Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

What ‘Ted Lasso’ Can Teach Us About School Sports

Getting the most out of school athletics starts with confronting a toxic history
By Liz MacLauchlan — June 29, 2023 4 min read
Photo from tv series Ted Lasso
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“Ted Lasso” has been must-watch TV since its first episode streamed in 2020. With its infectiously positive attitude about sports and life, it has inspired many of us. In the popular Apple TV+ show, Ted Lasso is an American football coach who is hired to coach professional soccer in England, where he defies the expectations of everyone who expected him to fail. Despite knowing nothing about his new sport, Lasso brings a positive, can-do attitude and respect for his players’ growth as human beings over athletic success.

Ted is a coach for everyone around him, the athletes, team management, and his fellow coaches. Lasso-isms have taken over social media, with slogans like “You say impossible, all I hear is I’m possible” or “Living in the moment is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.”

But why can’t we learn the lessons of Ted Lasso and apply them to our own sports programs?

As an educator and coach, this show has reminded me of the Ted Lassos I’ve had in my life: The skiing coaches who helped me get back on skis after a scary accident made me want to give up the sport. The elementary school principal who guided me and my family when I was falling apart in 2nd grade. The college running coach who showed me that I could run at the collegiate level and cheered me on while I stood up to challenges.

But there’s another coaching storyline on the show that I see much more frequently: Nate Shelley, who climbed from being an equipment manager to the head coach of a rival team. In his coaching role, he quickly started taking out his own lack of self-worth on his athletes and obsessing over the team’s wins and losses.

When I first watched the character’s progression from underdog to (temporary) antagonist, I realized that I’ve been coached by a lot more Nate Shelleys than Ted Lassos. We’ve all probably been coached by a lot more Nate Shelleys than Ted Lassos.

Let me tell you about some of the antagonistic Nate Shelleys I’ve come across, first as a student-athlete and then as a coach myself: The coach who pressured me off the team for “missing too many practices”—right after two of my family members died in short succession. The erratic coach of a peer school who frequently yells at his athletes, his assistant coaches, and even athletes on a different team. The coaches and parents I’ve seen encourage athletes to monitor their weight and intake to an unhealthy level to the point where many of my teammates developed disordered eating to compete better.

This is just misbehavior I’ve seen personally; if I include stories I’ve heard from families and friends, the list would be much longer. How long is your list?

If Ted Lasso is an international symbol of American coaching, our news coverage of American coaches doesn’t appear nearly as sunny or funny. In the past few months, we’ve been living through another round of disturbing allegations about athletic coaches. In February, Olympic medalist Lynn Jennings alleged that she was abused as a teenager by longtime college running coach John Babbington. A month later, filmmaker (and former athlete) Jennifer Fox made similar allegations of sexual abuse against famous crew athlete and coach Ted Nash. In June, Katey Stone announced her retirement after nearly three decades as the Harvard women’s ice hockey coach amid accusations she had hazed and berated players for years.

These stories join many other allegations of abuse by high-profile American athletic coaches, including the convicted serial child molesters Larry Nassar, a former U.S. Gymnastics team doctor, and Jerry Sandusky, a former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach. Alberto Salazar was permanently suspended from track and field in 2021 after former athletes accused the famous running coach of sexual and emotional abuse.

What do your students and children learn on their sporting teams? What can we do, as coaches, teachers, and parents, to make Ted Lasso an example and not a rarity?

The juxtaposition of Ted Lasso with these abusive coaches has been particularly clear to me because I have coached 14 high school teams of different sports. I’ve spent years thinking about positive team environments, negative team environments, and how to create a positive athletic community. I’ve seen the benefit of sports in myself and my athletes. I try to think of how I might emulate Ted Lasso on teams I am associated with many times and identified the Lassos I’ve been lucky enough to be coached by.

As Americans, we tend to be fascinated by the coaches I’ve listed above who’ve committed crimes. The allegations against them are straight out of a “Law and Order” episode. The bad experiences I’ve personally had with coaches wouldn’t make national news—but they are also much more common.

School athletics has the potential to be wonderful. Being an athlete taught me that I am capable, that by working hard I can improve, and that I have the leadership skills to shape a team. Unfortunately, school sports have a record of toxicity, too. We’ve all seen it. Coaches who care too much about the game and not enough about the people. Athletes who internalize the “win above all” mentality they see modeled by their coaches. Parents who value athletics for getting their children into a certain university rather than teaching them about the type of person they might become.

We need to care about these small actions. Give attention to the example coaches set for students every single day. What do your students and children learn on their sporting teams? What can we do, as coaches, teachers, and parents, to make Ted Lasso an example and not a rarity?

If we can figure out how to do that, the student-athletes in our lives will be better and happier humans for it.

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