Ever since I was a kid, I have looked up to my coaches as if they could do no wrong. Even in college, after I learned (as most kids do) that my coaches were human too, I wanted to do everything in my power to please my coach. If my track coach told me to run 20 repeats of 200 meters (yes, this was one of our workouts) or wear purple socks on race day, you better believe I would do what she told me.
I listened to every word she said. And (most of the time), I did what she asked me to do. Her word was Gospel.
As coaches, you ask us as athletes to go above and beyond what we think we are capable of doing. Both my high school and college coaches were instrumental to both my athletic and personal development. On our teams, we athletes don’t just learn how to run fast, throw far, or jump higher. Sports teach us values and help us build character. Many of the values that inform my current professional career were values that my coaches taught me as part of being a good teammate – being on time, trying my best, staying patient even when I’m losing, and respecting others.
My high school coach was famous for telling us “Mind, Body, Soul” if she suspected there was something going on behind the scenes. Personal problems or not taking care of our health inevitably impacted how I performed on the track. For instance, there’s nothing more painful or awkward about your first high school breakup and mine happened to be with a girl. If I wasn’t able to come out to my best friends (who were also my teammates), it is very likely I would have quit the team altogether.
If one of my coaches had forced me to stay silent about being bisexual, I am pretty sure this would have crushed me. I’ve had authority figures in my life tell me being LGBT was wrong, but if a coach told me this, I am not sure if I would have been able to recover.
This past weekend, Brittney Griner interviewed with ESPN about the silencing that she experienced on her team about coming out from her coach, Kim Mulkey. "It was more of an unwritten law [to not discuss your sexuality] ... it was just kind of, like, one of those things, you know, just don't do it.” It’s no coincidence that she waited until graduation and her professional career was secured before discussing her coaches. As an athlete, talking bad about your school or coaches is similar to talking bad about your family, which makes it even harder for LGBT athletes to report harassment and silencing that occurs on their teams.
Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. Even subtle statements by coaches will keep LGBT athletes in the closet. In 2012, a report on LGBT athletes found that one in four lesbian, gay, or bisexual athletes felt pressured to be silent about their sexual orientation.
I personally have met many athletes who tell me they felt forced to be silent. Each week, we share stories on our GO! Athletes blog by LGBT athletes, many of whom were really emotionally impacted by the "unwritten law" of coaches to remain silent. A former water polo player, Nikki, shared with us that although her coach was "someone who I was incredibly close with and admired" she was pressured to be silent when she "made statements about not believing in homosexuality."
I like to assume best intentions and I believe that most coaches are doing what they believe is right for their athletes and their teams. However, I also believe that the old paradigm that “it’s better not to talk about” is not appropriate for our younger generations. We not only want to talk about it (and for you to help us talk about it), we want you to accept us and support us. At the very least, coaches and staff should respect us.
Coaches should know that playing by the old playbook can only work for so long. We evolve, learn more about nutrition, proper equipment, and performance techniques. It’s no surprise that we can also improve in how we learn to treat each other. Science has proven the detrimental impact of being closeted and has proven the benefit of an athlete’s health (mind, body, soul), when he or she is embraced fully, rather than rejected.
Coming out for both athletes and coaches is a personal decision and we are not asking that anyone come out before they are ready. We are asking you to support us, not silence us. We are also asking you to be our allies. You don’t need to be marching in Pride Parades with us, but we are asking you to say something proactively. In the beginning of your team meetings, lay out your ground rules for the year and include “we do not tolerate negative behavior and language based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, ability, and any other type of difference: all athletes are accepted on our team.”
Coaches, you cannot underestimate the power that you have had in our lives.
You have asked us to step our game up and go that extra mile to be better athletes. And now we are asking you: Support us, learn how to make your teams safer, and realize that your words and actions (both positive and negative) can change an athlete’s life forever.
Anna Aagenes is Executive Director of GO! Athletes.