Give me a Mentor, not a Coach.

by Jennifer Sey


The word “coach”, for me, is synonymous with tyrant. I know this is not true of all coaches. I've seen “Hoosiers”, I know coaches do good. But negative memes are stickier than positive ones. And my childhood experience with coaches is that their primary goal is to build a relationship with the athlete that is based on shame and humiliation in order to inspire performance. The better the athlete, the more ruthless, autocratic and downright cruel the coach's behavior can be. Sure they may say that their intent is to use sport, in all its nobility, to teach the value of a healthy body and mind, the spirit of competitiveness, collaborative teamwork and, most importantly, to impart the lesson that “if you just work hard enough, anything is possible!”


Maybe. But my intimate involvement with coaches is with those of the famed Karolyi kind. Not them per se. But coaches of their ilk. Coaches of their sport. And I have spent more time with coaches than I will likely spend with my own children during their adolescence. For nearly a decade I trained for 35-45 hours a week in a musty, chalk-filled gym. I know all the ways that coaching can go wrong. I know coaches. At least the dangerous ones that entice talented, hard working whiz kids and goad them to glory. Or leave them stranded in failure.


Bela Karolyi is the famed Romanian coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. He's produced more Olympic medalists than Phil Jackson has NBA Championship Teams. And while he is best known for bear hugs and that outrageous accent and hyperbolic speech pattern, he is also known to inflict near starvation diets on prepubescent 17 year olds. Transgressors, those who dare to pack on enough body fat to broach menstruation, are rewarded with pet names including Tank and Butterball. His wife Marta is now the reigning queen of American gymnastics though she has been accused of grabbing Dominique Moceanu, a member of the gold medal Olympic gymnastics squad known as the “Magnificent Seven”, by the scruff of the neck and slamming her face into a telephone. Rodica Dunca, a former Romanian national team member (1978-82), described Bela's training camps as “concentration camp. Or even a prison.”


Bela and Marta coach champions. It's true. And maybe this kind of abuse is worth it for a gold medal. But it is no secret (read Mark Hyman's “Until It Hurts”) that suburban baseball fields are replete with ogres calling themselves coaches; men and women who can't think of anything better to do with their time than send children to hospitals, and later, to therapy. I don't have to refer to hearsay or news reports to know that this is true. I experienced the wisdom imparted by my own coaches who doled out insults like “lazy” and “fat” as if they were handing out Halloween candy. And I never went to the Olympics so I'd venture this kind of debasement is not always worthwhile. If the Olympics are the holy grail, that is.