When Coaches are Bullies

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No one likes a bully. Yet bullies exist in almost every setting where there is a relationship between two or more people. Sports Illustrated ran a special report this month, Abuse of Power’—an article about college coaches who berate, harass, put down, and in some cases push athletes beyond their physical limits using questionable methods (Wolff & Shute, 2015). The report describes a number of coaches ‘abusing’ college athletes under the guise of coaching. In one example former swim coach of Utah, Greg Winslow, ordered an athlete to swim underwater with a PVC pipe strapped to his back and another with a mesh bag over her head (Winslow is now banned for life from USA swimming). Then there’s the verbal abuse, like Rhode Island softball coach Erin Layton who threatened ill and injured athletes with comments such as ‘don’t ever get sick again’ or ‘I’m going to kill you’. Several of Layton’s athletes developed ulcers, eating disorders and inflicted self-harm.

Bullying is generally defined as a systematic abuse of power, in which a stronger individual exhibits a pattern of intimidating behavior against someone weaker or less powerful. The coach–athlete relationship involves an inherent imbalance of power, that is, a coach holds authority over his players by nature of his role. Bullying can have dramatic and long-lasting effects on its victims. It can impair social and emotional development and cause substantial harm to mental health. When the bullying occurs in an athletic setting, those harmful effects are augmented by the stress kids often feel as a result of athletic competition. — Bullying Behavior by Athletic Coaches, Pediatrics Perspectives

It’s easy and tempting given the disturbing nature of these events to brush them off as isolated incidents, to label them as rare—even to question the term ‘abuse’. Some may not consider verbal berating or intimidation as abuse, even though studies show that verbal abuse for young adults and adolescents is potentially harmful (Schinnerer, 2013).  This prompted me to dig deeper. How common are bully coaches, or at least bullying behaviors among college and youth sport coaches?

Bully Coaches in College Sports
I first looked at a two studies specific to college athletes: 1) GOALS  (Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning) conducted by NCAA to “study the experiences of student-athletes across all sports and NCAA divisions”, and another by the American College Health Association (ACHA) that examined athletes well-being.

What College Athletes Say
Both studies shed light on aspects of student-athletes physical and emotional well-being, perceptions and values; however below are highlights specific to students’ experiences with coaches and their perceptions of team culture.

  • Football—22% athletes reported that their coach “puts me down in front of others”
  • Men’s Basketball—31% reported their coach “puts me down in front of others”  — all other men’s sports: 20%
  • Women’s Basketball—25% reported their coach “puts me down in front of others” — all other women’s sports: 21%
  • Women’s Basketball—39% agreed that “my head coach can be trusted” (which means 61% don’t trust their coach), all other women’s sports: 48%
  • Football—50% agreed that “my head coach can be trusted”  —   all other men’s sports: 51% (which means only about 50% of student-athletes trust their coaches)
  • Baseball—48% reported “winning is more important to me that good sportsmanship” versus  Football at 50%, versus all other men’s sports at 36%.

Bully Coaches in Youth Sports
Sad_basketball_player_in_locker_roomBut what about younger athletes?  In most cases youth coaches provide positive experiences, and some coaches even become role models and mentors. With my three kids, we’ve had at least a three dozen coaches over the years, and most have been good to excellent— three or four were outstanding.  But some were not; three or four (now looking back) displayed bullying behaviours.  I hesitate to go so for as the label them as bullies, but some of their behaviours were.  Our experience is not uncommon.

What makes bullying behaviours challenging for parents is navigating the line between demanding coaches and bullies, which makes it challenging for parents to address. More so with  younger athletes, as younger children and sometimes adolescents aren’t able to verbalize what might be happening in practice when parents aren’t present, or how to describe how they are made to feel.

What Parents Can Do
So what can parents do? With college-age kids it’s tough since technically college kids are adults and likely they are living away from home. If your son or daughter speaks of bullying behaviours or you witness bullying behaviours on your child’s team, encourage your child to speak to someone at school; head of athletics, academic adviser or health counselor. Giving your kid confidence by showing your support is the best strategy.

With younger kids, the first step is awareness—knowing what’s going on in the practices, watching how the coach interacts with kids, as well as being sensitive to your child’s actions around practices and competitions. An article in the Family section of New York Times, ‘My Coach, the Bully‘ outlines some strategies for parents shared by a pediatrician Dr. Swigonski. She describes several real scenarios, and acknowledges challenges with addressing a coach’s behaviour that could result in team shunning, or reduced playing time. But the bottom line, according to another pediatrician “If an adult is hacking away at your child’s self-worth, you confront the bully and prepare to do the right thing,”

It’s a worthwhile read for any sports parent.

Helpful Reading


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