I was at a high school football game a few years ago where events gave rise to interesting questions regarding coaching ethics.  Here is what happened:

The visiting team was clearly superior in every way.  Size, speed, skill, number of players on the roster, number of coaches, all these key components favored the visitors by a significant margin.

I have forgotten the final score, but it was in the neighborhood of 63-0. Two touchdowns were scored in the final five minutes, and the final touchdown was scored with about 30 seconds to play after the home team fumbled deep in its own territory.

When the game finally ended and the visiting team lined up for the traditional handshake between opposing players and coaches, the home team ignored the visitors and simply ran off the field, led by their head coach.

When questioned later about his motivation for leading his team off the field instead of shaking hands with the opponents, the home coach said he felt it was necessary to call attention to the other coach’s allegedly unethical manner of coaching.  According to the home team’s head coach, the visiting team’s head coach was guilty of running up the score and keeping his starters in too long, thus threatening the health and safety of the home team’s players, all in a selfish effort to call attention to himself and his team through a huge margin of victory.

When questioned later about his coaching tactics, the visiting coach noted that he pulled his starters early in the third quarter and his team threw no passes in the second half.  The coach asked, “Am I supposed to tell our reserves not to play as hard as our starters?  What kind of message is that?”

I think that’s a fair question, and of course it applies to all sports, not just football. For example, despite several conversations with college baseball coaches over the years, I’ve never understood the point at which it is somehow unethical and “bush league” for a team with a big lead (whatever “big” means) to steal a base.   Or why it’s somehow unethical to try to bunt for a hit late in the game (whatever “late” means) against a pitcher who has a no-hitter going.

High school basketball (particularly girls’ high school basketball) also occasionally provides examples of extreme mismatches such as this. But what was the winning coach in this 100-0 game supposed to do? Patronize and disrespect the losing team by not playing hard?  I do agree with the comments made in the article linked above to the effect that at some point the winning coach should have called off the full-court press and not attempted three-pointers. We might disagree on when the perfect time would have been to do that, but you can still play hard in basketball and give all your players significant playing time without pressing full court and shooting three-pointers the entire game.

So what is an ethical coaching approach when a coach has the far superior players? Should a coach instruct her players to reduce their efforts?  Should a coach tell his players in effect to play down to their opponent’s level so as not to produce an embarrassing result?

Or, should a coach tell her players, starters and reserves alike, to play as hard as they can every minute of the game or match, without focusing on the scoreboard?

Which approach brings more honor to the game and to the opponents?

Do we want to send the message to young people that when your opponent is clearly better than you, it is up to them to lessen their competitive effort?  Or, should our message be that if somebody is clearly better than you, perhaps you should be working harder to narrow the gap?

I’m interested in your thoughts, particularly those of you who have coached at the youth or high school level. Please contact me at mgilleran@scu.edu.

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