by Eric Cressey
We have an 11-week-old baby in the house, and my wife is breastfeeding her. We also have a twin four-year-old daughters. A few weeks ago, I found them both pretend breastfeeding their toy babies because – obviously – they want to be like Mommy.
A few weeks before that, I took those same four-year-olds out to breakfast while Mommy slept in after a sleep-deprived night with the newborn. As we were leaving the restaurant, one of my daughters jumped up and grabbed my arm as I was carrying hot coffee. I spilled a little bit of it, and muttered, “Dammit.” In the car on the ride home, her sister began singing, “Dammit, Dammit, Dammit” in her car seat. I’m sure a lot of the parents out there can relate to the shock value of the first time your kids swear because they heard it from you. Eye-opening, to say the least.
This isn’t specific to parenting or my kids, either. I can remember wanting to do whatever my older brother did, and as a result, falling for a lot of jokes growing up. When I was in eighth grade, and he was a senior in high school, I would’ve done anything he told me to do (and often did).
Athletic companies pay high-profile athletes to wear their shoes and clothing because younger athletes are impressionable and will, in turn, want to wear them, too. The Kardashians can sell just about anything to their followers. Advertising wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for impressionable consumers, and young kids and teenagers are far and away the most impressionable. In fact, current models suggest that the brain isn’t fully mature until age 25. I can even look back on things I purchased when I was 30, and wonder what the heck I was thinking.
Advertising can be both intentional and unintentional, favorable and unfavorable. The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that “the overall suicide rate among 10- to 17-year-olds increased significantly in the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why” (a Netflix series about suicide). There’s even research demonstrating that “including a patient’s photo with imaging exam results may enable a more meticulous reading from the radiologist interpreting the images, as well as a more personal and empathetic approach.” Even brilliant minds can be unknowingly swayed by outside messages, and that’s on top of their intrinsic confirmation biases, too.
Where am I going with all this? We have a lot of coaches reading this article. And, whether they appreciate it or not, these coaches are some of the most profound influences on young athletes’ development. Whether coaches like it or not, they are constant walking advertisements for what young athletes should say, do, and look like. And, I’d argue that they’re among the most impactful advertisements because of a) the number of exposures they have to athletes and b) their positions of authority.
I know of training facilities that market heavily to young athletes in spite of the fact that their coaches’ social media presences – and even their facility walls – glorify alcohol consumption. At the very time when many of these teenagers’ parents are fretting over whether these impressionable kids will go off to college and make irresponsible decisions surrounding alcohol, these kids are being bombarded with pro-alcohol messages by some of the most respected people in their lives – in what should be an unconditionally positive environment. Mix in some unedited music with explicit lyrics and racially offensive language, and you’re not exactly making a case for being a strong influence on kids socially as you make them stronger physically.
Taking it a step further, I’ll take some heat for this, but…
It is fundamentally indefensible to coach a team of impressionable kids while you have a wad of tobacco in your mouth.
We can all debate how impactful these messages are, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to deny the facts that a) kids are very impressionable and b) these messages certainly aren’t yielding any positive outcomes.
All too often, coaches think that the most important decisions are about periodization, conditioning, pregame warm-ups, or some other X and O. The truth is that good coaching starts with making good decisions yourself and modeling those decisions to the athletes in front of you. Much like people need to be healthy humans before they become high-performing athletes, coaches needs to model behavior to that promotes healthy decision making off the field before they can work to optimize performance on the field.