Emboldened athletes push back on old-school coaching methods

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Some of Geoff Bond’s rowers loved and appreciated his demanding style. They thrived on how the coach at the University of California-San Diego pushed them to the limit while preparing them to take on the real world.

But for others, Bond was a nightmare, with over-the-top intensity, an unpredictable temper and rage they abhorred. They say he regularly threatened to harm or kill team members. One heartbroken couple insists Bond’s behavior was to blame for their son’s suicide.

Bond left his post earlier this year without any explanation from the school, and his employment status is unclear. In his wake, a debate now rages in college sports and athletics at every level: What constitutes bullying, and what is merely good, hard-nosed coaching that aims to get the most out of young adult athletes?

“There absolutely is a fine line between those two things, and it actually allows for somebody to behave in a more bullying manner under the guise of ‘I’m pushing you to be the best that you can be.’ And then the victim is kind of forced to accept that,” said Deidre Abrons, a licensed marriage and family psychotherapist in Oakland, California, with extensive trauma and PTSD experience.

Sports programs across the county are weighing whether such tough coaching styles have a place in a world where student-athletes demand more sensitive treatment and more individualized training. Athletes of this younger generation also wield greater personal power over their career paths, which can force coaches to accommodate them or risk losing top talent.

There is evidence that coaching has become less autocratic, less brutal — that Bond was just a throwback from the days when legends such as Bear Bryant pushed football players to the brink and Bobby Knight erupted in volcanic outbursts at his basketball teams.

These days, athletes are speaking up about their experiences on and off the playing field, regardless of whether they are on high-profile teams or in smaller, non-revenue sports. As transfer rules have eased, students have also acquired more freedom to change schools, along with the ability to capitalize financially on their fame.

Many coaches have changed too, tailoring their dealings with each athlete based on that person’s individual needs, rather than applying the one-size-fits-all approach of the past.

Still, Bond is far from the only coach whose practices have come under attack. The complaints extend beyond colleges and into Olympic events.

Abrons said it’s often hard for athletes “to recognize the abuse and call it abuse.”

“That’s really hard to come to terms with, especially when it’s somebody in your life who is such a mentor, who’s guiding you, who’s supposed to be on your side. And so they often blame themselves, like: ‘Oh, this is me. This person has it all together. I’m the problem.’”

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Bond’s career in San Diego ended Jan. 13, when the school announced that he would no longer be coach, but it offered no details. Bond, who previously coached at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, has challenged his dismissal in court, and the legal battle is ongoing.

Some rowers said his rage regularly went beyond intense coaching.

“He would make up the worst kinds of insults to people,” said Dameon Engblom, a former assistant coach under Bond at Penn and in San Diego who also rowed for him as a high school athlete in the Bay Area.

“He never pushed or shoved anybody or made any physical contact, but he would get up in people’s faces. He’d threaten to kill people,” one ex-Penn rower said on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution in the tight-knit rowing community.

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, a group of nine rowers from the 2016 Penn team wrote to more than 60 parents of fellow student-athletes expressing fears that the program was “unsafe” under Bond. The rowers were unsatisfied with what one called the university’s “neutral response” to concerns shared during exit interviews.

Bond “has shown a disregard for responsible oversight of the mental health of our team in a way that is counterproductive to Penn Rowing’s performance,” the athletes wrote.

The rowers said Bond had “created an abusive environment by the repeated use of belittling nicknames and hostile language like, ‘Talk to me again, I swear I will f—— cap you. I will f—— kill you,’ and ‘I will break through you.’”

They also alleged that he “stigmatized the use of appropriate resources for managing stress by publicly shaming teammates” who utilized Penn’s psychological services.

When reached for comment about Bond’s tenure, Penn said only that he stepped down at the end of his contract in 2019. A second request for details received no response.

Some rowers who competed for him at UC San Diego have shared similar experiences, describing a culture in which Bond used crass and offensive language among other put-downs regularly uttered in front of athletes.

Through an attorney, several of Bond’s former collegiate rowers from Cal, Penn and UCSD reached out to the AP in support of the coach.

Former Cal rower Vaclav Vochoska of the Czech Republic crossed an ocean for college and experienced severe isolation and depression from language and cultural barriers. He recalled how Bond checked on him one Thanksgiving when Vochoska was alone in the dorms. He calls his experience in Berkeley only “positive.”

“My time with Geoff Bond was nothing but special,” Vochoska said by phone from Europe. “The challenge never came in a hurtful way … It doesn’t sound right he would be threatening anybody at practice.”

Gary Champagne, who rowed for Bond at Cal as a freshman in 2002-03, said via email: “I absolutely loved his style of coaching and feel it is a great fit for young college kids.”

“I give him tons of credit for turning many of us coddled young boys like myself into great, young, independent men with qualities and attributes that helped us so much in business and life. I always felt comfortable with Geoff as a coach and loved the man he was.”

But the parents of Brian Lilly Jr. are adamant that their son was verbally abused by Bond, leading to his suicide in January 2021. Brenda and Brian Lilly Sr. filed a wrongful-death suit against Bond, alleging that the coach mistreated their son largely because he challenged Bond’s decision to allow a rower to remain on the team despite allegations of sexual assault against the athlete.

Bond’s defense said the coach hadn’t seen Lilly in person for the nine months prior to his suicide and that the coach reached out during the pandemic lockdown period to inquire whether Lilly would return to school in San Diego from the East Coast where he had been living.

A spokesman for UCSD, which is named in the suit, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

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Olympic coaches have come under fire, too.

Longtime U.S. national team swimming coach Teri McKeever faces allegations from former athletes at the University of California-Berkeley who described a culture of abuse.

Former U.S. Olympic rowing coach Mike Teti resigned last fall after the Tokyo Games amid accusations of abusive behavior that spanned decades, including allegations that he physically threatened athletes or verbally attacked them if challenged. Most of the U.S. national team members who made the accusations spoke anonymously because they still fear the coach.

That the athletes spoke out at all represents a sea change in the balance of power between athletes and the coaches who once held almost unquestioned authority over their teams.

Now college athletes can use the NCAA transfer portal to change schools and teams if they are unhappy with their playing time or treatment. They can also make money in ways that were unimaginable until recently with new rules allowing compensation through endorsements and sponsorships. And with the rise of social media, student-athletes can share their opinions and experiences directly with the wider world.

Some coaches are struggling to adjust with athletes who are newly emboldened.

“It is making it a little more challenging,” said Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State men’s basketball coach, referencing the flexibility that students have “to leave if things get tough or if you get pushed too hard, or if somebody’s telling you they can give you more.”

But Tinkle said any pressure on coaches to be educators, not autocrats, is a good thing: “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and show these young men that the biggest part of our job is taking them from late adolescence into early adulthood.”

Tinkle will be rooting for Gianni Hunt, a junior guard at Sacramento State who left Oregon State’s program earlier this year. Hunt sought a fresh start after his playing time failed to develop as he had hoped. He took a leave of absence from the Beavers last season when his “love for the game had deteriorated,” he said.

The change worked out for Hunt, who is thrilled to get a new chance under first-year Sacramento State coach David Patrick, an Australian who previously served as coach at the University of California-Riverside and was a longtime assistant for several Division I programs.

Patrick believes coaching now demands more personal relationships with players.

“Some of the coaches I’ve played for didn’t know if I had a mother, father, brother, sister, what my upbringing was,” Patrick said. Now it’s more important “to a have a relational piece there before you can dive into coaching them hard and coaching them in life … because they do know their rights, unlike we did when I was coming out.”

Kerry Keating, the former head men’s basketball coach at Santa Clara who also worked as an assistant at UCLA and Tennessee, hopes more coaches focus on each individual’s needs — a drastic change from coaching an entire team as one.

Looking back on it, Keating said, he “wasn’t raised that way” and “didn’t do a great job” of coaching players individually. “It’s one self-criticism I have.”

Hall of Fame Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer tries to consider the needs of each woman on her roster, and she has demonstrated over decades how to be successful without extreme tactics. She agrees that practices that were more prevalent in the past are no longer acceptable.

“In some ways, some people you can maybe be harder on and others not,” said VanDerveer, the all-time winningest women’s basketball coach. “Now there is a lot of talk among coaches of almost like, ‘Don’t even try to coach,’ because a lot of players — they don’t really want to be coached.”

Sometimes, VanDerveer said, coaches will say or do something 10 times without drawing any complaints, but the 11th occasion might be considered by someone to be “over the line.”

“I think it’s always been challenging,” she said, “but maybe now with social media, the portal, I think things are even more challenging for coaches.”

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