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When Coaches Are Bullies

What to do when you child's sports coach yells, swears, shoves or hits

Published on: April 21, 2014

football coaches who bullyWe’ve all seen it. The coach who throws a chair across the basketball court, shouts expletives or calls his players by derogatory names. But what if it happens to your kid or his teammates? Why does it happen? What do you do?

The culture of youth sports

Traditionally, the driving force in sports has been that, to make great competitors, coaches must toughen up their players. Even if we don’t like it, we’ve allowed that pushing, name-calling, refusing water breaks and requiring overly strenuous physical activities are done for the good of the game. As research becomes more common, we find that not only do these actions not work, but they can be harmful. In an entrenched sports culture where violence brings winning games, parents, coaches and organizations are asking: Does this behavior really create great competitors?

Types of coaches

According to Jim Thompson, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, three types of coaches exist within the 2.5 million adults who have trained as volunteer coaches. There are coaches who, once you start talking about positive coaching, say, “This is what I want to be,” Thompson says. Then there are coaches who shouldn’t even be working with kids. These folks are the ones who don’t have the technical skills, life experiences and understanding of the game to motivate their players, says Kody Moffat, M.D., member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness

The vast majority of the coaches, Thompson says, wind up in the middle. They are the ones who respond to a cultural change or shift. Those who shouldn’t be coaching are pinpointed in a recent perspective paper published in the January 2014 issue of Pediatrics.

The research

According to Pediatrics, bullying is defined as “a systematic abuse of power, in which a stronger individual exhibits a pattern of intimidating behavior against someone weaker or less powerful.” Inherent in the coaching relationship is an imbalance of power where the coach controls playing time, position allotment and even scholarships or advancement into the next playing level. Watch the videos of the Rutgers’ basketball coaches in practice shoving and hitting their players. In the videos, Rutgers basketball players, who are larger and taller than their coaches, rapidly retreat when the coaches begin to bully a player. This example of an imbalance of power, as research shows, is not an isolated incident.

In a UK study where more than 6,000 young adults were surveyed about their experiences as adolescent players in organized sports, three-quarters of respondents reported at least one incident of emotional harm, and nearly a third reported that it had been their coach who had done the abusing. Further, over half of those who reported being physically harmed had been forced to train while injured or exhausted. Again, many respondents reported that their coach was involved. Yet another study found that 45 percent of children reported name calling and insults by an adult while playing a sport and in another cited survey, 4 percent of children asked reported that a coach had hit or slapped them during sports play.

The qualities of a good coach

What qualities make a good coach, then? Thompson believes that there is no better place to teach life lessons than on a sports field. But the idea of toughness in the traditional sports sense is actually a weakness, Thompson believes. “The toughness comes when your player has made a mistake that has hurt the team. The question that a good coach considers is whether you can support and reinforce the player to help them develop the mental toughness necessary to rebound from their mistake.”

kid playing soccer

Pop Warner Football CEO Jon Butler believes that good coaches should allow their players enough freedom to develop a sense of efficacy toward meeting a common goal: “Part of coaching to me is, whatever the goal, to be able to help break down that process, then allow them to make that achievement on their own.” You have to show that you care for your players and that you want them to be successful, says Butler, while also teaching them that nobody is successful all the time.

Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, echoes the sentiment: “A good coach is someone who puts students in a situation where they have a decent chance of success.”

Robert Brennan, head wrestling coach at Zionsville High School in Zionsville, Ind., believes that having good relationships with his players build good sportsmanship and leadership skills. “Competition is important,” Brennan says, “but my goal is to find out what the individual player wants out of the sport then to meld it together so we are all working toward a common goal.”

What if your child’s coach is a bully?

Every parent hopes for these attitudes in their kids’ sport coaches, but what if your child’s coach is a bully — what should you do?

First, know the signs. Coaches who bully will employ defensive tactics, rationalizing their actions. They may say things like, “If you don’t like it, you can always quit,” or “I may yell, but I have never hit a player.” Sometimes coaches minimize their behavior by relying on “that’s the way its always been done” thinking or using a backhanded apology that justifies his behavior by stating, “Your fundamentals are still weak.”

Athletes being bullied can be afraid, ashamed or anxious, all signs of emotional abuse. So if a coach is chipping away at your child’s self esteem, says Moffat, that behavior crosses the line. They can be exhausted, dehydrated or exhibiting physical injuries that are not healing. This may indicate that they are being asked to train when injured. If your child starts to lose interest in a sport that he has always loved, if he complains or is reluctant to attend practices or games, investigate further.

For parents who want to take action, the most important thing to do is talk to your child and find out what is going on during practices or games. Attend practices and games. Talk to the coach, and if that doesn’t work, talk to the school’s athletic director or league officials.

Most importantly, a parent should keep perspective. Keep in mind that school sports protocols are different than in youth club sports. Remember, not all yelling is bullying. Lots of coaches yell encouraging words during practice or play — they just do it loudly. In the end, says Colbrese, a coach has a responsibility to work with parents and to be clear about expectations, but “There are two sides to every story.”

Still, Moffat says, if the coach begins to shut the parent down, closes practices or tell kids that “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room," those are big red flags. “No coach should ever tell a player that they cannot tell their parents something that is happening to them.” Ultimately, Moffat says, parents have to be prepared to do what is right for their child, even if it means removing that child from the team.


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