Jim Pavlidis illustration for Greg Baum column, Saturday May 21, 2016 Photo: Jim PavlidisReplying to an applicant for a place in the women’s rugby program at Quinnipiac university in Connecticut, the coach begins by noting that her letter was short, poorly written, scant for detail and inappropriately casual, giving only her Christian name. In as many words, the girl wanted to know if the team was “giving out scholarships”.
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The coach, Becky Carlson, says that a polished and thorough resume arrived a week later – from the email address of the applicant’s parents. They apologised for their daughter’s failure to return calls and emails from the university, saying she was “too busy to answer”.

When the girl and her parents did at last visit the university, the parents did all the talking, Carlson notes. “However, when you did speak, you were openly correcting and verbally scolding them when you deemed their information sharing inaccurate,” she says. As they toured the campus, Carlson observes that this girl who was too busy to return a call or email was never off her email-enabled smart phone.

Gradually, Carlson builds a picture of a brat, talented, but privileged, indulged and insolent. Against her better instincts, she says, she went to watch the applicant in a high school game. She saw immediately that the girl was the most gifted player on the team, but also lazy, aloof and self-possessed. At half-time, she sat apart from the her teammates. When they huddled before returning to the fray, she chatted to a teammate, paying no attention to the coach.

When she scored, she expected the adulation of teammates. When a teammate scored, she ignored her. When teammates made mistakes, she loudly upbraided them. “You had moments of greatness but they were followed by sporadic lulls of half-hearted effort.” Carlson says.

Though captain, the applicant took no part in the post-match debriefing, says Carlson. Nor did she help her mother lug out snacks for the team. “Last, as the rest of the team broke the field down and put equipment away, you found a quiet spot on the empty bench to text on your phone,” she says.

Carlson forgives the girl to the extent that she has probably spent a lifetime being told how good she is, by coaches versed in the mechanics of sport and not the principles, coaches consumed by the winning imperative. “However, players like you, with similar demeanour are a dime a dozen,” she says. “Please bear in mind, none of this makes you a bad person, only potentially a bad teammate.”

Carlson writes all this in a blog entitled “An open letter to the athlete we must stop recruiting” that has gained widespread attention in cyberspace. By now, it is apparent that this precious young lady is not one person, but a composite of many whom Carlson has come across as a player, administrator, talent scout and coach. She extrapolates lessons that  she also addresses to the fictional teenager. University women’s rugby in the US is, you imagine, a niche, but sport is a universal language, and some of Carlson’s morals doubtlessly will resonate among coaches of young athletes here.

The charmless one, says Carlson, will be a drain on coaches, a divisive influence in the team, prone to sulk and perhaps become insecure among the many more fish in this much bigger pond. She will dwell on her successes and brood over failures. But she will blame everyone else. This disposition will ill serve not only the team now, but the girl in her later working life.

One of Carlson’s points is only obliquely applicable in Australia. It is that the student/athlete’s goal should be to “get a degree while playing a sport you love”, not “to get a starting position while earning a degree you tolerate”. Carlson’s degree was in journalism, the sports she loved along the way were rugby and tennis. She is not just a coach, but a pioneer of and apostle for women’s rugby in the US, an advocate for women coaches in general and a believer in the idea of sport as an agent for social change. In 2014, she was named women’s rugby college coach of the year.

Carlson concedes that young athletes, properly guided, can change. “However, the investment on my end presents high risk to the health of team morale, my livelihood and sanity,” she says. “In my younger coaching years, I believed far too often that many like you were capable of transformation. Over time, without consistent support from the powers that be, I have lost my fair share of those battles and have watched colleagues lose their jobs when athletes like you are unsatisfied.

“I have learned from my mistakes. As a result, although the athlete playing right next to you has half the stats and three-quarters of your speed, they are supportive, determined and selfless. This kind of athlete, will be our next signee.

“By choosing not to recruit you, I am saving my team culture.”

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