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When Tough Love Fails

According to a study from 2017, the tough love style of coaching, lauded across the sports world, negatively affects athletes by raising their anxiety and worry, and disrupting their concentration. It both ruins players’ experiences and lowers their chances of winning, because athletes are motivated by pleasing their coach and meeting their impossibly high standards instead of the actual competition. When coaches expect their players to win and see anything less as a failure, athletes can’t enjoy a win or cope with a loss. The sport they love becomes a burden.

And that all made intuitive sense when I watched Olympic figure skater, Alexandra Trusova, break down when she realized she hadn’t won a gold medal (but rather a silver one) after performing a routine with five quads, a feat that no woman had ever accomplished before. Most women are unable to perform the quad, let alone five in short order, because the technique relies on one’s ability to pull in all of their body mass, exceedingly difficult with breasts and hips. The reason Trusova was able to perform how she did is because of her coach, Eterei Tutberidze, who is known for her grueling and abusive practices, which include forced starvation, leading to anorexia and bulimia; frequent weigh-ins; overtraining that leads to broken bones; and early retirement. Tutberidze even forced one figure skater to take the hormone blocker, Lupron, which can cause early menopause.

Tutberidze is an archetypal example of the touch loving coach–she foments in her athletes an intense fear of failure and a belief that the only way to win is by coming out at the top of the pack. Constant berating is inherent in these relationships. This context sheds light on Trusova’s otherwise questionable breakdown, during which she cried and yelled, “I hate this sport,” and, “I won’t go on the ice again.” Despite her abuse, Tutberidze has coached since 2014, and in 2020, was awarded Coach of the Year by the International Skating Union (ISU). The ISU has borne a lot of pressure to investigate Tutberidze’s coaching, and I hope that encourages other sports organizations to take a closer look at their own tough, not so loving, coaches.

- Etta Feuer

Source: Frontiers in Psychology Journal

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