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Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice and the evolution of 'tough love' (+video)

The reaction to video footage of the tirades by Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice suggests that the public is no longer willing to give coaches broad leeway when they turn to abusive tactics.

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For the same reason, pro athletes rarely come out as gay before retiring, Lebowitz says.

Many students who are gay or don’t conform to gender stereotypes don’t find welcoming environments in physical education classes or sports teams, long before they start college. More than half of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students ages 13 to 20 were bullied or harassed in PE class, and more than a quarter of LGBT student athletes were harassed or assaulted while participating with a team, according to a 2011 national survey of more than 8,000 students by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

While coaches often pride themselves on being mentors to students, 75 percent of LGBT students said they were uncomfortable talking to their PE teachers or coaches about LGBT issues.

The Rice incident “speaks to the work we need to do [in K-12] to make sure our coaches and physical education teachers are not emulating that kind of behavior, and are creating more respectful environments,” says Robert McGarry, GLSEN’s director of education.

GLSEN offers the Team Respect Challenge, giving tools to teams that pledge to create a respectful and inclusive environment. At Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., for example, every team has taken the challenge, thanks largely to coach and social studies teacher Chris Murray, Mr. McGarry says.

Negativity in coaching is a long-standing cycle that needs to be interrupted, says Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance.

“Most people coach the way they were coached, or the way they see big-time coaches on TV coach…. There’s a thought that you have to be negative or hard on players.”

His organization emphasizes that coaches can be intense without being negative – and that they’ll get better results by filling their players’ “emotional tanks” with positive reinforcement, so that they’ll be ready to learn from legitimate criticism.

Getting players out of their comfort zone is important to help them grow, Mr. Thompson says, but from sports psychology research it’s clear that “great coaches do it not by intimidation and contempt” such as Rice exhibited, but by “letting them know they believe in them, encouraging them, pushing them in an appropriate way.”


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