Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Rutgers: Failure of Process or Learned Helplessness?

The Rutgers coaching abuse scandal raises all sorts of issues about sports, higher education, money, power and perhaps most importantly how to “get the best out of people”.   Here are a few thoughts on what happened at Rutgers.


Student Athletes?

The term “student-athlete” is used almost reflexly in the media and by organizations like the NCAA.  The implication is clearly that the student part comes first and that sports subserve an educational function.  That having been said, would the average professor at the average university be permitted to berate their students, physically abuse them, and throw things at them?  I doubt it.   Here is a video clip of legendary coach Bob Knight throwing a chair during a Big 10 game in the 1980s.   What educational purpose was served by throwing a chair?


click here for video


Times Have Changed!

Some have argued that “kids have gotten soft” and that harsh coaching methods are a key to success.  I would argue that harsh coaching tactics can lead to “learned helplessness” and ultimately limit the ability of the (student) athlete to respond independently to challenging situations.  If sports are critical in developing the ability to act independently and make decisions under stressful circumstances why not teach those skills in a positive way.  The great basketball player Bill Walton has a number of relevant observations on this topic, and here is a link to something he wrote in 2000 about the firing of Bob Knight after decades of abusive behavior as coach at Indiana.  In no way does Walton advocate a soft approach to accountability but merely a constructive one.


“We all need motivation. It’s a particularly important aspect of sports because the tiniest of margins often separate the winners from the losers. Yet with Knight, we’re not talking about a constructive approach to making people perform by challenging them on their positions or on their failures in life. Knight does it to denigrate. Doesn’t Indiana know that universities are supposed to be about how you teach? Teaching is about building confidence, about making people feel better about what they do and who they are.”


Change a few words and ask the same questions to the folks at Rutgers.  I would also add that times have changed and that we live in a world where things can be hidden, but only for so long…….ask Lance Armstrong.   What is really nuts is that various high officials at Rutgers seemed to have been involved in mostly an effort at damage control vs. correcting a crazy situation.  How many times do we have to collectively learn the Watergate lesson that the “cover up is usually worse than the crime”?


Failure of Process?

The President of Rutgers, Robert Barchi, has described what happened there as a “failure of process”.   It seems to me what happened was a failure of values and judgment.   This was more than faulty systems and procedures.   It also makes me think that there is perhaps an institutional version of learned helplessness going on.  Here is a synopsis of what can happen when organizations get too hierarchical and tolerate abusive leaders.


“Rarely does the subject of power and abusive power come up for open discussion…….and yet it is a critical component of any organizational setting. As communication breaks down, errors compound and the situation feels increasingly out of control, organizational leaders become more controlling and authoritarian. Under these circumstances, workplace bullying is likely to increase at all levels and organizations may become vulnerable to petty tyrants. As the organization becomes more hierarchical and autocratic there is a progressive and simultaneous isolation of leaders and a “dumbing down” of staff, with an accompanying “learned helplessness” and loss of critical thinking skills. The organization and the individuals in it become highly risk-avoidant…….”



Anyone who feels justified in using harsh and abusive tactics to get the best out of people needs to look in the mirror and ask what they are trying to accomplish.  Organizations that confuse process with values and judgment need to take a longer look in the mirror.   Empowering people to solve their own problems can be very challenging but ultimately lead to much better and more satisfying results for all involved.


Leave a Reply