Negative impact of a bad coach can last a lifetime

When you're forced to be a benchwarmer ...
When you're forced to be a benchwarmer ... Photo: Getty Images

If you're not going to give all kids a fair go, get out of the coaching game, writes Belinda Williams.

When it comes to sport, Aussies are un-Australian. We’re a nation that prides itself on giving people a fair go, but in reality it’s just empty rhetoric and a sentiment that gives way to our juvenile obsession with winning.

The seed that spawned my sporting apprehension was planted 16 years ago after I spent an entire under-17’s netball grand final warming the bench while teammates battled for small-town sporting glory. Friends and relatives turned out to cheer me on, only to witness a scowling teenager retreating among the bystanders, desperately trying to fight back tears. I’d never felt so small.

Welcome to amateur sport, where the stakes are seemingly high and it’s perfectly acceptable to make kids cry.

My tragic netball resume is a great source of family amusement. Once, the same coach actually started a game with six players (the star was running late) while I shivered courtside in my as-new white runners. The imagery of this teenage liability is hilariously sad (thankfully I enjoy self-deprecating humour). But even back then I struggled to comprehend what was at stake. We weren’t playing for sheep stations, rather McDonald’s meal vouchers.

Amateur sport has little impact on peoples’ futures, apart from the kids who are cast aside – they never forget the feeling of rejection. What becomes of these heartbroken kids who’ve been cast aside by volunteer coaches who place undue emphasis on winning?

Rather than risk further humiliation, I gave up the sport altogether. Saturdays were no longer filled with wholesome active recreation, rather football-short perving and plotting strategies to bypass bouncers at the local pub. I draw a long bow, but you get the gist.

Some would argue that being ruthless teaches kids’ valuable life lessons. Perhaps these kids need to toughen up, try harder and accept their shortcomings. I agree that lessons are learnt. I learnt that not all grown-ups were as insightful as I’d assumed. I learnt that if you aren’t the best, you have no business even participating. I learnt that some adults placed the thrill of victory ahead of a kid’s emotional well-being, and because of that, I learnt that not all grown-ups are trustworthy.

I wonder if junior coaches should adapt some military philosophy to inspire their impressionable charges. Leave no man behind (even if he is a bit uncoordinated). Some argue that a team shouldn’t be punished for the sake of someone’s feelings. But when you cast aside children like faulty robots, you’re teaching kids that in society it’s OK to discard the weak for personal gain. Win at all costs. What an inspirational message for kids to carry with them throughout their life’s journey. And life lessons should be a priority in junior sport, because the vast majority of these kids won’t forge careers as professional athletes. ‘Bad sport’ I hear you say? Not likely. I wasn’t given the chance.

To those who plan on coaching kids in 2014: no-one will remember the final scoreboard in years to come, but those vulnerable people you’ve been tasked with leading will certainly remember the impact you had on their lives. If you don’t plan on giving all kids a fair and equal go, ask yourself why you’re volunteering. If it’s more about you and less about the kids, pick on people your own size. If your intentions are honourable, resist the adrenalin-charged temptation to pick your best side. Years down the track you’ll come face-to-face with these rejected sporting protégés, and I guarantee you’ll look like the loser.

Belinda Williams is a freelance writer from Melbourne.