Q&A: Abuse and Training

I read something about coaches hitting or dragging athletes around when they make mistakes. Some see this as abuse and others as standard that produces winners. But this reminded me of the post about abusive teachers not being very effective. Any thoughts? Where is the line? Is it different or the same for sports? Should athletes or martial arts students tolerate what might be considered abuse because they want to be there or is there a line they should look for between conditioning and abuse?

The line is when it transitions from conditioning to abuse. What you’re describing? That’s abuse.

The line is consent. You go to someone; say, “I need to get better at this, push me.” That’s the road to conditioning. That’s training. You’re consenting, you’re signing up, and you’re asking someone to push you until you can do things you didn’t believe were possible.

In a lot of ways, Martial Arts training is all about this. It’s asking someone to help you push yourself past the illusory boundaries you believed were real.

Also, important to understand, this requires mutual trust. You’re trusting your instructor that they have your best interests at heart, and that they know what they’re doing. They trust you to give your all, and that you’re trying to improve.

This relationship is a two-way street. It’s not a relationship of equals, but you are working with your instructor to improve.

This is also true of coaches. A good coach is there to talk you through. To teach you about the game you’re playing. To guide. To help you learn. To push you. Because that’s why you’re there.

There’s a simple truth, personal growth is uncomfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It requires you to do things you don’t want to. A good coach, or instructor, will put a path in front of you and tell you to go. To push you. While also paying attention to ensure you don’t harm yourself in the process. It’s the goal you’ve set in front of yourself, and telling you how to get there. They’re there to help you get there safely.

An abuser doesn’t care what you want. Their goals are what’s important. There’s no two way street. You do what they say or else. Your well being is, at best, an afterthought. They may tell themselves that they get results, that they’re providing a necessary lesson. Tough love. But, in the end, you’re not working together, they’re just working you over until you do what they say, or you break. At best, you might get somewhere in the vicinity of where you wanted to be unharmed. More likely, you’ll be wounded (emotionally or physically) along the way. Your safety wasn’t a consideration, just the end abuser’s goal.

Physical abuse, like you’re describing, happens, but it’s somewhat rare. Emotional abuse is far more common and insidious. Again, it’s not cooperative. The difference is just whether the experience is physically or emotionally painful. Ironically, this is the easier of the two to recognize subjectively. If you have an instructor or coach that makes you feel like shit, who is pressuring you and using your connection to your teammates to push you past your established physical limits, that’s emotional abuse.

The worst part is this transition can happen after consent is given. You can ask for a push, and the instructor turns around and pounds on you. This doesn’t really change the line. You trusted them, and they violated it. Unfortunately, for many, the realization that something’s amiss only happens when a serious harm occurs. The lesser injuries, stresses, and psychological strain, tend to get missed.

The thing about abusive teachers is, they’re not effective. I can say that from personal experience. I had a swim instructor nearly kill me when I was younger. All I learned was to stay the hell away from swimming pools.

Abusive methods can result in short term behavioral changes. That is to say, yes, you can pound on someone to, maybe, make them do what you want right now. But, it comes with steep long-term costs. Anyone who says that abuse builds character, or toughens people up is coming out of a position where they really do not care about the well being of their charges.

Not everyone who’s abused realizes it. Depending on your background, this is one of those incredibly counter-intuitive statements. Someone who thinks that coming away from a lesson or training feeling wounded may legitimately believe that’s normal. That everyone feels that. If they’re still getting some value out of their training, they may even believe that this is the way things should be. This is where a lot of abusive coaches and instructors come from. They went through this kind of hazing, so they believe it must be necessary.

The hard part about this is, there’s a gray area which is entirely subjective. It’s abusive if the behavior is harmful, but not abusive, if both participants can build from it. As with a lot of social interactions, context is key.


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