hazingTT

I can still put myself on that bus as a high school sophomore and remember the fear I felt riding back from our first road game on the varsity soccer team. I was already young for my grade, which only made the juniors and seniors all the more intimidating.

I knew what was coming. The older players would begin quietly chanting the name of a new player, and then it would get louder. Once called, you were handed a ball and the goal was to get to the back of the bus and touch the ball against the backdoor. In the process you would get slammed, hit, and grabbed, and it took all the fight you had to get to the backdoor.

But that wasn’t the scary part. The real fear was knowing that you might get held down while muscle cream was shoved down your pants. Yup, “Icy Hot” in the underwear. Imagine that burn for an hour bus ride home.

I made it to the backdoor and avoided the “Icy Hot.” I did it! I survived. I avoided a close call with public humiliation.

We’ve all heard horror stories of kids not so lucky. And for decades these are the kinds of activities we’ve considered the rites of passage for becoming a member of a team.

I thought things would have changed greatly in the 20+ years since I was a high school athlete. But it hasn’t.

Well, it has a little bit. We’ve now better defined legally what hazing is, and are less tolerant as a society when we see kids treated poorly. And we have seen and felt the hurt for kids who have been victimized by heinous acts of hazing.

But the other reason for not hazing still hasn’t sunk in.

For the past few years I have worked with dozens of teams, hundreds of players, and it is clear that the culture of sports for the most part is still firmly stuck in the Dark Ages.

Most team cultures are still built on a foundation of fear and intimidation.

And where do cultures come from?

Culture is the result of behavior. Behavior is the expression of values. Values are established by leadership.

It always starts with the leadership.

Sure, there are always exceptions and individuals who can challenge and act out even in the healthiest of cultures, but I am talking about behaviors that are accepted and perpetuated year after year.

Coaches demand their upperclassmen take charge and lead. But what “leading” looks like isn’t always clear. The players I have worked with seem to think leadership is being “loud” and “tough” on their teammates, especially underclassmen. If the coach is a screamer, the player sees that as leadership. If the coach likes to motivate through intimidation, then the players feel they need to do the same.

I recently heard a horrible story of a girls high school team where the younger players were explicitly told by the coach that they would not play, and to stay out of the way in order to not distract the older players. The older players, in turn, would scream at the younger players urging them to “not screw up!”

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Now, is the coach or players doing anything legally wrong?

No, but the bigger issue is being missed, and it’s NOT just a matter of being “nicer” for nice sake.

This is the way so-called leadership has been established in American sports for decades – and it needs to stop!

How did we get to this point?

How did we trick ourselves into believing that…

        A)  This kind of behavior was okay.

        B)  Hazing builds unity.

        C)  Intimidation and humiliation is part of building a successful culture.

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If our goal is building a unified team and maximizing performance – our method has been terribly wrong.

Now is the time for a new conversation and model of leadership to emerge, and not only does it transform sports, it impacts every aspect of our lives.

A big part of the work I am passionate about with Live Yes, And is helping teams and schools understand that the model of leadership we have been tricked into believing is broken.

It breaks my heart to work with players who no longer enjoy their passion because they are stuck in a team culture that has stolen their joy of the game.

It breaks my heart because sports is about “support.” In fact, while having an e-mail conversation with my good friend Michael, he shared this…

Just thought you’d like the point about sports really being the game of “supports”.  I’m guessing most athletes don’t realize that “sports”, the word, really means support.  I wonder if your athletes thought of themselves as playing “supports” and not “sports” and considered themselves “supportsmen” and not “sportsmen”, they’d remember their purpose, develop a new identity, and realize their full potential.

And there it is! That is the “Yes, And” culture shift that is needed in sports right now. It is about collaboration, not intimidation. It is about authenticity, not conformity. It is about creating a culture of trust and respect, instead of fear. It is about nurturing an environment where players feel safe and supported. And, to borrow the South African term of Ubuntu which Nelson Mandela used to unite a country, which means, “I cannot be at my best unless you are at your best!”

This is not a pipe dream. These types of teams and programs exist in the world. In fact, the most successful professional sports team in the world uses these values as the roots and building blocks of their culture.

That team is the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby squad. They have the highest winning percentage in all of sports, and they attribute their success to their culture. In the book “Legacy,” author James Kerr shares the principles and values at the heart of the All-Blacks.

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Kerr’s book points out a number of principles and cultural behaviors of the All-Blacks, but one stood out more than others compared to our current model of leadership.

The principle is called “Sweep the Sheds,” and it is their first principle.

“Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done.”

Kerr shares how that whenever they have a match, home or away, the captains and senior leaders of the team stay back in the locker room long after the others players and coaches have left. And what do they do? They literally sweep the sheds. They clean up after the rest of the team. They want to make sure the place is better than when they arrived. And who is doing this again? That’s right – the captains and senior leaders.

That would be Lebron James sweeping the locker room long after the comfetti, trophy presentation, and the media has left. Tom Brady sweeping up athletic tape. Alex Morgan picking up every last Gatorade cup.

Imagine the message that sends to the rest of the team when your star players, the players who make the big money, who have proven themselves over and over again, stay back and clean up after everyone else.

Now, take it to your youth sports or high school team.

Consider the inclusiveness that would be built on teams if we trained juniors and seniors in high school to replace fear and intimidation with humility, compassion, and service.

It would end hazing and bullying, and replace it with trust, respect, and safety.

What if instead of forcing your underclassmen to do all of the grunt work, it is instead done by the leaders of the team? Do you see what this creates? The message that it sent to the younger players is that they are valued and respected. Instead of feeling “less than,” they are welcomed in to the family with compassion and support. Instead of having to look over their shoulder worrying about being embarrassed they are able to focus on doing what they can do to positively contribute to the success of the team.

Which approach do you think produces better results on the field? Younger players playing in fear, or players who know that the older players on the team have their backs?

You’re right, it is common sense. Yet, it is still not the way things are done.

The All-Blacks have another mantra when it comes to translating success off the field to results on the field. The phrase is, “Better people make better All-Blacks.”

They understand that the game is played on the field, but it is our quality of life off the field that impacts our performance. So, if one player is suffering, the whole team suffers. Therefore it is the responsibility of every player and coach to make sure everyone is thriving on and off the field.

Better people make better All-Blacks.

I have been honored to serve as a leadership coach, mental trainer, and performance specialist for the past few years helping players and teams understand the connection between personal development and athletic performance. It blows me away when I see some of the top professional and collegiate programs in the world who still feel this type of training is a luxury instead of a necessity.

Whenever articles are written about these outlier teams we treat them as some sort of Disney movie exception, when we really have the knowledge and resources to make them the norm.

And the reality is, these types of teams nurture an environment for athletic excellence.

Coaches, ask yourself, “What is the culture of values and behavior I am creating for my players?”

If you find yourself continually apologizing for your teams behavior (as well as your own), it might be time to take a step back and assess the culture you have created.

Your legacy as a coach far exceeds the wins and championships you accumulate. You are in a position to influence lives either positively or negatively in an extremely impactful way. What is the legacy your program is leaving behind?

The time has come for us to demand a better model of leadership in sports. A model that not only improves the performance of the athletes, but also improves their life at the same time.

Better coaches create better cultures. Healthy cultures transform lives.

Parents. Coaches. Let’s not settle for anything less.

Travis Thomas FNL

Travis Thomas is the Founder of Live Yes, And and is currently the Performance Specialist for Massive Soccer in Florida. For over two years he was a Leadership Coach at IMG Academy working with thousands of youth, collegiate, and professional athletes. His new book “3 Words for Getting Unstuck: Live Yes, And” is now available on Amazon.

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