Skip to main content

Are we witnessing the end of the tough love coaching approach?


For better or worse, the invention of social media has forever changed coaching. It has already changed the way that programs recruit and communicate, and the events at Illinois this past week have illustrated another change that cannot be ignored.

After reading a number of pieces on the allegations that former Illini player Simon Cvijanovic lobbed at head coach Tim Beckman via Twitter, I couldn't help but think that the whole situation is bringing us to the beginning of the the end for the "tough love" coaching approach. As someone who welcomed the tough love approach as a player, I'd be lying if I said the thought of it being ripped apart in the media hadn't caused some lost sleep recently.

Before going any further, I feel it's worth noting that the purpose of this article is to bring your attention to an issue that the coaching profession is facing, not come to the defense on any one person in particular.

Any coach will tell you that coaching is like teaching. You reach different people in different ways. The legendary coaches are able to tailor their approach from individual to individual, understanding what buttons to push, and more importantly, when to push them. Some kids respond better to putting your arm around them and taking them aside, others need a more straightforward approach. The key behind each method is the intention behind it.

We all know the coach who'd tell you to suck it up when you got banged up, or who pushes situations right to the brink, and maybe a bit further before, pulling back on the reigns. Someone once told me that "a comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there." If coaches never pushed individuals beyond their comfort zone, no one would ever realize their full potential.

Maybe you played under a few coaches that bordered on pushing too hard, or perhaps you're on staff with a guy now. If you can't think of ever crossing paths with that coach, maybe he's staring back at you in the mirror.

I'm a coach and my father was a longtime high school assistant. That combined with working for FootballScoop for a few years now has provided me the unique opportunity to interact with thousands of coaches across the country, and I can honestly say I have never met someone in this profession who I felt would maliciously put one of his players in danger. That's the furthest thing from the mind of those who choose to enter this profession. Most of us that choose this profession don't choose it for a quick road to riches, we choose it because we want to help players reach their full potential as people, students, and athletes.

Generally speaking, there are thousands of other professions out there that make a lot more money for a lot less of a time commitment than coaching. Granted, FBS coaches are paid well (and a lot is expected from them in return), but most coaches out there aren't making anywhere near six figures a year, and regardless of the amount they get on pay day, the overwhelming majority of coaches are in it for the right reasons - for the kids.

I can't be sure, but I like to think that John Harbaugh had the tough love approach in mind when he wrote about how guys felt after four years of high school football in his Why Football Matters piece he released about a month ago.

For a lot of these kids, it’s not until it’s all said and done, and they look back on it several years later, that they realize the difference the sport made in their lives. They are proud of playing the game. Have you ever met anybody who accomplished playing four years of high school football, and at the end of that run said, ‘Man, I wish I wouldn’t have played’? It doesn’t get said.

We live in a society that wants to give participation medals to everyone at every age so that everyone feels good about themselves, but let's be honest; that's not what the real world is like. There are going to be plenty of hardships and pain well after football careers come to an end. Many of us that have played or coached this great sport would have gladly thrown in the towel when things got tough, but those of us lucky enough to have someone administer some tough love pushed through the situation, and came out better men because of it in the long run.

Today, players hold a powerful tool in the palm of their hands on a daily basis - social media. All it takes to create a firestorm is for one player to send out a couple tweets venting his frustration in 140 characters or less, or to let off some steam with a Facebook post and the next thing you know your approach is local news, and you're getting called into your athletic director's office. It's scary, but that's really all it takes today to tarnish, or ruin, one person's reputation.

As coaches, do we sometimes push too hard at times? Probably. Do we try to get more out of players than they're willing to give at times? Sure. But that's the real world, and I'm of the belief that nothing prepares people better for that reality than a coach willing to go against the grain and dish out some tough love on occasion.

I think I speak for most people when I say that tough love (when done with the right intentions) has a permanent place in the coaching profession, the workplace, and the real world. I don't think those known for their tough love necessarily need to change, but they should be aware of the power that social media has and how it could ultimately affect their life and career if someone who doesn't see eye to eye with your approach decides to voice their views to the public.

As someone who has benefited from some tough love at various points in my life, I want to help serve as the voice of encouragement to those out there who continue to believe in this approach. With that said, I encourage you to be transparent and upfront with your coaching philosophy, expectations, and approach to discipline with those parents and your administration. It's no secret that parents look to coaches as an extension of themselves while their sons are away, and that's especially true at the college level when parents are often sending their kids away from home for the first time.

If you can focus on that, the tough love approach will continue to live on, and we'll all be better for it.