Over the past week, a scenario involving the Miami Dolphins has developed that touches on numerous issues concerning the human element in sports. Last week, Jonathan Martin, a second year offensive tackle left the team. When Martin attempted to sit down to eat lunch at a table with several other offensive lineman, the other players all got up and moved to another table. As a result, Martin walked out of the training complex and left the team. Numerous reports stated that Martin left because this type of behavior had been going on for some time and he had finally reached his limit. Further reports have surfaced that Martin had been the target of bullying by fellow offensive lineman, Richie Incognito. Incognito, who has a documented history of anger issues, and was once voted as the “dirtiest player in the NFL” was supposedly told by the coaching staff to “toughen up” Martin because he was viewed as “too soft”. Incognito has also been a member of the Dolphin’s 6 player “leadership council”.
This controversy has now taken center stage beyond the sports world and was the lead story today on the CBS Morning News. It involves much more than the issue of a player leaving a team because of personal issues. It revolves around the issues of mental health, bullying, leadership, communication and motivation, but most importantly it exposes this topic, that no matter how big, how strong or how tough an athlete is, he is first and foremost, a human being with emotions and feelings that effect not only him, but those around him as well.
Martin, who went to Stanford, is biracial, and is the son of two Harvard educated parents. Apparently, the Dolphins felt he needed to be pushed to play harder and the coaching staff asked Incognito to “toughen him up”. Reports have surfaced of voicemails and text messages from Incognito to Martin full of racial insults and threats. One of the intriguing issues to me as a sport psychologist is that the coaches asked a man with a documented anger control issue to try to motivate a teammate who obviously is a very cerebral player. The other issue that baffles me is how a player with Incognito’s past history could be on the Dolphin’s player leadership council. What kind of respect would others have of a man who can’t control his emotions? This leads to all kinds of questions regarding the coaches of the Dolphins and their leadership skills. How could a team with numerous coaches who have constant contact with their players on a daily basis for months on end, not know that Martin was going farther and farther into a shell, in part, as a result of Incognito’s bullying? Reports have also surfaced that Martin did not say anything to the coaches about this because he did not trust them.
There are numerous lessons that can be learned from this situation. Obviously, the culture of an NFL locker room is not the same as any other business. However, I feel several topics can be picked up if you are a coach or an athlete. First, who are the leaders of the team and who is in charge? What behaviors are tolerated and what aren’t? What channels of communication exist within your team? What should a player do if he/she is having a problem with another player or coach? Who can they talk to about this issue and what process is in place to resolve personality differences? When it comes to motivation, how far can you push an athlete and where do you draw the line in terms of attempting to motivate them? As I stated earlier, no matter what size, shape, sex or sport, athletes are human beings. A coach needs to not only know how to coach and motivate their athletes in technique and skills, but they most importantly need to be able to evaluate and analyze the psychological mind set of their players on an individual basis and the team in it’s entirety. As I have stated before, “A good coach is a good psychologist, a bad coach needs to see a sport psychologist”.