Locker Room Talk: A Coach's Role

10/10/2016 09:18 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2016

Anderson Cooper asked Donald Trump a pointed question at the second presidential debate. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Trump claimed that Anderson Cooper did not understand his comments, and once again referred to his remarks as “locker room talk.”

While Trump himself admitted that his comments were embarrassing, his response seemed to suggest that they were commonplace and acceptable in certain contexts. The embarrassment didn’t stem from the content of his words, but rather from the fact that they were heard by an unintended audience. Trump also seemed to suggest an inevitability around the types of things men will talk about, if left to their own devices.

Trump’s allusion to what he claims happens in locker rooms compelled many athletes to call foul.

As a high school cross country and track coach for both boys and girls, I found Trump’s locker room comment particularly troubling and disturbing. No educator or coach I know would see such comments as acceptable or even expected in the locker room, the team bus, the playing field, or anywhere else for that matter. Though misogyny, sexism, and sexual assault are very real issues within our society, respectable coaches hold much higher standards of behavior and language for their athletes.

For coaches and teams, culture is a product of intentional design- not chance.

Culture by Design, not Chance

Effective coaches don’t perceive their teams to be at the mercy of societal ills. Rather, they work intentionally to develop the kind of culture they believe will lead to individual and team success, both on and off the field. A coach is ultimately responsible for asking the question, “Who do we want to be?” and facilitating the process of moving the team towards that vision.

Define your Culture

Teams must first develop a vision for the culture to which they aspire. As a high school girls cross country coach, I took this responsibility seriously. Our coaches had extensive conversations with each other and our athletes regarding who we wanted to be and how we wanted to project ourselves to our school, our community, and our competitors. These discussions ultimately led to the development of three key messages that captured the essence of our aspirational culture: Family, Hard Work, and Meaningful Experiences.

Build your Culture

The work of culture building must go far beyond a catchy phrase. Coaches and athletes must develop and reinforce practices that support the desired aspirational culture. Establishing common language and defining specific behaviors that align with aspirational cultural values help teams begin to experience their emerging culture. Eventually, successful teams embrace meaningful rituals, compelling stories, and inspirational legends that reinforce cultural norms.

In order to build and reinforce the concept of meaningful experiences, our coaching staff explored the difference between an experience that was merely “fun” and an experience that was truly “meaningful.” We determined that the difference was largely characterized by the level of investment, sense of belonging, and personal development an athlete experienced. As a result, we instituted processes wherein our athletes established personal and team goals, shared their hopes and fears with their teammates and coaches, and reflected on their experiences.

When Necessary, Disrupt your Culture

As high school coaches know all too well, sometimes athletes behave in ways that challenge the team’s aspirational culture. Athletes (and even coaches) do not always bring their best self to their team. For coaches, it’s easy to see these transgressions as problems within individual athletes- young people making a few poor decisions. If this is truly the case, strong cultures tend to naturally self-correct individuals when they step out of bounds. Mistakes and learning are necessary and natural, particularly for an education oriented team. However, patterns of transgressions over time may signal a larger and more systemic problem- a problem with the team’s culture. The words and actions of athletes and coaches provide valuable insight into the current state of a team’s culture. Effective coaches must quickly identify the gaps between the current culture and the aspirational culture, and design and implement interventions to bridge that gap when needed.

Without intentional action, societal ills can easily reproduce themselves within teams and on playing fields. The unfortunate truth is that conversations similar to Donald Trump’s have likely occurred in high school locker rooms. However, this is not just embarrassing and wrong; in many cases, it’s preventable. Effective coaches know the significant power they have to define, disrupt, and build culture. Athletic teams, as well as the education institutions in which they exist, have the power to build better versions of society and shape the mindsets and values of the individuals who will one day take the stage of future presidential debates.

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