WHEN MY husband was coaching my daughter and her little friends in the Flying Ponytail Division of the Daddy's Little Girl Basketball League, he would light a fire under their defense with this exhortation:
"OK, ladies. Let's be trees, not mushrooms."
On the other end of the coaching spectrum is Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, who reportedly shoved soiled toilet paper at his players to illustrate what he thought of their play.
Sports fans are appalled at the mild slap on the wrist Knight received from the administration at Indiana for choking one of his players, the latest in a career of distempers.
But my guess is that many of those sports fans also have kids who play sports, and I wonder how far along the Knight continuum of abuse they would be willing to send their child in the name of a pro career, a Division I college scholarship, or just cocktail party bragging rights.
Many of us entrusted our kids to coaches almost before we gave them over to school teachers. We said we were in it for the health benefits of exercise, and we described the coach as a graduate of the Mr. Rogers school.
But soon we started to think our kids might be pretty talented, and we jockeyed to get them on the right team with the right coach.
Then came the day when there were tryouts and cuts, and every kid who made the roster didn't automatically get to play. That was OK with us because getting cut from a sports team is an important life lesson (as long as the other kid was learning it), and the cream has to rise to the top sometime.
Next, we fell under the spell of a screamer. He was tough on the kids, scolding them. Sometimes ridiculing them. We cringed.
But he was known for getting the best out of his players, and, after all, coaches are not nursemaids, and maybe it is time to get used to that.
Then the coach was running kids until they vomited into trash cans at either end of the field, and we averted our eyes because, after all, it is the pre-season and the kids are out of shape, and physical conditioning can mean the difference late in a game.
Who among us might not be weak-willed in the face of a winning sports machine that has scooped up our promising child?
Right now, I have a boy who would follow his wrestling coach into a burning building and a daughter who would rather play basketball than go to the mall. The voices of their coaches are more in my children's heads than mine is. Fortunately, I can say, neither of these men is in the Bob Knight mold of coach.
But it should also be noted that this same Bob Knight has coached players to three national titles and 11 Big Ten titles. Under his hand, 16 players have become All-Americans. He had the guts to cut Charles Barkley from the U.S. Olympic team because he didn't like his attitude, and he won the gold medal without him.
Fourteen of Knight's players have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft, and more than 90 percent of his players who stayed in school earned a degree. In 35 years of coaching, he has never been penalized for breaking the rules that govern his sport.
Somewhere between Knight and "trees, not mushrooms" is your child's coach. Motivation is in the eye of the motivator, and the methods coaches use generally vary only by degree.
Would I want a guy like Knight managing my child's athletic gifts? If not -- if Knight is too profane and abusive and violent -- how much like Knight would my child's coach have to be before I ended the relationship (assuming my child would grant that power to me)?
It is a conversation we all need to have with ourselves.