When members of the women’s soccer team at SUNY Buffalo State filed complaints against their head coach last fall, it was more than just an isolated controversy.
It was a sign of the times.
Claims of verbal or emotional abuse by coaches have become a recurring theme, whether it’s from players on the women’s soccer team at Buffalo State, the softball team at Rutgers University, the football team at Howard University or the women’s basketball team at Northern Kentucky University – all of which have seen the controversy play out over recent months.
Longtime coaches and educators describe it as generational shift, a clash between old-school coaching styles and an era when there’s greater understanding of issues like mental health and the effects of bullying.
While the types of sexual assaults of athletes uncovered at Ohio State University and Michigan State University, among others, are criminal, verbal abuse was long looked at as an acceptable part of molding a better player. But today's athletes – whether in youth sports, high school or college – are much less likely to accept the type of belittling, embarrassment or chewing out from coaches that so many of their parents recall from their playing days.
“This younger generation, they are less tolerant of the old-school coaching tactics that a generation ago people wouldn’t have batted an eye at,” said Helen “Nellie” Drew, professor of practice in sports law at the University at Buffalo and director of its Center for the Advancement of Sport.
“We’ve taught them since grade school that bullying is a bad thing, that people need to be respectful and treat them that way and they’re sensitive to how they’re treated by those in authority – much more than previous generations,” Drew said.
It’s forcing coaches to be more aware of how they coach their players and change the way they communicate with them.
“You just can’t coach kids like it’s 1980,” said Chris Durr, the veteran girls soccer coach at Williamsville East High School. “Kids are different. Parents are different. Society is different.”
“Times have changed,” said Peter Tonsoline, the longtime field hockey coach at Iroquois High School. “You can be old-school in your approach to the game – hard work, commitment – that old-school. But the techniques of old-school – the belittling, the chastising – don’t work anymore.”
That doesn’t mean players won’t get yelled at by coaches, especially in the heat of the game.
But where’s the line?
“You want children to learn persistence and teamwork and dedication and all those things that come with an old-school approach,” Drew said.
“At the same time,” Drew said, “where do you draw that line?”
Said Durr: “That line is now gray and not black and white anymore, because a lot of times things can be deemed, not necessarily abusive, but in that realm. What some kids and parents consider tough, other kids and parents think is bullying.”
More aware or too sensitive?
The women’s soccer team at Buffalo State ended a losing season in the fall with a dozen players quitting and calling for the removal of longtime coach Nicholas DeMarsh.
While his supporters call him a tough but fair coach who pushed his players to get the best out of them, his detractors from last season described him as “hurtful and ultimately detrimental to one’s mental health and self-confidence.”
They accused him of things like singling out and embarrassing a player, holding grudges against players who stand up to him and discouraging a player from going to the trainer for a concussion.
An independent investigation found no evidence to substantiate claims the coach mishandled his players’ physical or mental well-being.
It did, however, raise enough questions about the leadership and culture of the team that the college has yet to decide on the future of the veteran coach.
“I don’t think in this situation that line was crossed,” said Drew, who read the report released by the college. “But I think we’re going to see more of this – and coaches are going to have to adjust their approaches.”
Are young athletes just too sensitive?
“That’s a good question,” Tonsoline said. “I think they are more aware of things that should be said to them and shouldn’t be said to them.”
“I would say, yes," said Joe Bauth, the head baseball coach at Erie Community College, “they’re probably more sensitive now than they were.”
He wonders how much the microscope of social media plays a role in that.
“The fact that kids tend to take things personally is an issue,” said Bauth. “When they take it personally, they don’t understand you’re trying to get the best out of them.”
The Buffalo News reached out to Bauth, Durr, Tonsoline and longtime coach Debby Schruefer.
Schruefer has been coaching varsity volleyball at Frontier High School for 35 years and softball for 33. Bauth is starting his 29th season at ECC. Durr has spent 26 years as the varsity girls soccer coach at East. And Tonsoline has 47 years of coaching experience.
While they were hesitant to speak directly about the issue at Buffalo State, they talked about their own coaching experiences and some of the changing dynamics with today’s student-athletes.
“I think their expectations are a little different,” Durr said. “When I first started, I had a lot of kids who just wanted to be part of a team. Now, there are a lot of players who won’t play if they’re not going to be a key contributor.”
The coaches believe a lot of that stems from the rise in travel leagues and some of the unrealistic expectations held not only by the athletes, but also by their parents.
“The idea of pay to play has gotten so big,” Bauth said. “Parents pay a lot of money to a lot of people thinking that all that money they invest is going to guarantee a scholarship somewhere. It just doesn’t work that way.”
“It does create a false sense of evaluation of where they really are, what they need to work on and unrealistic goals after their high school experiences,” Schruefer said, noting their expectations of playing at a high level in college. “A very small percentage go on to D-1 or the professional level.”
Schruefer doesn't like to generalize about a generation, but she wonders if so much has been made available to today's athletes that some don't have the grit they need to go out and earn success.
That's not just in athletics, she said, but in the classroom and workplace, as well.
Still, it hasn't changed their love for the athletes.
“They’re still just as much fun,” Tonsoline said of his athletes. “The only thing I don’t like is I can’t keep up with them as much.”
Be careful what you say
The athletes aren’t the only ones who have changed. The coaches have, too, as they've tried to adapt with the times.
“Has it changed for me, personally?” Bauth said. “I think it has, but it’s not necessarily because of the kids.
"There’s certain things I used to make mandatory that I don’t anymore because I think it’s not as important as it used to be," Bauth said. "Long hair, earrings and facial hair. When I first started coaching you couldn’t have any of it. I don’t do that anymore because if they do everything I ask them to do, then what their hair looks like is irrelevant.”
Here's what the coaches said about:
The need to better communicate with their players: “The way you speak to them is different,” Tonsoline said. “I’m more careful around them. I’m very careful about what I say, how I say it. I’m especially careful with language. I don’t want anything to be misconstrued.”
“I used to talk a lot after the game, mainly after a loss, and say things I probably didn’t really mean,” Durr said. “Now, win or lose, I keep that talk very short. I talk about a few things and we’ll work on it the next day."
On verbal and emotional abuse of players: “You have to go in as the role of facilitator, role of teacher,” Tonosoline said. “You can’t go in as supreme dictator – my way or the highway. Those days are way gone.”
“You still get a few people that come in that way, but hopefully they don’t stay long in the sport, because that can be very damaging,” he said.
On being more sensitive to the needs of athletes: “One of the other things that has changed is we really don’t single players out anymore,” Durr said. “We don’t call kids out. You pull them aside; you talk to them the next day in practice.”
“In the past, you could be the same with everybody and still get the same results you wanted,” Schruefer said. “Now, the personality of the athlete is different.
“Some athletes require that high-intensity-in-the-face, and then you have others you can’t raise your voice to because they feel you don’t like them or don’t believe in them."
On differences between coaching men and women: “You have to find that medium – especially with women,” Schruefer continued. “If they don’t feel good about themselves, you’re not going to get the best out of them.”
“The boys become more defensive, because of their egos,” Tonsoline said. “I found with the girls, if you’re pretty much out in the open and you explain it to them, they’re OK with it."
Schruefer, in fact, is at the point in her career where she has coached players whose moms also had played for her at one time.
They notice the differences in Schruefer, too.
“You’re so much easier on them than you were on us,” they tell her.
“No,” Schruefer tells them, “my expectations are the same, but my delivery has to be a little bit different now.”