Abusive Criticism In Big Time Sports

What can we learn from it?

bryce1It’s the bottom of the eighth inning. The talented star, Bryce Harper, front runner for the National League Most Valuable Player Award, hits a pop fly to left field that a professional outfielder is very likely to catch. However, there are times when such fielders do lose the ball in the sun or the stadium lights, and the ball ends up being dropped, allowing the batter to safely reach base if he had bothered to run. It is for this reason that Mr. Harper is supposed to hustle down to first base even if he has a pretty good reason to think that the ball he hit is, in all likelihood, going to be caught. Instead of sprinting down to first, Mr. Harper slowly steps out of the batter’s box and then heads to the dugout where he runs into a very angry teammate, Jonathan Papelbon.

Papelbon-chokeAccording to several sports reporters, Mr. Papelbon, an incredibly talented pitcher, began to criticize Mr. Harper about his lack of hustle, and after a very brief exchange, he charged into Mr. Harper, putting his hands on his throat and shoving him into the back wall of the Washington dugout. Fortunately, Mr. Harper was still wearing his batting helmet because his head smacked hard into the wall, and his helmet came flying off. Several Nationals players and coaches responded immediately and physically separated the two.

How Mature was Mr. Papelbon’s Style of Providing Negative Criticism in this Situation?

Regular readers of this blog know that when it comes to providing negative criticism, we are encouraged to consider a tentative model that describes five levels of maturity. Level one is viewed as the most immature, and each higher level is viewed as a little more mature. Let’s take a quick look at these levels, and as we do so, let’s see if we can figure out which of the five levels best describes Mr. Papelbon’s approach.


1. The criticizer displays one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Cries without stating what the crying is about
  • Physically attacks the person being criticized
  • Damages property






    2.  Those who are at this level display one or both of the following behaviors:

  • The criticizer does not explain what the offending behavior is, but instead expresses displeasure with glares, insults, shouting, silence, or threats that do not involve bodily harm. (For example, someone might be making too much noise and the criticizer might turn to the noise maker and glare, or cry out, “Jerk!”)
  • Threatens bodily harm regardless of what else is said.



3. Those who are at this level clearly state the criticism with enough detail so the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance, but couple it with glares, insults, shouts, or threats that are not about bodily harm.









4.  Those who are at this level state the criticism without bodily attacks, damaging property, glares, insults, threats, or shouts, and with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance.  If the person receiving the criticism becomes defensive or angry, these criticizers empathize without returning glares, insults, threats, or shouts.





5.  Those who are at this level provide criticism in a manner very similar to a level four style of criticism but beforehand, they consider the person who is the target of the criticism, and the situation that he or she is in.  As a result of such considerations, they may decide to alter the criticism. 





According to the Above Model, What Level of Maturity Best Describes Mr. Papelbon’s Form of Negative Criticism?

While criticizing Mr. Harper’s lack of hustle to first base, Mr. Papelbon physically attacked him. Of the five levels described in the above model, level one, the most immature level, best describes what he had done.

Why is such a style considered immature? Well, one reason is that when people respond at the more mature levels, it demonstrates that they can consider the consequences of their actions before they choose what actions to take. In this case, the consequences for Mr. Papelbon has been a suspension for the rest of the season, a fine of thousands of dollars, and he has been displayed on national news in a negative light, thus tarnishing his reputation. A little forethought would have led to avoiding these clearly negative consequences.

sprintNow, it is important to note that the specific negative criticism that Mr. Papelbon wanted to deliver to Mr. Hudson, was, according to my own value system, correct. Mr. Hudson does owe it to his teammates to hustle down to first base in these situations. However, I disagree with how Mr. Papelbon provided the criticism.

Mr. Papelbon, center, after lunging at Mr. Harper.

Mr. Papelbon, center, after lunging at Mr. Harper.

What would have been a more mature response? A little forethought would have led to realizing that Mr. Harper was very frustrated with his own pop out in the game. Thus, to wait until the next day would give both parties time to calm down.

Moreover, providing negative criticism to someone in front of lots of other people is often a huge mistake. Face-saving actions tend to increase defensiveness for both parties. Asking to discuss such matters in private is often a kinder, wiser approach.

Finally, Mr. Papelbon would have been wise to first consider if he was the best person to present the criticism. Usually managers of a team are the ones who are considered to have the legitimate authority to bring these types of issues up to a player. If Mr. Papelbon felt he had a particularly close relationship with Mr. Harper, or an established mentor relationship, there could be some exceptions to this general rule. Otherwise, Mr. Papelbon might have been wise to privately discuss his displeasure about his teammate’s lack of hustle with his manager and urge him to take firm action.

Sports Illustrated Article on “Abusive Coaches”

In big time sports, Mr. Papelbon is in no way the only one who provides negative criticism in a manner that matches the most immature levels of our model. In a special report of the September 28, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated, Alexander Wolff (with reporting by Lauren Shute) writes:,

Coaches yelling“Why do college coaches continue to yell, demean and demoralize? That’s yesterday’s tactic. Today’s athletes can’t-and won’t-take it. What’s more, it doesn’t work: Study after study shows the benefits of a more positive approach.” (p. 51)

What are the negative consequences of providing negative criticism in these low maturity level styles? The Sports Illustrated writer tells us about excellent players leaving their teams, and in rare cases, committing suicide.

Many coaches have lost their jobs after an athletic director’s investigation. Over the past 28 months at least seven Division I schools have had an investigation, and then parted ways with coaches following player complaints of mistreatment.

Moreover, some colleges end up getting sued. In one case, seven former players have filed a $10 million civil suit that charges the school and coaches were fostering a racially hostile environment.

There is some relatively good news in the Sports Illustrated article. Apparently, most players are not being treated in a demeaning manner judging from one recent NCAA survey. Of Division I players, 31% of men’s basketball players and 22% of football players reported that a coach “puts me down in front of others.” Although this indicates that there is still plenty of room for improvement, it can nevertheless be viewed as a hopeful sign that most coaches are finding more positive ways to bring out quality performances in their players.

Why Do Many Coaches Continue to Use Abusive Tactics?

As reported in the Sports Illustrated article, according to Ramogi Huma, executive director to the National College Players Association, which often hears from abused athletes:

“I believe this is a cultural problem. A lot of coaches, they were hollered at and abused when they were players.” (p. 52)

coach yelling 2There is also undoubtedly a great deal of pressure on the coaches. If they don’t win, they are very likely to be replaced.

But perhaps the major reason is that coaches are not provided enough inspiring stories about how successful coaches find ways to win by fostering bonding, loyalty, and commitment to a team in a positive manner. Dramatic enthusiasm when explaining to players what specifically they can do to improve, rather than belittling them about what they did wrong, is one such positive approach. Celebrating each step toward improvement is another.


Thinking about what happens when immature styles of criticism occur in the world of big time sports can provide us an important lesson with regards to how we provide criticism to others in non-athletic situations. The five levels of maturity provides guidance not only to big time athletic teammates and their coaches, but also to the rest of us.

Real change from lower levels of maturity to higher levels rarely occurs from reading a single article. More typically, it requires bringing examples of people utilizing the higher level skills before one’s consciousness at least weekly for several months, and, on each of these occasions, an effort must be put forth to consider how these skills can be specifically applied to one’s own life. Following this blog is a no cost way to help make this happen.

I hope you join us again real soon.

My Best, Jeff


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

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