they had to defend that self-image harshly.

I've encountered and even felt it myself over the course of my coaching career. I've felt my ego threatened and the irresistible pull to smite its challengers. I've seen coaches, often those who had the good fortune of one exceptional athlete, inflate their self-esteem to unsustainable proportions and then spend most of their time and energy defending it.

I thought about this when some angry commenter got on my Swimswam interview from a couple months back and implied I shouldn't talk because I had never coached a US National teamer. The comment itself implies a pretty narrow definition of who has a valuable opinion- apparently only a few hundred coaches.

I must admit I bring my own biases to the table. The best coaches I ever had are basically "no-names", primarily because they coached my high school swim team. Looking back, they definitely lacked some self-esteem; they questioned themselves and their methods constantly and challenged their own assumptions.

Their opinions are under-heard, probably mainly because we don't like to hear self doubt as much as we love to hear someone sound extremely sure of their conclusions.

Their lack of self-esteem however, did manifest itself in a wonderful empathy for those that they coached. For that I am eternally grateful, because they showed me a way to coach that I might not otherwise have seen. 

I should note that it was perhaps not by accident that all three of my favorite high school coaches (Sue Sotir, Jen Dutton and the recently rediscovered Hannah Turlish) were women. I find, anecdotally though I am quite positive there is actual evidence to back this up, that women coaches in general are more likely to operate with somewhat more realistic self-esteem.

That can be self-defeating of course, especially as it relates to career advancement. It is probably also why there are preciously few female blog boys, errr, girls. Cue my mom raising up from the grave to make sure I say WOMEN, not girls. Thanks mom. Blog WOMEN. 

It is also probably why I often prefer the company of women coaches, because there is generally less dramatic ego defense going on when you interact with them. I like coaches who are a little less sure of what they know, even though it seems to often be an inverse relationship with that they actually know.

One of the best pieces of feedback I got for my psychology related blogs was from a coach who basically told me to stop being so pompous, telling people that they were dumb and then beating them over the head to do what I do. I'm still working on that.