The well-worn practice of coaches ordering extra running as punishment for bad behavior or poor performance may soon fade from Iowa’s high school athletic fields and courts.
The disciplinary practice may face new scrutiny after an investigative report made public Thursday stated that the Des Moines school district believes that a coach who makes an athlete run at practice could be guilty of inflicting corporal punishment on the student.
The report examined actions by suspended Des Moines Lincoln High School football coach Tom Mihalovich, who is accused of violating school bullying and corporal punishment policies. Among Mihalovich’s offenses, according to the report: requiring a sophomore player to run sprints and laps as punishment for making derogatory comments about the school’s varsity squad.
Extra running has long been the punishment of choice for players who step out of line. But Iowa athletic directors and officials contacted by The Des Moines Register on Friday say that times are changing.
“Good common sense would indicate we’re past using conditioning and running in a punitive manner,” said Mike Dick, Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union executive director. To use conditioning as punishment is “almost vindictive in nature.”
Running as discipline is discouraged by National Association of Sport and Physical Education, a group that promotes professional standards for youth health and education. The Des Moines school investigation cited its 2009 report in determining whether the actions of Mihalovich and two assistant coaches went too far.
“While some people believe that physical activity used as punishment and/or a behavior management tool is effective, experts perceive this as a ‘quick fix’ that actually might discourage the behavior it is intended to elicit,” the group concluded. “Using negative consequences to alter behavior suppresses the undesirable behavior only while the threat of punishment is present; it doesn’t teach self-discipline or address the actual behavior problem.”
Corporal punishment, defined as physical force or physical contact made with the intent to harm or cause pain, is illegal in Iowa. But the law provides a specific exemption for “reasonable requests or requirements of a student engaged in activities associated with physical education class or extracurricular athletics.”
That “reasonable requests” clause is defined by “fact-specific, context-specific” inquiries, said Thomas Mayes, an attorney for the Iowa Department of Education.
Running or extra conditioning “could be considered corporal punishment under the Code,” Mayes said, “but there is no bright line that can be drawn between what is reasonable and unreasonable. There is a difference between girls’ sports and boys’ sports, between first grade (physical education) and high school P.E. and recreational athletes versus world-class athletes.”
The Des Moines schools’ investigation determined that the Lincoln sophomore football player ran at least 20 hill sprints, completed 20 up-down drills, ran two laps around the practice field and did more hill sprints — all in 25 to 30 minutes. The Lincoln athletic trainer said the student was not given a water break.
Running as punishment may be a casualty of evolving standards in education and athletics. In 1954, Texas A&M University football coach Bear Bryant subjected his squad to a grueling 10-day camp in which players who sought water were considered soft. Today, such a practice is considered dangerous and criminal, in part because of better understanding of how the human body works and also because of several deaths related to dehydration in football camps.
However, running for missed free throws, dropped passes and backtalk has hardly been excised from Iowa coaches’ repertoire.
“I think times have changed, and as coaches, teachers and educators, you have to adapt to that,” said Tom Wilson, activities director at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines. “But I think this whole thing is a slippery slope. If they start disallowing any form of discipline in this way, I think youth sports are in trouble.”
Conditioning as consequence can’t be used for every infraction on a team, but “there is a time and place and a limit to using” the practice, said Jim Duea, Waukee High School activities director.
“It comes back to coaches using good judgment and common sense,” he said.
The incident at Des Moines Lincoln has coaches and administrators analyzing their practices, said Judge Johnson, Ames High School’s activities director.
“We condition hard in some sports, but in conversations with my coaches, we don’t feel that we have a certain sport or a certain issue that would require serious, heavy run-till-you-drop type of conditioning,” Johnson said.
Des Moines East High School activities director Ric Powell encourages his coaches to put specific disciplinary expectations in the handbooks given to participants and parents each year.
“I tell them to put it in writing,” he said. “If you’re late to practice, then you run this much, and so on. That way everybody knows what the expectations are. I review these handbooks every year before they’re distributed and sometimes you have to say, ‘OK, this is too harsh. We need to back off here.’ ”
Powell, a former baseball and girls’ basketball coach, used running for discipline in some situations. Ballplayers who failed to meet team expectations might be required to run between foul poles in the outfield while teammates finished infield practice.
“I never felt like I was Bobby Knight doing that,” Powell said, referring to the volatile college basketball coach whose practices were scrutinized after the publication of the 1986 book “A Season on the Brink.”
Dick, the girls’ athletic union director, said coaches have a far more powerful lever to pull in terms of discipline.
“Playing time is a real good motivator,” he said. “Coaches have to decide which kids get to suit up that night and which ones don’t. Part of coaching is determining which kids are skilled and have met your team requirements. If you have a kid who is out of line, maybe they don’t get to suit up.”