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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Toni Armstrong, a master of experiential education and the founder of Baltimore Leadership Guides.
“Hazing” has become a buzzword in the American culture and has been on the minds of many collegiate swimmers and coaches following the suspension of the Colgate men’s team last week. The swimming community is responding, and not all opinions are the same. In one social media post, I listened to a member of the swimming community address the Colgate swimmers—as well as any other swimmers who have participated in hazing—and say that hazing is a reflection on not just the team but the entire sport. The post also implied that the only way to save the sport of swimming is to stop these initiation practices. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, because these thoughts aren’t new and didn’t offer any suggestions or inspiration for change. I’ve also heard members of the swimming community say that they had a hard time agreeing with Colgate’s punishment because they were both hazed and participated in hazing in college and were convinced that hazing was not all bad.
Despite universities’ efforts to stop hazing from continuing, it seems the only change happening is the increased frequency of hazing being reported. Hazing still occurs all over the country even with efforts such as anti-hazing contracts, education, warnings, and consequences. So, what are we missing? What are the core elements of hazing that athletes are attracted to that allows these practices to continue? Instead of pointing fingers at the guilty parties, we can start by deconstructing what we know about hazing to gain a better understanding of how and why these traditions perpetuate among athletes.
A simple Google search for “the definition of hazing” results in the following: “the imposition of strenuous, often humiliating, task.” Why humiliating tasks? In hazing rituals, these tasks are often meant to demonstrate dedication and commitment, new team members are led to believe builds respect. Why an initiation? Team members are able to feel like they’re part of a tradition and legacy – one that contributes to a sense of belonging. Hazing could be considered an effort to develop team cohesion, but when power (and alcohol) are the driving forces, it’s a slippery slope into the realm of unethical leadership. Teams can develop unhealthy cultures susceptible to corruption, ego driven power struggles, and unethical decision-making practices with the potential of hurting many people.
Rather than simply ending the traditions and rituals teams are tied to, hazing practices need to be replaced with alternate activities to create a similar – and safer – sense of legacy and belonging. That’s where the coaches can step in, because they are in a prime position to teach better methods for developing a sense of respect and belonging within the team. This can include creating new events for the team alongside captains and other team members to establish cohesion and their dynamic for the year in healthy and safe ways. By providing an opportunity for these milestones, young athletes could be less likely to feel the need to create the events themselves with the same hazing traditions of the past.
I propose the following six guidelines for creating a teamwide initiation ceremony:
- Staff participation – not just supervision – is a must (there is a huge difference). This allows coaches to prevent the event from heading towards the dark side. Of course, certain elements can (and should) be athlete-only, but establishing the coaches as equals in the dedication, belonging, and personal growth that come with being part of a team is important. Coaches should be vulnerable, be honest, and be on the same level as their athletes in that moment. Today’s athlete wants to feel a relational connection to their coaches, and hearing about your struggles, drive, family, and experiences will set the tone for that connection.
- All upper-class athletes (not just captains) should feel empowered to run the event. Wisdom and experience – rather than forceful egos or popularity – can become the defining factors in authority. This will also celebrate the growth of experience and wisdom in the upper-class athletes and become a “coming of age” event for them too. Riddle type games like “sardines” (a backwards hide-and-seek game where one person hides and everyone else searches for them) or a scavenger hunt places an advantage on wisdom, because the upper-class athletes know the buildings and locations of resources better. Awards or badges indicating the athlete’s years of dedication to the team are a powerful tool as well.
- The new traditions and rituals should offer opportunities for all athletes to voice their dedication to the team. This means that everyone should be involved. Separating only one class or group can lead to the unethical hazing practices we’re trying to replace. These traditions may look like drinking water out of a championship cup after sharing your season goals, reciting a standard of ethics or an oath, and presenting the group with the “gift” you bring to this year’s team (i.e. hard work, persistence, patience, connection).
- Athletes should participate in affirmations of belonging as it develops a sense of prestige and pride. This can include learning team cheers, mentor assignments (like big brother/sister programs), storytelling of team history, and ceremoniously receiving their team apparel.
- Adding an element of challenge can prevent the initiation from holding the same value as a participation ribbon. Put the team outside their element and have them accomplish something difficult together—again all classes and coaches need to participate. This can be something like hiking, camping, canoeing, rock climbing, or a teambuilding game. Make sure the event is challenging and benefiting all parties.
- Have an element of drama during the ceremony: music, lights, and special effects. Think about the difference in tone between the Olympic Trials and an in conference dual meet. Atmosphere establishes the importance of the event and triggers emotional responses more easily.
Coming of age rituals are engrained into cultures around the globe and are a staple of many teams and groups in universities. These rituals have persisted over time while simultaneously changing in practice. In a time when young adults can feel like they’re searching for a sign that they’re reached maturity or adulthood, unhealthy practices can fill that void if we aren’t careful. Coaches have the opportunity to take ownership of these practices and provide alternative ways to athletes to initiate themselves into a healthier team culture. Replacing hazing practices with constructive traditions is not just critical for our athletes, it also has the potential to positively impact coaches, staff, and the university.
About Toni Armstrong
Toni Armstrong is a Master of Experiential Education. She founded Baltimore Leadership Guides (www.baltimoreleadership.com), a leadership development company that uses brain-based learning practices and games to teach organizational psychology in a community and team building atmosphere. Her leadership philosophy is “leadership for civility-community happiness and success.” She was a club coach at NBAC for over 7 years, an instructor at Outward Bound California, and an instructor at The Stanford Leadership Institute before starting her own consulting company. She has consulted with teams such as Stanford Men’s Swimming, Johns Hopkins Swimming and Diving, Loyola University Athletics, Tufts Swimming and Diving, MIT Swimming and Diving, Trinity College Swimming and Diving, and NYU Swimming and Diving. She is also the leadership expert for Kara Lynn Joyce’s LEAD Sports Summit (www.leadsportssummit.com).