As a former student-athlete at Vassar College, I recognize that coaches have the ability to significantly affect the lives of their players in so many different ways—both positively and negatively. I know for a fact that there are many players here at Vassar who love their coaches and have had unforgettable experiences as college athletes. But others, including myself, have had unforgettable experiences for very different reasons. We can all agree that coaches are placed in positions of power. If they misuse this power, consciously or subconsciously, they are able to exert various forms of control, manipulation and abuse upon their players, and that is not okay. This is my story.
Initially, I was so excited about coming to Vassar and being a part of the soccer team. I couldn’t wait to meet the new head coach and learn about her coaching style and philosophy. When I first met Coach, I was thrilled to play for her. It was a new beginning! I was coming in as a freshman, and she was coming in newly hired. Almost immediately, we realized this new coach had a very different way of doing things than the previous one. The first sign was her insistence on ranking each player. After each pre-season test, a list went up on the wall in the locker room with the names of every player, in the order of who had done the best, who had passed and who had failed. No one knew that this was going to happen, as it had never been done by any previous coach. Vassar College Women’s Soccer (VCWS) was all about inclusivity, and making sure that everyone knew they were a valued part of the team regardless of how much time they saw on the field; this ranking system directly clashed with that philosophy. Soon after, two seniors who had not only been dedicated, crucial players on the team for three years, but who had also received numerous Liberty League accolades throughout their soccer careers, quit. The new coaching style brought in made them feel unwelcome and forced them to quit because they were used to an encouraging and positive environment, whereas this coach was implementing a ranking system that emphasized failure.
As the season progressed, more of Coach’s philosophies were brought to the forefront, one of which was stressing the importance of healthy eating, and providing your body with enough nutrients and protein for the amount of work that we were doing on the field. On the surface, everyone would agree with this, but her method of enforcement was detrimental to many players. She would check what each player ate in the Deece to make sure it met her standards, and would not hesitate to confront you about your choices, in front of others, if she disagreed with them. I clearly remember her asking me and various other players if it was a “good idea” to eat something. My whole life, I had been eating a certain way that had always worked for me. It was something I never thought much about, but when she started questioning my eating habits, things got uncomfortable. Every time I ate any form of dessert, I felt the scrutiny of the coach and began to second-guess myself. Her behavior created a stressful and unhealthy eating environment that led some players to develop unsafe eating habits and eating disorders. With her incessant negative comments, Coach was putting our team full of young women, who are already one of the most at-risk populations, in danger of developing unhealthy eating habits.
My sophomore year, I got a concussion during a game. It was unfortunate, but these things happen. While following the standard concussion protocol, I felt pressure from Coach to return to the team and play prior to being cleared by the athletic trainers. This pressure from Coach demonstrated to me that she was more concerned about winning than the wellbeing of her players. I’m very glad I stood my ground and didn’t return until cleared, but when I suffered heat stroke during a game my junior year, that episode became the last straw.
It was a weekend tournament, and on day one it was well over 100 degrees on the turf field. It was so hot that the ref had determined we would play quarters so that we could have extra water breaks. Before the game, Coach reassured us she would be subbing constantly. At half-time, I told Coach I was struggling with the heat. By the 70th minute, we were down 2-0, but I still hadn’t been subbed. At this point, I was hallucinating and was not being an effective player on the field. My teammates on the field with me recognized what was happening and tried to motion to Coach to take me out, but still I was never subbed. When the final whistle blew, I collapsed. After that, I don’t really remember what happened because I was in and out of consciousness. I was carted off the field and iced down. I think it took me over 20 minutes to stop shaking from the chills. Later, when Coach came to see if I was okay, I asked her why she hadn’t subbed me. She replied that there had been no one to put in for me. Weirdly enough, that day we had had 10 perfectly healthy subs on the sidelines, any of whom would have been more effective and capable on the field than I had been. In that moment, I felt like a pawn being manipulated for the sole goal of winning. I did not believe that she cared about my well-being. For the game on day two, Coach promised that she would sub me out of the game because my body was still extremely weak. She broke that promise. After that, I quit.
I was a pawn to be used. If I was injured, I was pressured to come back early. My eating habits were scrutinized and micromanaged. Eventually, it all got to be too much, and for my own mental, emotional and physical health and safety, I had to remove myself from the team. I’ve played sports for the majority of my life, and have had many coaches with varying styles. I understand that the soccer coach was coming into a new environment, and that it is impossible to please everyone. Of course, we all need to be flexible, but sometimes things go too far, and her behavior toward me definitely crossed the line. I love my fellow teammates, and they helped make my time on the team more bearable. I hope they know that, and I thank them for being there for me.
There are many other players on the soccer team and other Vassar teams who have experienced similar negative treatment from their coaches, but have not had the ability to come forward. I hope that this article allows them to feel like they also have a voice. I hope they do not continue to live in fear of repercussions for their team or themselves for standing up for themselves. Coaches have enormous control over players, their minds and their bodies. Can a system be put into place to help monitor and minimize negative issues and protect students’ well-being? Minimally, how about a required exit interview if someone quits a team? I call on the Athletics Department and Vassar College to take this moment to reflect upon the environment that has been created within the sports community, and use this opportunity to make changes to improve the student-athlete experience for the generations to come.