The Bully Coach – a Role Model?

A dilemma for employers of bullying managers

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in on March 4th, 2013

I happened to catch an episode of “Coach’s Corner” the other week. For you non-sports or non NHL fans, this between-period commentary features Don Cherry, former Coach of the Boston Bruins (the “Big Bad Bruins”) and Ron McLean, host of Hockey Night in Canada, discussing various hockey-related issues.

Don Cherry, in addition to his colourful wardrobe of funky suit jackets, is well known for his sometimes outrageous comments regarding foreign junior hockey players (taking jobs away from Canadian kids), soft French Canadian players (he referred to Mario Lemieux as a “floater”). He promotes or at least vigorously defends fighting in the game, defends thugs, advocates for better equipment to make the game safer for kids, and eulogizes fallen Canadian soldiers and Bull Terriers.

Characteristics of a Bully

By any definition of the word, Don Cherry could be viewed as a bully. He talks over, contradicts and insults McLean and everyone else who dares to disagree with him, speaks (perhaps even yells would be a better description) out his opinion, and the ever-patient McLean counters with a smile and a bad pun.

To some extent the whole episode is scripted, to be sure, and I doubt very much that McLean takes personal offense. After all, this live theatre between periods is sometimes much more interesting than what is happening on the ice, and has a huge audience. But my point, and I do have one, is a question of the modeling that coaches in a wide variety of sports (and I certainly include NFL Football in this) present to our young and not-so-young kids.

Do Bullies Get Results?

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One NHL coach (reputedly) was so harsh, belittling, and abusive in his comments to a young player, in front of all of his team mates, during a practice that the young man ended up in tears. Is this evidence of a kid who was too soft to play professional hockey or of an abusive coach who should not be allowed to hold that position?

I am willing to bet substantial dollars down that there is not a single pro athlete in hockey, baseball, football or basketball (our major North American and most highly watched pro sports) who has never had to deal with a bully coach somewhere on his/her road to the pros. And the rationale for this state of affairs? Not surprisingly, it is similar to the one used in business to defend the bully manager – they get results.

Lest the non-sporting types get too smug about this, this type of bullying behavior occurs on the part of coaches in nearly any endeavour – music, dance, art, etc. It happens to hundreds if not thousands of young people across this continent.

Living in a Bully Culture

So here is the dilemma faced both by coaches and by parents. Bullying by coaches frequently produces high performance and championships. They can push us to achieve results of which we never believed we were capable. Of course, it can also produce drop outs and non-participants for life.

Let us all do a reality check here. If your child were coached by a notorious and reputed bully, but every season produced a large number of players who went on to successful careers as a pro athlete, what would you do? And if you thought that your child was good enough to become a pro would you pull him/her out because of the emotional damage that could occur? I think that so long as we admire and lionize winning coaches, irrespective of their methods, we will continue to live in a bully culture. It appears that, in sport at any rate, the end does justify the means!


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.