After much procrastination, I have finally had the chance to watch the Academy Award winning film, Whiplash. I consider myself to be a music connoisseur of sorts, having played trumpet in my high school jazz band 30 years ago. The thought of pumping out Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” in front of my fellow classmates still wakes me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I encourage you to watch the film before reading my article, even for the sole reason of not having me spoil the story for you. Whiplash is an extremely intense depiction of the process of creating greatness in jazz through what could only be considered a grossly abusive teaching approach. Musicians are verbally abused and physically threatened beyond what may be considered remotely productive or motivational. Fear and anxiety are the drivers of performance and, ultimately, success in the mind of the band conductor and antagonist, Terence Fletcher. It is a difficult movie to watch because of the sheer harshness and cruelty of Fletcher’s verbal uppercuts, as his victims are caught against the ropes and falling to the canvas.
The notion of pushing people beyond their limits is not a philosophy that is unfamiliar with the sporting world. Almost daily we hear about how athletes cement their names in history by pushing beyond their potential, driving past what we thought was humanly possible and fighting through fatigue, pain and overwhelming odds. It is a popular narrative that never seems to get old. However, is this the only way that an athlete can achieve greatness? Must athletes be reckless with their training and not listen to their bodies. We are entering an era of sport science and athlete monitoring that is trying to determine the optimal training loads and hit the sweet spot every session to ensure the athletes keep on improving and stay healthy. Turning a blind eye to science and relying solely on mythical tales of personal triumph seems to be a recipe for disaster.
However, I see and hear about these types of training philosophies every day. Coaches love to see athletes busy, tired, gasping for air, vomiting and screaming in pain. For some inexplicable reason, they associate this time of pain and suffering with productive work. As one of my mentors once told me, “These types of side effects associated with crappy training – the dry heaving, the loss of coordination, the excessive muscle soreness the next day – are exactly the types of states that we are trying to avoid at all costs to ensure we have positive adaptations for performance.”
Of course, we always encounter the “mental toughness” arguments for poor training practices. One time I asked a coach why they were doing sled pushes for long distances and slow speeds with poor posture. The reply was both stunning, yet predictable. “We just want to see the guys push through the pain and get mentally tough.” I didn’t want to ruin his day and tell him that even mental toughness follows the laws of specificity. Being able to push a sled 110 yards at less than one mile per hour with a rounded back has no bearing on their ability to execute a successful goal line stand in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter, or run a no-huddle offense with 60 seconds to go, with no time-outs and 80 yards between you and the end-zone.
But for some reason, this crude approach to coaching and athlete preparation still stands the test of time, with moronic reasoning taking precedence. Call it the human condition. Or perhaps, evolutionary forces are no longer at play to ensure the species moves onwards in a progressive manner. We are too protected and enabled by the advances of science and technology (isn’t that ironic!) and those individuals that would normally be taken out of the gene pool can subsist and even take the reigns of an athletic team. Darwin would be so disappointed.
Even Terence Fletcher understands that someone in poor physical condition and mental distress cannot hope to compete at an elite level. When Andrew Neiman finds himself late to a competition and carelessly speeds in his vehicle to arrive on time for the performance, a car accident leaves him dazed and bloodied. He insists on playing in the competition despite his significant injuries and cannot even hold onto his drumsticks during the performance. Fletcher pulls the plug on the performance and kicks Neiman out of the band, even though football coaches would have lauded Neiman’s attempt to play through pain and suffering despite all odds. It was such an amazing display of mental toughness, only to be dashed by the fact that he couldn’t “keep time” during the song due to his severely injured hand and apparent head injury. Why must musicians be so precise? Play through the blood, sweat and tears!
Should we push athletes? Of course we should. It is imperative to take athletes where they have not previously been to ensure that they are constantly adapting and improving. This is how they get better. Properly applied stressors at the appropriate intensity will yield positive improvements. In this regard, stress is good. The body and the mind welcome stress, whether we like it or not. With the right amount of recovery, stress can be our ally. Even Terence Fletcher’s outlandish outbursts, if not excessive in duration and frequency, may provide the correct amount of stimulus to push his musicians to great levels of performance when combined with constructive criticism. However, when his verbal lashings become excessive, irrational and chronic, such stress can be destructive and debilitating, crushing the will to succeed of some of the most resilient individuals – individuals who may have been on their path to greatness, if it were not for a toxic influence.
Why do we find it acceptable to treat athletes like cattle or even worse, particularly when it is our job to guide them to great performances and optimal health? We are not asking that these athletes be coddled, spoon-fed and pampered. We do expect that every athlete be given the opportunity to succeed and improve in every training session. Is that too much to expect? Must we break them down to build them up? Why don’t we just build them up? I prefer the approach of challenging athletes to be great on a daily basis with properly timed stressors and goals, as opposed to being abusive, irrational and arbitrary. For every great athlete that has been abused, oppressed and mistreated, I am certain we could name 10 to 20 greater athletes that were groomed appropriately to be leaders in their sport.
Good coaching is not yelling and screaming for the sake of striking fear in the hearts of young athletes. In my experience, he or she who yells loudest is compensating for something. Usually, that something is a lack of practical knowledge and the true ability to motivate athletes by earning their respect. Furthermore, he or she who insults athletes and makes it personal is not fit to be working with young athletes. For those people who say that coaching must involve the ugly side of their personality, one that gets under the skin of athletes, I direct their attention to the numerous coaches who have not had to resort to insults, foul language and personal attacks in order to get their message across and still have produced world champions. Your coaching philosophy is developed and influenced by your system of values, your character and those before you who helped to mold your approach. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to be an asshole. People choose to be assholes. Terence Fletcher chose to be an asshole, and enjoyed it.
I am closer to the truth when I say that it was not procrastination that kept me from watching Whiplash, but rather apprehension to being an eyewitness to the gratuitous abuse being leveled at an aspiring young musician. After watching the film, I was impressed by the story, the acting, the cinematography and the resolve of the main character. However, in my opinion, the main message of the film is that there is an extreme cost to greatness achieved through these means. In the end, we are left with the belief that Andrew Neiman overcame his oppressor and triumphed. This is an oversimplification of what I believe has actually happened. Foreshadowing in the form of the Charlie Parker story (Parker suffered from heroin addiction, alcoholism and mental illness) and the Sean Casey suicide tell us where Andrew could be headed, despite his brief victory at the conclusion of the film.
The character of Terence Fletcher, through his own warped mindset, creates a self-fulfilling win-win situation for himself. If a student survives his abuse and becomes great, his approach is justified. If the student quits and folds under the abuse, he also believes his approach is warranted because he successfully weeded out the weak individuals, who were never destined to be great. Yet, if only one prodigy succeeds, while hundreds, or even thousands, of others fail, through the application of your abusive approach, we could say that your batting percentage is abysmal. The success of one at the cost of the well being of many is not acceptable. One triumph does not justify thousands of failures. The sporting parallels are palpable. One championship or one gold medal can validate years and years of abuse and erase, in the mind of the antagonist, the collateral damage inflicted upon the masses. Andrew Neiman bought into the philosophy of Terence Fletcher. He did not triumph over it. This is the sad message of Whiplash.
I am convinced that there will still be those that believe the movie Whiplash substantiates their appalling approach to coaching. History will repeat itself. It always does. But I hope that others will see that Whiplash confirms that there are many other superior options to achieving greatness while maintaining character, integrity and sound core values. Good coaching involves constructive and prescriptive solutions to problems and failures. Hard work, dedication and pushing through both physical and psychological limits are part of that process. Abuse does not have to enter into the equation. Abuse does not foster greatness. It only feeds the sick part of the brain of those that decide to employ it haphazardly. I challenge coaches to simply watch Whiplash for its pure entertainment value, while making good decisions for the welfare of their athletes at every stage of their development. Some will be good, while others will be great. Once you truly realize that you are simply a facilitator and not a creator, the better the chances for success on a level that transcends sport.
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