How to be a role model for your students and athletes
Conversation with narcissism expert Wendy Behary
Wendy Behary is a licensed clinical social worker and an expert on narcissism. Her internationally best-selling book, Disarming the Narcissist, is a guide for how to better understand and deal with the narcissist in your life. In this Q&A, she explains how coaches and educators can use limit-setting and empathy to effectively confront and help adolescents avoid narcissistic tendencies and develop lasting healthy behaviors.
What are some indicators of difficult or disruptive personalities that a coach or educator should watch out for?
First of all, there’s a bio-social part of adolescent development that appears to be narcissistic. It’s not pathological narcissism, meaning the type we talk about in clinical settings – it’s merely the narcissism that comes from teenagers becoming naturally preoccupied with fitting in, more self-absorbed, concerned about their performance, their appearance, their rank and status vis-à-vis their peers. This is a major issue in the teen’s life, as they struggle to develop their autonomy, while still managing their connections and dependency on parents. Of course, without parental engagement in setting limits, addressing lack of empathy and courtesy, and encouraging or enhancing frustration tolerance, this organic phase can blossom into more problematic, pathological narcissism.
What coaches might come up against is the kid who has a home environment where they are enabled to get away with and do whatever they want without limits or consequences. What happens at home is fortifying the possibility for a pathway to narcissism. They then get into team situations where they can’t tolerate having to wait their turn or not be at the top of the heap, and may have a fit or externalize the blame to another team member. These are some of the exasperating conflicts that coaches are dealing with when they have an adolescent who is on that navigational direction toward pathological narcissistic issues.
non-punitive discipline, the idea of choices and meaningful consequences– experiences and lessons that prepare them to live in the world, and how to be part of a team.
What this usually means is that the adolescent is not getting what they need during this critical and magical phase of development – non-punitive discipline, the idea of choices and meaningful consequences – experiences and lessons that prepare them to live in the world, and how to be part of a team. Limit-setting is key in order to effectively manage that situation: setting limits, installing consequences, having very frank and honest conversations with parents about how to steer this in a healthier direction.
How can a coach or educator implement productive limits and structures?
That means coaches have a lot of leverage in that they can create meaningful consequences
Coaches have amazing leverage. The reason I say that is because there is so much that is meaningful about being part of a team. It’s special. You’ve been selected. You have some really terrific prowess, and the potential to even be a standout or superstar on the team. That means coaches have a lot of leverage in that they can create meaningful consequences – again, not punishment. It’s a balance between issuing a consequence without assassinating the character of the teen. We all need that as preparation for adult life.
If I am the teenager and I’m acting out and bullying someone, or I’m having a temper tantrum, or I’m smashing my racquet against the fence because I missed the shot, the coach now puts me on warning, not in a punitive or devaluing way, but in a way that helps me to understand that there are consequences for this behavior that could lead to disruption for the team, and a loss of status and participation.
This is a tough thing for coaches because there can often be a lot of pressure to tolerate kids who are really inappropriate in their behaviors, simply because winning is just too important to the school. Coaches are often caught between the two sides, where they can do some amazing socialization to help the adolescent, but their leverage may get diluted if they are at the beck and call of the powers that be to let the child get away with whatever they want as long as they perform well on the field.
It’s a tricky issue, but it could be a very meaningful one if coaches install thoughtful, engaging discipline and consequences around that behavior. It can also be valuable to share with parents their keen observations and concerns about how this could be impacting the kid’s life in other circumstances as well.
Is there a relationship between elite performance and narcissism?
There’s a strong connection between narcissism and elite, or extraordinary, performance. This doesn’t mean that everyone who is an athlete is a narcissist – instead we think of a range of symptoms along a spectrum. But here’s the reason why we often find, in the elite athletes and performers, a distinct struggle with issues of narcissism: so much of what they are groomed to do in their life is to perform, and to perform at a level that is not just good, but great. And if they happen to already have tremendous prowess, meaning they have the facility, they have been built with a kind of dexterity and the capacity to be able to be an amazing athlete or performer, then all the more they get pushed to be out there and to become the superstar. They are told that they are entitled to whatever they want. They are also taught that as long as they perform well, then they really don’t have to follow the rules like anybody else; they should be entitled to special privileges:
“Just do your thing, win your trophies, get your awards, get your scholarships, and that’s all you have to do. You can yell, scream, curse––it doesn’t matter what else you do as long as you achieve.”
There’s so much emphasis placed on performance, but not as much placed on interpersonal connection, relationship, vulnerability, comfort, nurturing, affection, attention, and all the other emotional needs that all humans possess.
There’s so much emphasis placed on performance, but not as much placed on interpersonal connection, relationship, vulnerability, comfort, nurturing, affection, attention, and all the other emotional needs that all humans possess. Instead the love and acceptance is conditional. We call it “the missing need for unconditional love” which becomes a learned way of navigating the world and relationships with a rigidified belief that: “As long as I succeed in my performance, and I do it really, really well, then I don’t have to be accountable to anybody for anything. I am entitled to say and do as I please.”
How can a coach or educator help their athletes and students learn healthier behaviors?
As a therapist, my consultation room is a place where the therapy relationship serves as a representation of relationships in the outside world. So if I have an adolescent sitting in front of me who has issues of what looks like burgeoning narcissism, we can use our relationship and the way we’re relating to each other as a way of appreciating what might be happening in relationships and activities in their world. A coach can, in really simple ways, do similar things. Even just paying more attention to when the adolescent is being thoughtful towards someone else, like high-fiving a teammate, and giving them credit for that: “That was really cool that you did that, that was really terrific, that was thoughtful.” It can also be valuable to have them direct their attention to their teammates: “How about we make sure that we show some appreciation for so-and-so who did such a great job today?”
These actions can be as simple as guiding them to be more supportive of others, or praising them for simple, ordinary activities that show some interpersonal strength. You look for little things, for example if the adolescent says something like “How are you doing,” or “How are you feeling,” or “Are you okay?” – really thanking them for showing thoughtfulness, for showing interpersonal courage, vulnerability, consideration.
The respected platform of the coach allows for modeling the acceptability of sharing fears and doubts, and resolving them respectfully.
The coach also has the unique capacity to encourage the adolescent to safely talk to them about the things that scare them. The respected platform of the coach allows for modeling the acceptability of sharing fears and doubts, and resolving them respectfully. Coaches might ask questions like, “Tell me about what scares you”... “Are you worried about...?”... “How nervous are you that… ?”... trying to get to the bare-bones vulnerability that lies there for so many stressed and conflicted albeit talented kids on a mission to perform to their utmost, and to make it safe for the adolescent to share the very real feelings that may contribute to shame and frustration and self-defeating actions.
What else can coaches and educators do to ensure they are being good role models?
These are kids who may not, at home, witness a lot of vulnerability or intimacy from adults.They may not interact with adults who share their stories of fear, or worry, or sadness, or even happiness or joy for others. The presentation of values and worth is limited to their self-achievements and success. Given that reality, coaches can be good role models by using self-disclosure and telling stories. “I remember what it was like when I experienced ...,” or, “I remember times when it was rough,” or, “I remember worrying about...” Not telling it with bravado, like, “look at me and what I’ve done,” but as an ordinary, and very real human being.
You don’t want to stifle the talent that they have – you just want to help them keep a balance, maintain a human humbleness, an honesty and openness, so they can also be successful in their interpersonal relationships.
It’s a concept and strategy that the coach can apply with kids who are a little larger than life. It’s a way to help them step down, put their feet on the ground, and become ordinary humans, even though they may be extraordinarily talented. You don’t want to stifle the talent that they have – you just want to help them keep a balance, maintain a human humbleness, an honesty and openness, so they can also be successful in their interpersonal relationships. This level of humanness can also make for becoming better team members, getting along with others, and not sabotaging relationships; which can ultimately lead to poor team performance as well as lowering morale. Coaches have the opportunity to behave like the “good dad”, or the “good mom”, i.e., a nurturing and flexible adult person, who also is strong and encouraging, and can set limits and apply good discipline when needed. They don’t have to be harsh, loud, and punitive to be amazing coaches.
Ultimately, it can only help to fortify the growth of the team in very positive ways when you use limit-setting, self-disclosure, consequences, honest and open realness – being non-punitive and yet still using confrontations. I’ve trained some teachers and caregivers, even coaches, about how to use empathic confrontations. So you want to confront a kid who is bullying their team members. The kid has extraordinary talent, so you don’t want to lose their participation, and you don’t want to stifle their creativity, their capacity to perform well. But you do have to address their insubordination with the coach, or their careless behaviors with their team members.
What is empathic confrontation and how does it work?
Empathic confrontation basically means that you are understanding something about the adolescent while confronting the unacceptable nature of their behavior. The coach learns to say things like: “Look, I understand you got the message that as long as you do your best here, and you’re the superstar, nothing else matters. And I’m proud of you for all that you do. We’re grateful to you, you’re amazing, and you’ve got perhaps a good future ahead of you in terms of your talents... “ That’s the empathic part – here’s what I know about you, here’s how I feel about you, here’s what I see in you.
This is now followed by the confrontation: “...But, it is your responsibility to pay attention to the way you treat others, and how others see you, not only as an athlete, but as a person. Because without that, you’re on a lonely path.. And without that, frankly, the chances of us getting to be successful as a team are going to be lessened. If you can’t get a grip on that, you’re going to be sitting out the next game.”
What you say has to be meaningful, depending upon the level of infraction, i.e., what the child has done. But coaches can use empathic confrontation, which is basically saying: “I get that this is hard for you, I get this isn’t your strength, I know it’s hard to wait your turn, I know it’s hard to deal with teammates who perhaps are not quite as gifted as you are, I know it’s frustrating for you when you feel things come tumbling down and you haven’t done your best. I get it. But, we’re all in this together, and it’s really important we remember that we’re all going to have good days and bad days, and you have to show up with a little more consideration for the impact of your behavior on others.”
So it’s a lot of “I know you, I see you, I get you, I understand, BUT…” and then really confronting the behavior in terms of the unacceptability of it and the defeating nature of it.
This is an incredibly winning strategy, both with adults and with kids.
What would you say to a coach or educator who is less comfortable with this kind of approach, and prioritizes performance at the expense of the social-emotional growth of their students and athletes?
I think that unfortunately it can do a lot of damage. I’ll give you an example. A parent who was also once a top athlete, or an athlete who was injured and never got to fulfill his dreams, is living vicariously through his child now. This parent is putting forth this very strong message of super success in his child’s athleticism and nothing less. This then becomes how the child learns to measure their worth and value.
And then you have a coach who furthers that message: “you’re a piece of crap unless you’re doing the absolute best all the time.” There’s criticalness, there’s punitiveness, there are demands that are unrelenting and unrealistic, and there’s really no sense of camaraderie, or positive engaging enthusiasm or team spirit. It’s just about the outcome. This can foster a lot of anxiety in children. It has the capacity to foster very low self-esteem and competitiveness among the kids, where they end up taking it out on each other because they certainly can’t confront the coach if he or she is brutal or threatening.
In defense, this coach my say, “hey, I get the job done.” And I say, “yeah, you get the job done, but at what price? What’s the cost to the kids?"
In defense, this coach my say, “hey, I get the job done.” And I say, “yeah, you get the job done, but at what price? What’s the cost to the kids? What’s happening to their internal world and the way they feel about themselves? Sure it’s great to have a victory, but at what price? When you’ve been terrorized into it, or you’re made to fear the possibility of being ridiculed and lambasted if you’re not the best and you don’t get the win? This is not good stuff for life and for future in terms of how they relate to the world.”
Unfortunately a lot of people who go into coaching have their own issues of narcissism. They’re in it to be the best – the most extraordinary coach out there, with the most extraordinary team. They are searching for their own sense of worth and value, which can be very dangerous.
What is the one piece of advice you would tell every coach or educator?
I think it would be helpful for coaches to become more educated on narcissism and what it looks like, how to identify it, and differentiate it from an adolescent who is just being an adolescent.
Coaches would do themselves a good service to understand and learn a bit about narcissism. If you are an educator, you are working with kids who are growing up in a world that’s unfortunately very “me-centered.” You have parents that put so much emphasis on performance and success. I think it would be helpful for coaches to become more educated on narcissism and what it looks like, how to identify it, and differentiate it from an adolescent who is just being an adolescent. Kids are naturally self-absorbed at that time of life, but they aren’t necessarily always bullies, or entitled, or self-righteous, or feeling like they don’t have to play by the same rules. That’s an emerging horse of a different color.
When coaches and educators can learn to make this distinction, it can help them to craft meaningful communication when it comes to how they enter into dialogue with these adolescents, how they role model for them, how they set limits with them, and how they emphatically confront them. And, it’s less triggering because we know adolescents can really be triggering. They can push your buttons to the point where you find yourself reacting or overreacting, often missing opportunities to be a little bit more of a healer and a helper, or to move them through the challenge du jour more effectively.
Wendy Behary is the founder and Director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and The New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy. She has been training professionals and supervising psychotherapists for more than twenty years.