“Coaching ABUSE: The dirty, not-so-little secret in sports”
“Coaching ABUSE: The dirty, not-so-little secret in sports”
IN THIS ISSUE:
“Coaching ABUSE: The dirty, not-so-little secret in sports”
What is wrong with a society that places so much importance on winning in sports that it blatantly neglects the needs and well being of the child-athletes that it’s charged with educating and protecting? Are we that out of touch that we’ve lost our perspective on what really matters in life? Are too many parents making a “deal with the devil” and turning their kids over to coaches with questionable methods just because these coaches supposedly produce “champions?”
As a coach, just how important is winning to you? When your team or athletes win, does that mean that you are doing your job better? Does it make you a more effective coach? Similarly, when your athletes fail, does that mean you are failing? Are your athletes’ and team’s losses concrete evidence of your incompetence?
If you were brutally honest with yourself, could you look in the mirror and answer this question? “Is winning and all that it means to me, more important than the mental health and happiness of my child/athletes?” If you’re a coach reading this, then I couldn’t blame you for responding to my question with horror and righteous indignation. Who the heck am I to even suggest that you, an adult and professional, would place your needs to be successful over the needs of your young athletes? Of course youknow that the sport is supposed to be “all about the kids.” Certainly, you’re fully aware that “it’s only a game.” You also know that coaching is all about being a good role model, enhancing self-esteem and building character. Furthermore, you know that your number one priority is the welfare and happiness of the kids you coach. A coach doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know all this stuff. But then again, who would ever answer “yes” to my question and admit to themselves and others that they regularly place their own needs as an adult and professional over those of the children their supposed to be guiding?
Here’s the problem the way I see it. Because winning has become so important to us as a culture, because being “numero uno” has been erroneously equated with coaching success and competence, some of our youth sport, club, high school and college coaches have forgotten what their real mission as a professional is. These coaches have come to mistakenly believe that the won-loss outcome of their season is far more important than the process of participation, character development and safety of their athletes. They believe that an athlete’s performance failure is reflective of a coaching failure. And why shouldn’t they feel this way when coaches at every level are regularly criticized and fired for not winning enough? When it comes right down to it though, isn’t the true essence of “good coaching,” winning? Isn’t that what NFL Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi used to say: Winning isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing?
Unfortunately when coaches subscribe to this creed, when they put their needs to win in front of their athletes’ well being and learning, then serious problems develop. Interactions with coaches who believe that the end always justifies the means, that the outcome of winning is far more important than the process of teaching and playing, do significant, long term damage to young athletes. When winning is more important to the coach than the experience of his/her athletes’ participation, then EMOTIONAL and sometimes PHYSICAL ABUSE are the end result.
There are a lot of coaches who may vehemently disagree with me and defend their treatment of athletes as good, solid coaching. They explain that they’re just making their athletes mentally tougher and physically stronger. You know, it’s the old “if you baby them, praise them too much or falsely build self-esteem, then you’re really hurting the kids because you’re making them weak” argument. Or, “I may occasionally put my kids down in the process of coaching, but I only do it strategically to get them to tough it out and prove me wrong. Deep down, I really do care about them.” Then there’s my favorite: “This is a very hard, dog-eat-dog, competitive world where bosses yell at their employees and everyone has to learn to deal with getting his self-esteem regularly stomped upon. I’m just teaching these kids how to handle it now!”
Here are my thoughts on this kind of “good” coaching: If it looks like a duck, flies like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, IT’S A DUCK! ABUSE IS ABUSE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT KIND OF SPIN YOU PUT ON IT! ABUSE IS NOT GOOD COACHING, EVEN WHEN IT RESULTS IN WINNING!
Athletes who play for coaches who are more concerned with their own needs than those of their players, may occasionally experience outward success if they manage to stay in the sport long enough. These athletes may be part of a winning team or championship effort. They may even win gold medals. However, the emotional price that these athletes end up paying in the long run for their “success” is an extremely high one. The damage that abusive coaches can do to preadolescent and adolescent athletes oftentimes haunts them well into adulthood, negatively shaping their future performance experiences and relationships both in and out of competitive sports. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, identity issues and recurring performance problems are often the result of this kind of negative coaching. Abusive coaching is a serious epidemic in our society and it’s time that responsible adults, i.e. other coaches, level-headed parents and competent professionals step up to the plate and drive this garbage out of the ballpark once and for all.
In this special issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter we will discuss the topic of abuse in coaching and potentially what can be done about it.
WHAT IS ABUSIVE COACHING?
A good place for us to start our discussion is to very clearly define what abusive coaching is and how it differs from more appropriate, positive coaching. To do this, let’s look at the behaviors/actions of the abusive coach and compare them with those of the good coach.
THE ABUSIVE COACH FITS ANY NUMBER OF THE FOLLOWING:
Regularly uses public embarrassment and humiliation on his/her athletes
Is disinterested in the feelings and sensitivities of his/her players
Rarely uses praise or positive feedback
Is a yeller
Demeans his/her players
Plays “head games” with his/her athletes
Is personally dishonest and untrustworthy
Creates a team environment based on fear and devoid of safety
Is never satisfied with what his/her athletes do.
Is overly negative and a pro at catching athletes doing things wrong
Is more interested in his/her needs then those of his/her players
Over-emphasizes the importance of winning
Tends to be rigid and over-controlling, defensive and angry
Is not open to constructive feedback from players or other parents
Uses excessive conditioning as punishment
Can be physically abusive
Ignores his/her athletes when angry or displeased
Is a bully (and therefore a real coward)
Coaches through fear and intimidation
Is a “know-it-all”
Is a poor communicator
Only cares about his/her athletes as performers, not as individuals
Consistently leaves his/her athletes feeling badly about themselves
Kills his/her athletes’ joy and enthusiasm for the sport
Is a bad role model
Is emotionally unstable and insecure
Earns contempt from players and parents
Coaches through guilt
Is a master of DENIAL!!!!!
A coach doesn’t have to be guilty of all of these behaviors to be an abusive coach. In fact, regularly engaging in a select two or three of these is enough to qualify a coach for abuser status. Unfortunately, most coaches who engage in abuse also refuse to take an honest look at themselves. Because of a well honed sense of denial, they would never admit to themselves or others that they might be doing something wrong. In fact, the abusive coach sees him/herself as a very good coach!
THE GOOD COACH….
NEVER uses humiliation or embarrassment as a coaching tool
Genuinely cares about the welfare and well being of each athlete
Is a pro at catching athletes doing things right
Rarely raises his/her voice
Is supportive and encouraging
Builds healthy relationships with his/her athletes
Is honest and trustworthy
Creates a feeling of personal safety on the team
Is able to celebrate his/her athletes’ successes/accomplishments
Is a positive person
Understands that coaching is about doing what’s best for the kids
Has winning in perspective and defines success in appropriate ways
Tends to be flexible, yet still able to set good limits
Is open to constructive feedback from players and parents
Is friendly, non-defensive and approachable
Uses hard physical conditioning appropriately
Is NEVER physically abusive!
Communicates displeasure directly and appropriately to athletes
Coaches by generating mutual respect
Maintains an open mind
Is a good communicator
Leaves his/her athletes feeling good about themselves
Fuels the athlete’s enjoyment and enthusiasm for the sport
Is a wonderful role model
Earns respect from players and parents
Does NOT act out his/her feelings/insecurities on his/her athletes
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the abusive coach is that deep down, he/she genuinely doesn’t care about his/her athletes as individuals. This kind of coach only values his/her players in direct proportion to that athlete’s abilities and what he/she can do for the coach. The abusive coach pays more attention to the better athletes as long as these individuals continue to “produce” for him/her. As long as they win, he/she likes them. However, should they get injured or slip into a slump, this coach is quick to turn against or ignore them. In a sense, the abusive coach is not emotionally mature enough to separate out his own feelings and needs from those of his/her athletes. While the abusive coach may deny this, his/her behaviors and actions more accurately reflect how he/she really feels. It would be easy for us to look at this behavior and label it as selfish. However, calling the abusive coach “selfish” doesn’t capture what is actually going on here.
Deep down, the abusive coach is a damaged human being. He/she is emotionally stunted and immature. The abusive coach usually suffers from deep seated feelings of inadequacy and he/she unknowingly acts these feelings out on his/her athletes. Unlike healthier human beings, the abusive coach is not able to take an honest look at his/her own behaviors. This individual is too busy defending him/herself and blaming others. The abusive coach is a pro at playing head games and manipulating others. He/she is able to convince his/her players that his/her frustration, yelling, anger and bad behavior are all their fault. If the players behaved better, did what they were told, performed at a higher level, listened to the coaching, etc., then the coach wouldn’t have had to get so upset, lose his/her temper or act the way he/she had. In this way the abusive coach never takes responsibility for his/her bad behavior. Like all abusers, he/she is good at convincing the victims that it is they who should feel guilty and responsible. This is not unlike the behavior of a four year old who says, “YOU made me do this!”
Let’s meet Mark, one such abusive coach through the eyes of Jenny, his star athlete. Sadly, the following story is true. As always, I have changed the names of those involved to protect privacy, although my preference in this case would be to loudly out the abuser/bully and everyone who colluded with him. Only my professionalism restrains me from acting out the anger that I feel towards these kinds of self-centered, misguided, destructive individuals. If this story sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, that’s probably because it is! It represents a situation that all too frequently exists in college, high school and junior sports today.
Jenny is currently a professional tennis player on the women’s tour. She was self-referred to me for performance anxiety and an inability to close out important matches. This problem seemed to be fueled by a lack of self-confidence as well as self-directed anger whenever she made mistakes. If she didn’t execute perfectly, Jenny would get very upset with herself. This was always more of a problem when the match was on the line. Her frustration with mistakes distracted her focus and tightened her up physically. This caused her to play more tentatively, make even more unforced errors and eventually lose to weaker players.
The fact that Jenny was still playing competitive tennis was a miracle unto itself given the emotional and physical abuse that she was continuously subjected to for her four years in college at the hands of Mark, “the worst coach I ever had and a poor excuse for a human being.” In fact, a number of her former teammates had either quit the team before their eligibility expired or had given the game up entirely after their college careers had ended. Unlike Jenny, they were not able to salvage any of the love that had originally brought them to tennis in the first place. Their own experiences with Coach Mark had completely extinguished the joy that the sport had once held for them.
There are a number of upsetting aspects to this story but one of the more troubling ones for me is the “response” of the women’s athletic director to her coach’s outrageous behavior and Jenny’s obvious abuse. It should be noted that this unnamed, highly visible Division I school boasts one of the top 10 tennis programs in the country. Their men’s and women’s athletic teams enjoy a high level of success across a wide variety of sports, not infrequently contending for national championships in many of these sports. By all outward appearances, this is truly an elite athletic program. In fact, the school was recently voted number one in a national magazine poll of the best Division I schools to compete for in the country because of how well they treated their student-athletes. (Jenny relayed this statistic with sarcasm and bitterness.) It just goes to show you how far a little spin and a lot of DENIAL will take you.
Jenny was the number one singles player on her team as a freshman and experienced a tremendous amount of early success. Because of this success, she very quickly became one of her coach’s favorites. However, even as a freshman, Jenny noticed that her coach placed way too much emphasis on winning. When his players struggled he seemed to have a short fuse and was easily prone to anger. This anger was often expressed in a demeaning, verbally abusive way. Towards the middle of her freshman year Jenny first witnessed Mark’s irrational, out-of-control behavior when “he went off on me because I lost and the team needed a win.” By the end of her freshman year, she noticed a feeling of desperateness had infiltrated her tennis matches. For the first time in her life, she felt like she had to win and if she didn’t, something bad might happen. Although she couldn’t put words to it at the time, she had started focusing during her matches more about Mark becoming upset if she lost rather than on her game.
Over the summer between freshman and sophomore years, Mark called Jenny once a week. The content of these conversations was always negative and usually entailed Mark berating her in one way or another. For example, in one conversation he told her, “The incoming freshmen are so good that you probably won’t even make the starting line-up.” Or, Jenny’s favorite, “You’re a hard worker, really smart and really attractive and that’s really good because tennis isn’t going to work for you as a career.”
During the fall season of her sophomore year Jenny was sitting on the court chatting with a group of teammates waiting to play a doubles match at a team tournament in California. Jenny’s doubles partner had a wrist injury and went up to Mark to see if he would replace her in the lineup. She explained that she was in too much pain to play. However, in Mark’s mind, you were never too injured to play and athletes who complained about being in pain were weak and fakers! In fact, “Mark hated injured athletes!”
For some reason, this incident pushed the coach over the edge and, according to Jenny, “he went berserk.” He directed his tirade at Jenny, screaming at her for no apparent reason. As he did so, he suddenly grabbed her by her left arm and forcibly yanked her off the lounge chair that she had been reclining on. Jenny felt totally embarrassed and humiliated because Mark’s outburst had happened in front of a number of coaches and players. She and her partner went on to play their match but by that night, Jenny’s left arm was really bothering her. Soon she couldn’t even lift it. She went to see a doctor the next day and an MRI revealed that her labrum had been torn!
Shockingly, Jenny didn’t tell the doctors or anyone else including her parents about what had really happened. She didn’t even confront Mark. Truth be told, she was in a state of shock that something like this could ever happen to her. When the examining doctor had asked how the injury had happened, Jenny simply explained that she had “slept on her arm funny” and that’s how it had occurred. Of course the school doctor didn’t believe her, but he also didn’t press Jenny for the real story.
Perhaps Jenny’s reluctance to tell anyone was partially related to the “brain washing” that Mark regularly engaged in with Jenny and her teammates. In fact, in order to play for the team, each athlete had to sign a poster that hung in the locker room. In big letters the poster read: “What you SAY here, what you SEE here, what you HEAR here, STAYS HERE when you leave here.” In other words, nothing should ever be brought outside of the team.
Jenny’s injury was so severe that she would need reparative surgery to correct the tear. As a result she would have to miss her entire sophomore season. The incident was immediately brought to the attention of the women’s athletic director. She knew exactly what had happened, that one of her coaches had been physically out of control AND ABUSIVE, what the MRI had shown and the prognosis, that Jenny would miss almost a full season of competing. The AD’s caring response: She immediately told Jenny that she didn’t need to call her parents about the incident because this was something that “we’ll handle in our family.”
Keep in mind that one of the primary tasks of a competent athletic director is to look out for the physical and emotional welfare of her athletes. However, the women’s AD was only interested in what Jenny’s father, who was a lawyer, was going to do and whether he might bring a law suit against the athletic department and school. The AD never once called Jenny to see how she was doing, never acknowledged that Mark had dangerously crossed the line and assaulted an athlete, never once came to any of the tennis practices or took the time to call Jenny’s parents and fill them in on the situation. When Jenny’s dad came to the school and met with the AD regarding the incident, the AD looked him straight in the eyes and promised him that she would insist that Mark get regular counseling, anger management training and be closely monitored weekly. Needless to say, Mark never once went to counseling or had his behavior monitored!
What the AD consistently did was everything in her power to make this ugly incident disappear! After sitting in on a players only, team meeting which occurred shortly after the abuse in which a number of athletes voiced their concerns and upsets about Mark’s actions and Jenny’s injury, the AD pulled Jenny aside and told her, “your team is whining about something that didn’t even happen to them. This has become a huge distraction to the team and I don’t want you to talk about it with them anymore.” How’s that for a supportive response? The women’s AD never even reported the incident to the men’s AD who was in charge of the entire athletic department. She seemed to want to very quickly brush the whole ugly incident under the rug.
In a later meeting with the AD, Jenny made it clear that she never wanted this kind of thing to ever happen again to another student-athlete who played for Mark. While the AD reassured Jenny of this, she never met with Mark, never confronted him about what had happened and failed to follow through in any way to insure the future safety of her athletes. What the AD was very much interested in was maintaining the school and program’s image as a wonderful place for student-athletes to learn and compete. Shamefully, she colluded with this out of control coach, making her equally as guilty of the abuse. (And the really comforting thing for parents of student-athletes at this fine institution to keep in mind is that this dangerously self-centered, incompetent individual is still in charge of women’s athletics!)
Jenny’s shoulder surgery took place on the 20th of December. Her parents wanted her to red-shirt her sophomore year because they didn’t want a lot of pressure put on their daughter to have to rehab quickly and get back into competition. However, Mark told her father that he didn’t want her to red shirt because he felt (being a highly trained expert in the medical profession) that Jenny’s injury wasn’t that serious and that she could get back in the lineup in plenty enough time.
Just 10 days after the operation, Mark was yelling at Jenny because he felt that she wasn’t doing enough to get herself back! He continued to put pressure on her to rehab quicker and get back with the team. He pushed her hard and encouraged her to ignore the warnings from sports medicine that she play only 20 minutes a day. Soon Mark had her hitting two hours a day. The team wasn’t doing well and Mark wanted her in the lineup as soon as possible. However, because she was doing too much too soon, Jenny tore muscles in the rotator cuff of her right shoulder, her racquet arm. This injury insured that her sophomore season would be a total wash which seemed to make her coach that much angrier.
As we discussed, one of the common dynamics in any abusive relationship is that the victim begins to feel like she is directly responsible for the abuse. This guilt-fueled illusion is encouraged by the abuser who continuously feeds this distortion to the victim. This is now how Jenny was starting to feel. On some level she blamed herself for Mark’s angry outbursts and the incident that injured her, costing her, her sophomore season. If she had only played to her potential or won more, then perhaps Mark wouldn’t have gotten so frustrated and angry. This incident of physical abuse further fed her fears of the man.
While there were no other occasions of physical abuse through her junior and senior years, Jenny reported that Mark continued to be verbally and emotionally abusive to her and her teammates. It seemed, however, that the bulk of his anger and abuse was directed at her. When she lost, he’d tell her how bad she was and that she shouldn’t even be playing tennis. Several times a week in various forms he would repeat this message to his star player. When she was a senior and still clearly the best player on the team, Mark punished Jenny further by pushing her down in the lineup to the #3 singles spot. He continued to verbally demean her and question her commitment to the team and sport. At other times he would try to turn Jenny’s teammates against her. Throughout it all, Jenny played with an intense fear of losing. In her mind the stakes were always very high whenever she stepped on the court. Losing meant that Mark would be unhappy and an unhappy coach in her mind meant that she wasn’t physically safe.
At the end of her senior year, Mark again lost control and physically threw another player out of his office in front of his assistant coach. This incident so shook up his assistant coach, that she immediately contacted the women’s AD to report the abuse. In response, the AD got mad at this coach for reporting it. After hearing of this incident from the assistant coach, Jenny and the rest of her team confronted both the women’s athletic director and head athletic director about Mark’s abusive, out of control behavior. The head AD was shocked and appalled to hear about what had happened. As a consequence of the meeting, Mark was forced to resign. However, even though he was removed from his job, he wasn’t fired! He was simply given another job in another department where he worked for the next two years!
DEALING WITH ASBUSIVE COACHES
ATHLETES: First off, how do you know if your coach is really abusive? There are many negative emotions that you will encounter playing competitive sports that have absolutely nothing to do with the coach mistreating you. These can be related to your own mistakes and failings, a lack of playing time, your nervousness in handling pressured situations, etc. Just because a coach may yell or get angry with you doesn’t necessarily mean that this individual is being abusive. For example, some coaches who yell, actually care very deeply for their athletes and their yelling is done in the context of this caring relationship. Playing time is another common issue which generates a lot of hurt and bad feelings within the athlete but shouldn’t be confused with coaching abuse. There’s nothing that leaves an athlete more unhappy and angry at the coach than a lack of playing time. It’s no fun sitting the bench. It can kill your confidence and ruin your season. A lack of PT might even mean that your coach plays favorites and is unfair. However, a lack of PT does not necessarily mean that your coach is being abusive.
When you play for an abusive coach, it will always leave you with certain, predictable emotions. If you regularly have these feelings, then you know that the athletic environment you’re in is an unhealthy one and it’s time to take steps to protect yourself. Let’s review some of these “athlete feeling warning signs” or RED FLAGS:
When you’re in an abusive situation you end up feeling scared a lot of the time. This fear is usually related to what the coach may say or do if you mess up or fail. The fear that you feel also compels you to want to keep things to yourself. Abusive coaches use this fear to manipulate athletes and prevent them from talking about the coaching situation with other adults who might be able to help. If you are getting threatening messages from the coach that you’d better not tell anyone about the incidents happening in practice “or else,” a red flag should go up in your mind. If you spend a lot of time feeling guilty about things that you’ve supposedly done wrong then another red flag should go up. Feeling regularly embarrassed and/or humiliated by the coach in front of teammates and spectators is also a red flag. Being excessively worried about losing or making a mistake is a red flag as is a feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells,” whenever you’re around the coach. (That is, if you say and/or do the wrong things the coach could have a meltdown.) If you find yourself trying to explain to yourself or rationalize why the coach’s bad behaviors and mistreatment were really your fault then chances are high that you’re stuck with an abusive coach. If you continuously feel badly about yourself and this lack of confidence is reinforced by the coachescomments then this is another red flag.
What if your coach regularly leaves you feeling this way? What then? Probably the most important step for you to take when you find yourself being abused by a coach is to immediately get yourself out of the abusive environment. I don’t care how much you love the game or how important it is for you to be on this team, playing for an abusive coach will ultimately kill the joy you feel and damage you as a person. Staying with abusive individuals in any situation will hurt your self-image, lower your self-esteem and leave you feeling depressed and worthless.
Perhaps the very first step in getting out of an abusive coaching situation might be to gather up your courage and tell your parents and/or other responsible adults about what has been going on. NEVER, EVER KEEP ABUSE A SECRET! Do NOT protect the coach! Instead you must TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF! This is especially true if the coach has directly threatened you or other teammates with negative consequences should you tell anyone. My feeling: Blow the whistle on the bully and blow it loudly and hard.
Sometimes abusive coaches will manipulate you into believing that if you tell parents or anyone else about what’s been going on, then that’s a sign that YOU are weak. Actually the opposite is true! Standing up to an abuser and reporting him/her is a sign of great strength! In essence you are making the healthy, self-protective statement, “I will no longer allow you to mistreat me this way because I value myself too much!” This is a very important statement for you to make to any individual who is physically or emotionally hurting you. Do not try to “tough it out” when it comes to this kind of abusive behavior. The healthy thing to do is quickly remove yourself from the situation and report the abuser.
In the process of doing this, you might find it helpful to personally confront the abuser with his bad behavior and the impact that it has had on you. For younger athletes this is near impossible without the aid of their parents setting up the meeting, providing a safe environment and helping them express their feelings. However, if you’re a high school or college-aged athlete, then you may be able to do this by yourself with a trusted adult or the athletic director looking on. Look the abuser in the eyes and let him/her know exactly how you feel about his/her mistreatment of you. If this is too difficult to do, then write the abusing coach a letter and be sure to send copies to the athletic director and other appropriate, involved adults.
Do NOT let abusive coaches get away with their bad behaviors. Remember, if this coach has hurt you badly and you don’t say anything, then chances are very good that he/she will go on to hurt other athletes just like you.
PARENTS: If you have reason to believe that your child is in an abusive situation with a coach, then your job as a parent is quite simple. GET YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER OUT OF THERE A.S.A.P.! Do NOT EVER keep your child on a team working with a coach if that coach is being physically and/or emotionally abusive to your child. It doesn’t matter if this is the only show in town. It doesn’t matter if this coach is THE GUY to go to if you want your child to achieve great success. It doesn’t matter if this coach has worked with Olympic gold medalists! It doesn’t even matter if your child begs you to let him/her stay with that coach. If your child is being abused the only thing that matters is keeping him/her safe!
How do you know if abuse is going on? As a parent you must closely monitor your child’s athletic experience. Are they continuing to have fun? Do they look forward to going to practice? What kinds of things do they say about the coach? Often times your kids won’t report very much about the goings-on in practice. If that’s the case, then it’s up to you to keep tabs on their mood, attitude and behaviors. Be alert to changes in their normal behaviors. Has their eating or sleeping habits changed in any way? Are they suddenly out-of-love with their sport? Have they lost their trademark enthusiasm or passion for practice? Are they suddenly finding excuses for not wanting to go to practice? i.e. Are they inexplicably complaining of being sick/injured whenever it’s time to go?
If your child won’t talk with you about what’s going on, sit in on a few practices yourself. Pay very close attention to how the coach handles various situations. With parents watching, he/she will probably be more self-conscious and therefore on his/her best behavior. Watch anyway.
If your child reports anything out of the ordinary, listen carefully. Do not ever assume that your child is exaggerating the situation or being overly sensitive. Always err on the side of safety here. If your child does report a specific incident to you, immediately go to the coach and diplomatically ask for an explanation of what happened. By doing this you directly and indirectly let the coach know that you are a concerned parent and are paying very close attention to him/her.
Anytime you confront a coach with these kinds of complaints you must do so strategically. That is, pick the right time to talk with the coach and be sure that you have privacy. If you attempt to have this conversation with many people around it will go badly. Try not to embarrass the coach, but at the same time it’s important that you are very direct with him/her. For example, if the coach tends to be verbally abusive you might say, “I’m not sure that you’re aware of this, but when you scream and say (X, Y & Z), it really seems to be upsetting my son/daughter. If the coach responds to you with anger and defensiveness, you may have a potential problem coach in front of you. If that’s the case, monitor his/her behavior very closely through your child’s reports. If the abusive behavior continues, then immediately report him/her to league officials.
If you have confirmed evidence that your child has been abused, immediately confront the coach and demand that he stop this behavior. At the same time, you should notify his/her boss or league officials of the incident so that appropriate actions can be taken. Depending upon the severity of the abuse, it may be necessary to immediately remove your son or daughter from the team until the coach has been appropriately disciplined or removed. Your overall guiding principle in these situations is “Your child’s physical and emotional well being always comes first, completely separate from his/her performance as an athlete.”
COACHES: If you become aware of a colleague who is engaging in what you believe to be abusive behavior, then it’s your responsibility to directly approach that individual and confront him. Do not silently collude with abuse by doing nothing. You owe it to the kids and their parents to speak up when you think another coach is acting inappropriately. The way you do this is with tact and compassion. Do not embarrass or humiliate the coach. Like a parent talking to an offending coach, if you’re confronting a colleague, find a time and place that’s appropriate that will offer privacy. Take them aside and let them know the affect that their behavior is having on their athletes. For example, “Are you aware that when you scream at the kids, it makes them really frightened/upset? I think it would be more beneficial to the kids if you could lower your voice and not yell so much when working with them.”
Unfortunately, there are few abusive coaches who could openly hear this kind of feedback from a colleague, let alone anyone else. Most will respond to you with anger and defensiveness. If this is the case, and their abusive behavior doesn’t change, then it’s your responsibility to contact league officials and report the coach. Even if most of the time the confronting of an abusive colleague leads to a defensive reaction, you still have to do it. As adults and professionals charged with teaching kids and providing them with a safe learning environment which will enable them to grow as athletes and individuals, there is no place for child abuse. It is always your primary responsibility to insure that the kids who play sports remain safe. Child abusers should never be allowed to work in competitive sports.
If by chance you’re reading this newsletter and recognize that you have been an abusive coach, then my suggestion is for you to get some professional help. It’s quite common for those who regularly abuse, to be victims of abuse themselves. Many abusive coaches were abused as children by either their parents or coaches. The only way to stop this insidious cycle is to directly work on the issues with a trained counselor.
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