Prep Sports

Abusive coaches can leave long-lasting scars

Justis column: Parents need to take action if needed

It's not always parents who are a problem in youth sports. Abusive coaches can causes problems for many years. (The Gazette)
It's not always parents who are a problem in youth sports. Abusive coaches can causes problems for many years. (The Gazette)

 

A new term has emerged in the purview of youth sports. Coach bullying.

After two consecutive columns discussing the unfortunate occurrence of conflict between coaches and parents, in which most of the blame was placed on moms’ and dads’ shoulders, I thought I’d better show the other side — that of abusive coaches.

My wish is none of these situations arise in the world of youth sports, but I am sure all of us have seen instances of both at one time or another. Sport is supposed to teach not only the Xs and Os, but life lessons. Conflicts and bullying do little to help that education along.

An article published on Psychology Today’s website described bullying behaviors from coaches as intimidation (yelling and using threats to scare), insults (name calling to demean appearance, toughness or worth), ridicule (making fun of bad play or lack of skill), humiliation (singling out a player for public embarrassment or blame) and benching (refusing to let an athlete play).

Changing the Game notes three things comprise bullying — an intent to harm, a power imbalance and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior.

It makes you wonder why anyone would want to play for that coach.

These actions are a lot more serious than just grinning and bearing playing a season under this particular coach. Psychology Today notes the “impact of these kinds of actions on adolescent age players can be performance anxiety about making mistakes, hesitant play because of unsure decision-making, loss of confidence in one’s capacity to perform, believing mistreatment is deserved, (and) losing enjoyment of the sport one once enjoyed, even quitting the sport to avoid any coaching at all.”

“Athletes really develop this fear of making mistakes and they become cautious and they become timid and they don’t take the risks that they need and then they also are distracted,” Eddie O’Connor, a clinical and sports psychologist with Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, Mich., said in a recent hollandsentinel.com article. “They’re so focused on what they don’t want to do, they cannot focus on what they do want to do.

“These are the athletes I see in my office pretty regularly where we’re training them to accept mistakes. If they don’t, they can’t excel.”

He said negative coaching can have long-term effects that don’t allow these athletes to make decisions in the real world because they are fearful of the repercussions.

So what is a parent to do? Psychology Today notes there are possible steps to take if your child is unlucky enough to play for one of these coaches.

l Give empathetic support for the hurt he or she is feeling. See if you can figure out how much of the child’s adverse experience is due to what the coach is doing, or how much is caused by the teenager’s personal response. “Students need to expect that playing for a secondary school coach can be more seriously competitive, more demanding of hard work, more critical of mistakes and more personally intense than the nurturing, recreational coaching received playing on younger teams.”

l Determine if the athlete is taking too personally treatment that is just part of the coach’s harder operating style. “The bullying is not about anything wrong with the player, it is about something wrong with the coach.”

The parent may need to ask their child’s permission to talk with the coach on their behalf. This can be difficult because coaches with a successful program can have a lot of support.

“... winning excuses a multitude of sins ... bullying coaches create an atmosphere of fear ... there are no self-made bullies. Bullies are partly made by the consent of those who allow themselves to be shut up and pushed around.”

l If the coach refuses to acknowledge or alter his behavior, perhaps parents should check with each other to see if they share the same concerns. Maybe make a “united appeal,” asking to speak with the principal, coach or a district athletics director.

l If the child wants to quit the sport, the parent “needs to try and strike a bargain” with the athlete. Maybe she can try another team with another coach.

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O’Connor said it is important to “think in terms of what’s best for the athlete.

“If the coach is being driven by what he or she is feeling and expressing out of their own frustration, then it rarely leads to anything good ... some players do need a metaphorical kick in the butt, some respond to assertiveness and some need space.”

l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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