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Coaches' Forum on Substance Abuse

Altoona, PA

May 20, 2014

 Excerpts From The Speech:

Section 1: An Ounce of Prevention


How do you fight that constant barrage of messages that advertise shortcuts to happiness? What is that ounce of prevention?


It is engaging your young people, it is challenging them, it is in helping them to understand that there are no shortcuts to true happiness.


It starts with building a team concept, team values that reward hard work and reward sacrifice. There is a high in sports, a high in working hard to improve and seeing your hard work pay off.


Self-esteem is the best defense of all against drug and alcohol abuse. Of that I have no doubt. But kids are smart, they can spot a phony. Just giving false praise never builds self-esteem.


The accomplishment of challenging but attainable goals is what drives self-esteem. Despite what our best intentions may tell us as adults, handing kids lavish praise for simple things is counter-productive.


I have found in years of coaching that setting up goals that athletes have to work and scratch to attain offer the biggest payoff in self-esteem. But they also have to understand that there will be times when they don’t reach their goals and that is okay too as long as they can honestly state to themselves that they gave every effort they could.


Part of prevention is setting out clear expectations.


The mistake we often make as adults, teachers, mentors or coaches is that we underestimate how much young people want to be challenged. Decades of experience taught me that they want to know what is expected, they want to know the standards you expect and they want to know what the challenge will be. Knowing that, they can ready themselves mentally to adhere to your standards of excellence and then work towards meeting the challenges you’ve laid out.


Early on as you start coaching, talk to them about drugs and substance abuse. Put it right out there with very clear definitions of what you expect and what the consequences will be.


At Penn State every football player was given a set of team rules and in that was an explanation of the consequences of a first drug offense, a second drug offense and a third offense.


We also had a large budget for drug testing—which I know is not the case for all of you. But I want to explain the rationale for drug testing and it can be applied in a similar way for you and your teams.


Joe Paterno told his teams “We’re not drug testing you because it is a gotcha—we’re not looking to catch you guys. If we catch you there will be consequences. We are testing you to give you a crutch. When you are at a party and someone offers you something you have a crutch, something to lean on and you can respond by saying—Hey I get drug tested so I can’t do that or I might get in trouble.”


When I was on the team in college I used that crutch on many occasions.


Now in the absence of a complex drug testing program, you can and your schools can and should lay out defined and clear consequences for substance abuse issues. You present them to your students and explain that these are deterrents and a crutch to use in peer pressure situations.


Give them something in their arsenal to fight the temptations.


I believe that you will find that setting the expectations, the standards and laying out the consequences up front will help keep most of your athletes on the right path.


Section 2: When Things Go Wrong:


No matter how aggressive we were we did have young men who ran broke policies we had in place.


That brings us to the next step---when there is a transgression how do you handle it?


Your reaction will send a powerful message to the rest of the team—and that powerful message could be constructive or destructive.


Above all you have to be willing that should someone step out of line you have the strength to enforce your policy. If you are seen to even waver slightly the rest of the team will see it and your credibility as a coach and leader will erode rapidly.

So how do you react?


The easiest thing to do as a coach regardless of what happens is to simply kick someone off of your team when they make a mistake---but what have you accomplished? Simply kicking someone out of your program for a first offense removes the problem, but it is a missed opportunity.


Once that athlete is gone you’ve lost the opportunity to change a behavior pattern for their life.


That brings us to a fundamental fork in the road:


The first thing you have to understand as a coach when someone does get in trouble is what is the extent of this problem—whether it is drugs or alcohol or anything else. You need to understand what you are dealing with and to do that you have to decide which group that particular person falls into.


There are two categories:


Is this a bad kid or is this a good kid who made a mistake?  This is an important distinction.


A good kid who makes a mistake is one that can be corrected. They have a good core set of values but they just lost their way and that can be helped. How do you know what you have? You have to weigh the bulk of your experience with them against this single incident. If they’ve been a positive in your program, if they’ve stayed within the rules except on this rare exception—you know the answer.


In these cases, your job is to help that good kid understand their mistake, accept the consequences and then help them to eliminate that mistake in the future.


When you have a bad kid now you have a dilemma.


It goes back to a quote from Oscar Wilde “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”


When you have a kid who has a pattern of behavior you must make an evaluation of whether or not you can impact them and alter the trajectory of their future.


Remember St Paul was first a Roman soldier persecuting Christians. On the road to Damascus he was knocked from his horse, blinded and went on to convert and spread the gospel of Christianity.The lesson was that even some bad kids will have that rock bottom moment when they are blinded so they can see the light.


If you think you have a “St Paul” you can save, remind yourself and that person that St Paul was not immediately trusted or accepted. It took time and more importantly it took actions—not words—for St Paul to be fully welcomed into the fold.


The final lesson of St Paul was that once he gained credibility and trust with his new "team" he became one of the great leaders on that team. I have seen that happen on many occasions in coaching. Young men who see the light often become the most zealous converts and best leaders.


Finally if you find you have a bad kid that you cannot reach then you have to resort to removal from the team. It is a last option but it has to be done to prevent that behavior from spreading and being seen as acceptable.


No matter how talented or good a player is they must all be held to the same standards and also be held to the same consequences if they break your rules. The guys on a team know who can play and who can’t and if the punishment for stars is different than it is for everyone else your credibility is gone. Your team rules will not be worth the paper they are printed on.


What it comes down to is this; how you react once a player violates your substance abuse policy will have a lasting impact on that player’s behavior in the future as well as the behavior of their teammates and the foundation of your team’s values.


If you are consistent and enforce the consequences you’ve laid out they will all learn a valuable life lesson.


Ultimately that is what we are called to do when we coach young people—sports has to be about more than just wins and losses—we are called to be teachers. That is the core of coaching values I was taught.

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