Rights vs. Responsibilities
By Mitch Hull

One of the most visible and talked about issues in our society today is bullying. This is not a new problem – just something that society has decided to become more proactive in addressing. We need to take a stronger stand as it has become easier and more pervasive. It used to be that bullies had to physically be in proximity of their target, which is still an option. Now they can sit in the comfort of their bedroom and do it through the internet. The more impersonal the mode of communication is, the easier it is to hurt others. As a society we have certainly become more impersonal.

Too often, athletics have been a part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. We just call it initiation, boys being boys, girls being girls, or rights of passage. As long as we don’t use the words bullying or hazing, it gets passed off as part of the sports culture. Sometimes we as coaches unwittingly support this by what we do or what we allow. For example, when we give preference to the most talented athletes or more rights to athletes as they become upperclassmen, it feeds into a belief of superiority. Freshman and sophomores cleaning the wrestling mats, bringing out the dummies to the football field, picking up the balls, bats and bases after softball practice, all feed into a belief of inferiority. Juniors and Seniors don’t have to do it anymore because… well… they are Juniors and Seniors.

What we have unwittingly done in these types of situations is created a hierarchy that undermines team cohesion. When we give a group of athletes the ability to look at themselves as “better than others,” they will. It is likely not the intention of a coach who does this, but it will be the result. It escalates from you blowing the whistle at the end of practice and telling the assigned group to pick up the equipment, to some upperclassmen saying, “Hey f’in freshman, go get the bases!” At least that is what was said to my freshman daughter.

We are responsible for the culture of our home. The field, court, mat, gym and wherever else you train and compete is “YOUR HOME!” We know that we’ve done a good job of establishing the culture when we move beyond mere behavior modification to heart transformation. The goal is to get to the point where, regardless of our team rules on hazing, athletes don’t even consider it.

What can we do to make a change? For starters, we must set out with great clarity of purpose! As coaches, WE create a culture of inclusion. WE create leaders, build teams, reach hearts, and change lives. When WE are proactive, the byproduct of this will be a better performance.

Sports is the only place where the absolutes of math don’t necessarily apply. If you give an answer on a math test for 5 + 5, anything other than 10 equates to failure. In sports, it’s no where near that rigid. The greatest variable is your team cohesion. This explains the common scenario where teams with lesser talent beat the teams that are made up of a collection of better individual athletes who don’t gel.

Remember the Titans is one of my favorite sports movies ever. The movie, set in 1971, highlights the struggle for a team to find unity after the local school board forces an all black school to integrate with an all white school. This scene became the turning point for the team when Julius Campbell bluntly puts the truth about leadership on full display:

“Attitude reflect leadership, Captain.” – Julius Campbell, Remember the Titans

In a transformational culture, athletes should understand that seniority and athletic success does not earn them more RIGHTS. Rather, seniority and athletic success should require a greater RESPONSIBILITY. We intuitively know this, which explains why the captains of our teams are usually upperclassmen. However, one of the big mistakes we oftentimes make is we don’t lead our athletes in this area. We can’t expect an athlete to know what to do just because they are named the captain of the team. If we do, then we are leaving it up them to determine their own job description. They may think they are now the “boss” of the team, or that they have more RIGHTS.

Don’t believe in the “Born Leader” myth. We need to model and teach our leaders about what their responsibilities are. We should also give them the ability and opportunity to provide input. If we make it feel like a burdensome job, they won’t be very receptive. If we show them this is their OPPORTUNITY to have an impact, they are going to work with us to build the team culture.

So, what can we do to create a culture of responsibility? Below are a couple things you could look to incorporate. But remember, nothing will work over the long run if it is not part of WHY you coach. WHAT we do has little impact (and our athletes will see through it) if it is not part of our WHY. We must also make sure our leaders understand WHY they are leading or they will just go through the motions of WHAT we are asking them to do.

Upperclassmen help underclassmen. Assign individuals to help/mentor the freshman on the team when classes begin. Show those upperclassmen what this looks like. Freshman can also have responsibilities. For example, have the underclassmen help/mentor an area youth club. This works into an area of individual growth we call peer-modeling.

Everyone shakes hands with everyone at the end of practice. This should include coaches shaking hands with the athletes. Make sure you let the “Team Leaders” know if they have a teammate who is struggling. Give your leaders the responsibility to shake that person’s hand, look him/her in the eyes, and say something encouraging. This could have a greater impact than anything you do or say as the coach.

Change your school in the lunchroom. No one wants to eat alone. One of the responsibilities of every athlete on your team should be to find that person eating alone at school and join them. Many kids may not have the confidence to do that by themselves. Everyone can do it if they bring a friend or two with them. They are not eating lunch with that person to tease them, but to engage them. Don’t just tell your athletes “what” to do. They need to know “WHY,” then “what” and “how.”

These are just a few counterculture strategies that will help you create a culture where all have value and worth. Check out this video of my brother Mark to hear a few more thoughts along these lines.

No group can have greater impact on athletes’ lives than coaches, and no group can have greater impact on a school than athletes. We need to harness and direct this opportunity. There is no way you can make the change without inspiring your athletes with purpose and giving them the tools to do it.

These are just a couple of examples of the impact you and your athletes can have on a team, school, community and/or society. This does not happen without the leadership of the coaches in an Athletic Department. Once you determine your “WHY,” your “what” becomes much more effective-both on and off the field of play.

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