Sport has long had a conservative militaristic mindset. Our country’s leaders have viewed athletics as a way to prepare soldiers for battle, as well as develop leaders for authoritarian business cultures. In SportsWorld, it’s widely-accepted that coaches need to be drill sergeants — autocratic leaders who treat athletes in demeaning ways and rule by fear — in order to be successful.

Wheelock College in Boston has turned that mindset on its head. Winning not only isn’t everything, as the famous Vince Lombardi quote goes, it’s only a secondary consideration — well behind education, effort, character, team-building, and the development of athletes as people. See “Where ‘Try Again’ Finds Victory” in the Boston Globe.

Athletic director Diana Cutaia brought the “people first” philosophy to Wheelock six years ago. She’d had success as an athlete and coach based on the traditional measure of wins and losses but she’d grown to see the negative effects of a win-at-all-costs approach to sports.

“So, it wasn’t that winning was foreign to me,” says Cutaia. “It was that over time I saw how destructive it was to the players to hear how important winning a game was. It is a distraction, if you think about the fact that the vast majority of college athletes — 99 percent — will never play professionally ….”

Ironically, under Cutaia, the school has been winning more games and adding more sports programs to the athletic department. But its the impact Cutaia’s having on the culture of sports that is most impressive — and attracting the attention of her peers in athletic administration.

Del Malloy, commissioner of the New England Collegiate Conference, of which Wheelock is a member, says he’s heard from other athletic administrators that Cutaia’s philosophy is stirring interest.

“What I’m hearing is that when coaches focus on creating winners, rather than winning, they win more! And they graduate well-adjusted young adults who are better prepared for life after college sports.”

Shouldn’t that be the ultimate objective for athletics as part of a college or university’s educational mission?

One of Cutaia’s policies is that there will be no punitive reactions by coaches against athletes who mess up. No screaming, swearing or sprints for punishment. It’s all about giving your best effort and trying again.

James Michener, who wrote Sports in America, once said coaches in the United States get away with forms of discipline that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in any other activity.

Why, he wondered, are they tolerated in sports?

Why indeed.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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