Toughen up Snowflake! The cult of bullying coaches

What am I looking for?

George Morris has been in the equestrian news a lot these days. His ban is due to findings that he sexually molested minors. But the other thing that’s been talked about a lot is his coaching style. Honestly, I thought that would bring him down long ago. Let’s face it. George Morris epitomizes the bullying coach — berating and belittling his students became his schtick. “Surviving” George was a badge of honor, a mark of mental toughness. Many people persisted in training with him because they thought he could help them become better riders, or because training with him would elevate them in the horse world.

Sadly, George isn’t the only equestrian coach known for his harsh teaching style. One of my trainers took a clinic with an Olympic dressage competitor and, afterwards remarked that he made his living by insulting middle-aged women — who ate it up. And I rode with a trainer for many years who was so feared that some people wouldn’t ride in the ring while she was teaching (she could be downright nasty in her comments as a dressage judge, often telling people to pick up another sport or commenting on their weight).

The question is, why do trainers not only get away with this behavior but are actually lauded for it?

In the case of a trainer like Morris, people rode with him because he produced winners.

You have to be tough if you want to win. When the rider is in tough competition they need to be mentally touch as well as physically tough.

ClappingInsulting riders, telling them they have no talent, telling them they are fat, throwing dirt at them, or giving them exercises that will cause them to fail (and sometimes get injured) to “teach them a lesson”,  appears to inspire some people to try harder. One person wrote after a clinic,

Yes, George has a reputation as being blunt and, personally, that is why I paid him so much money all those years…I wasn’t looking for false compliments I wanted the truth on how to improve my riding and that is what he provided. When I DID do well he would give me a compliment and that was incredibly gratifying, more so then any ribbon. I for one think that is the mark of a good teacher, someone that makes you WANT to work and try hard for them and, for me anyway, George certainly never accomplished this by being abusive.

That approach is definately not for everyone especially in front of an audience. I don’t care though. I just tried harder.

He also probably caused many young women (and boys) to become anorexic and made other people lose their confidence or leave the sport. Why do people pay good money for a trainer to say things like,

“You shouldn’t be smiling. You have nothing to smile about. You are a lousy rider.” or

You’ve heard of home wreckers? Well you’re a horse wrecker.”

Those statements do not help a rider figure out how to perform better. They are not constructive. They are humiliating and hurtful. And yet people believe they need to put up with the bad to get the few pearls of wisdom that might help them improve after the trainer has taken the down a notch. No matter that there are other good trainers who taught a very similar style to Morris except without the whoop ass.

A friend of mine took at clinic with GM and she kept looking down at the jump, so he made her get off and roll around in the dirt since she liked looking at it so much.

GM is also famous in my original area for making a girl get off her horse and roll in the dirt while in the initial lineup at his clinic because her horse wasnt as clean as she was and she was picking nits off her sweater.

What gets me is that not only did he tell these students to roll in the dirt. They actually did it. I guess if you fork over $1,000 to ride in a clinic you feel compelled to stick it out.

Of course, not everyone has the same experience with a trainer. In the case of the dressage trainer, she never yelled at me. I heard her say some insulting things to other people, and it kept me from taking a lesson from her for years. By the time I trained with her, she had mellowed. Maybe someone finally took her aside and explained the teacher-student dynamic. Maybe she knew I was trying my best. I found her to be fair and knowledgeable. She never insulted me, never called me fat, never told me to give up riding or that I didn’t deserve my horse. However, I know she said those things to other people.

That’s the way it’s always been

A big part of the problem is that just because someone is a good athlete, doesn’t mean they are a good coach. In most of the US, people train with “coaches” who have no training as an educator. Sure, they were good at their sport, but they have not been taught how to teach. Britain is different. Trainers earn British Horse Society qualifications to become a trainer.

Most people, when choosing a trainer, value the experience that a coach has — and past successes — without evaluating their skill at imparting knowledge. In fact, this is a profession where a coach becomes successful because of their accomplishments, then becomes a mentor to future coaches, an approach that perpetuates methods that may include abusive practices. Old ideas are valued because they “worked” despite the fact that research shows that there are better ways of teaching. The idea of training the coaches to coach (as opposed to competing) is a new one and has still not fully integrated into our winning at all costs sports culture.

This problem is not unique to riding. It happens in football, soccer, swimming, tennis, rowing and all the other high school and college sports. Since sports are increasingly seen as a way to get into a better college, there is a lot of pressure to produce results. As Vince Lombardi, head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, said: “Winning isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing.”

In professional sports, that may well be true. For amateurs, that level of pressure is probably not a good thing, especially for children. Studies show nearly 50% of athletes suffer from a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety.

I’ve watched my children and their peers compete in a variety of sports and have seen coaches who are tough, but fair — they expect the kids to show up, work hard, and not complain. I’ve also seen coaches punish their teams for not doing “well enough” by giving them extra workouts, making them stand in the wet and cold without their shoes, and berating them for not working hard enough. Based on what I’ve observed, punishment bred only resentment, not better performance.

I’ve seen athletes push themselves too hard to please their coaches, sometimes resulting in serious injuries. Some athletes also interpret emotional abuse as a sign their coach is interested in their improvement, preferable to being ignored.

 

In one study of abuse in elite sport, a female gymnast said:

My coach would scream at me, but I knew she cared about me. I knew that she wasn’t screaming at me just to make me feel like I was nothing. There was an ulterior motive and that was to make me the best.

When it comes to riding, I believe that coaches have an extra responsibility because riding is inherently more dangerous than many other sports. There have been many times when I’ve needed a coach to push my comfort levels a bit. I rely on that coach to help me assess my abilities and trust that when he or she tells me I can do it, that my horse and I can succeed (and survive). As a child, I rode with a trainer who once took the girth off my saddle to make me balance better. That is not, in my adult opinion, a good idea.

When I swam on a Masters Swim team, our coach explained to us that we had choices. He would help us succeed and our part was to train hard and improve our technique. He was one of the best coaches I’ve had in any sport. Part of his success in teaching us lay in his empathy. When he’d competed on the Russian National Swim team, his workouts were brutal and sometimes dangerous. He told us they learned to do faster flip turns by running along the edge of the pool, then diving in before the wall and turning at speed. There’s not a lot of room for error when doing that!

We need, as a society, to encourage good coaching. To remember that while winning may be the goal for a few elite athletes, there’s a lot more to sports that is important for children and ourselves. Don’t ever be afraid to question how you’re being taught, or to vote with your wallet and find someone who can help you without becoming abusive. Those coaches are out there and we need to reward their efforts.

What’s your idea of a good coach?

3 thoughts on “Toughen up Snowflake! The cult of bullying coaches

  1. I think there is a big difference between being tough and being a bully. I never liked GM’s style, and I didn’t find it funny. There’s no denying he’s an incredible rider, but that doesn’t make anything about his personality admirable.

  2. I completely agree. But I do think that some coaches cross the line and GM was one of them. I never rode with him. I did watch him teach and that convinced me that I wouldn’t enjoy the lesson or learn from it. I have ridden with some tough coaches over the years but I don’t need to pay people to insult me.

  3. All it took for me to be grateful that I never had the money to afford GM was to hear him verbally abuse a girl in front of an audience. That’s bullying, and the riders who accept it are…let’s face it, enabling him. And then excusing him? Finding reasons to let him abuse them? Pffft. I have more self respect than that. My grandfather used to say that the best way to handle a bully is to give him a punch in the nose. Can’t do that, well, I can’t and get away with it, but folks like GM CAN. Fame and ”status” seem to give bullies like him ‘permission’. No one seems to have the hunyocks to stand up to him and give him his shit right back. Although it seems someone on the USET finally had enough of his stuff and did the right thing.
    Let’s pretend the rider is the horse. Go ahead, George, beat the horse between the ears, that’ll teach him. He’ll definitely learn from you that way. Oh, yeah. He’s already been known to pole a horse.
    Yeah, he can ride. Big deal.

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