The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Athletic Coaches
The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Athletic Coaches
My 10-year-old son was bullied recently. He was told that he was an
"embarrassment." He was told to "shut up." He was yelled at and scolded in a
tone of voice tinged with disgust and disdain. He was told he would be punished
for any mistakes he or his peers made in the future.
Surprisingly, this didn't happen at school. The bully wasn't even a peer of
his. The bully was his swim coach, a young lady of perhaps 26. She was
desperately trying to motivate her swimmers to swim fast in the big meet the
next day. And this was her attempt at motivation.
In speaking to the lady in charge of the coaches on this swim team, it
quickly became apparent that this type of "incentive" was not only okay with
her, it was actually encouraged. She said that 9- and 10-year-old boys were "squirrelly" and
"needed to be taken down a notch." She was in full support of
her coaches yelling at, embarrassing and insulting young children to motivate
them to swim faster. "That's just the way swimming is," she said. Had I not
spent 12 years of my childhood swimming competitively, I may have believed her.
How Do I Know if My Coach Is a Bully?
To determine if a coach is a bully, you must first know what bullying
behavior looks and feels like.
Bullying is aggressive behavior that occurs repeatedly over time in a
relationship where there is an imbalance of power or strength. Bullying can take
many forms, including physical violence, verbal abuse, social manipulation and
attacks on property. Physical violence is not usually a component of a coaching
relationship. If your coach is physically violent with an athlete, call the
Verbal and emotional abuse is much more common in athletics. It can lead to
severe and long-lasting effects on the athlete's social and emotional
development. In a world where "more is better" in terms of training and "no pain
means no gain," there is a great deal of machismo in coaches. Most coaches coach
the same way that they were coached while playing the sport growing up. This
means that many coaches are still operating as if the training methods used in
the Soviet Union in the 1970s are state of the art. "Ve vill deprive you of food
until you win gold medal." Central to this old school mindset is the idea that
threat, intimidation, fear, guilt, shame, and name-calling are all viable ways
to push athletes to excel.
News flash: None of these is a worthwhile motivator for anyone. These are the
bricks which line the road paved to burnout, rebellion and hatred of a
What Does Verbal and Emotional Abuse Look Like in Athletics?
Usually, this involves a coach telling an athlete or making him or her feel
that he or she is worthless, despised, inadequate, or valued only as a result of
his or her athletic performance. Such messages are not conveyed merely with the
spoken word. They are conveyed by tone of voice, body language, facial
expression and withdrawal of physical or emotional support.
This is a large part of why bullying in athletics is so hard to quantify: A
clear definition of bullying is somewhat elusive. Even if we can define it, as
above, it's highly difficult to measure.
Bullying is partly defined by the athlete's subjective experience. In other
words, if the athlete feels shamed, frightened, or anxious around the coach due
to his or her constant shouting, name-calling or threatening, then the label "emotional abuse" is warranted.
How Widespread Is Bullying by Athletic Coaches?
There are no hard and fast figures on coaches who bully. In school, we know
that 90 percent of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of some form of
bullying at some point in their past. In a 2005 UCLA study, Jaana Juvonen found
that nearly 50 percent of 6th graders reported being the victim of bullying in
the preceding five-day period.
In general, boys are more physically aggressive (physical bullying), whereas
girls rely more on social exclusion, teasing, and cliques (verbal or emotional
In 2006, Stuart Twemlow, MD gave an anonymous survey to 116 teachers at seven
elementary schools, and found that 45 percent of teachers admitted to having
bullied a student in the past. In the study, teacher bullying was defined as
"using power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be
a reasonable disciplinary procedure."
Psychological research has debunked several myths associated with bullying,
including one that states bullies usually are the most unpopular students in
school. A 2000 study by psychologist Philip Rodkin, Ph.D and colleagues
involving fourth- through sixth-grade boys found that highly aggressive boys may
be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary
classrooms, as seen by their peers and teachers.
Another myth is that bullies are anxious and self-doubting individuals who
bully to compensate for their low self-esteem. However, there is no support for
such a view. Most bullies have average or better than average self-esteem. Many
bullies are relatively popular and have "henchmen" who help with their bullying
And so it is with the swim team that supports the coach's bullying. Bullying
does not take place in a vacuum. There has to be an environment around bullying
behavior which allows it and enables it to survive.
We know that bullying is rampant among children as well as adults. We know
that 45 percent of teachers admit to having bullied a student in the past. On
average, teachers have more training (1 to 2 years postgraduate) in areas such
as child development and educational and motivational theories than the average
youth athletic coach. So it appears safe to assume that teachers are less likely
than the average coach to engage in bullying. Assuming that's the case, it seems
safe to assume that roughly 45 to 50 percent of coaches have bullied an athlete
in their past.
According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health
Promotion, there are approximately 2.5 million adults in the United States each
year who volunteer their time to coach. Using our tentative number of 50 percent
would mean that there are roughly 1.25 million adult coaches who have bullied a
child athlete in the past. And this number does not even take into account
coaches who are paid for their services and who may be more likely to bully due
to the pressures and expectations placed upon them.
Should Pitchers Ice After Throwing to Prevent Shoulder Injuries?
Editors Note: Fastsports.com
and the editor of the the site make no claims on health related topics and feel
it is best if parents of athletes consult with their family doctor or orthopedic
doctor for the proper care of injuries, whether acute or chronic. This
article is added for your information and a topic that you may want to discuss
with your physicians.
In a sport as rooted in tradition as baseball, some habits go back so far that nobody stops to think about whether they're actually useful. Phrases like "roll the wrists at contact" while hitting, or the idea that baseball players should not lift weights, are total nonsense but still get thrown around on a regular basis.
So what about one of baseball's most sacred traditions--using ice after throwing? At almost every game, from Little League to the Major Leagues, you'll see a pitcher in the dugout, wrapped up like a mummy with an Antarctica-sized chunk of ice on his shoulder after he's done throwing.
Countless pitchers have been icing their arms and shoulders for ages. But does it actually work? Or is it just a myth like Babe Ruth calling his home run shot?
An understanding of how the body works--plus a glance at the scientific research--should put this myth to bed for good.
What Happens When Pitchers Ice
When you throw, you damage the muscles involved, all the way from the forearm to the lower body. Muscle damage results in soreness, often brought on by chemical byproducts that build up during intense muscle contractions. Soreness is uncomfortable, and naturally, pitchers want to do something about it. So they ice.
Ice feels good (kind of). It numbs the sore area, shutting off communication between the muscle and the nerves. This is great for temporarily reducing pain, but not so great for the healing process.
When you ice, blood quickly rushes to the cold area to raise the temperature on the surface of the skin. Blood is good--we want blood to go to the injured area because blood brings healing nutrients. But there's a problem. Leave the ice on the area and you close up the blood vessels, trapping blood and waste products at the injured site. You may numb the area and reduce pain, but that doesn't mean you're healing the injured tissue.
People use ice, hoping to reduce inflammation, but in reality, icing only delays the inflammatory response. As soon as you take the ice away, blood rushes back to the area and inflammation ramps up again.
The Truth About Inflammation
Isn't inflammation bad? Don't we want to get rid of it as fast as possible?
Hold on. Inflammation is part of the natural healing process and a normal function of our immune system. We can't repair our muscles and tissues without it. Open any biology textbook and you'll read that inflammation is actually good because it protects the injured area, bringing antibodies, white blood cells and other substances to the site to speed up healing and kill invading particles.
Swelling isn't the problem. The problem is lingering waste products as a result of injury. These waste products need to be washed away by driving fluid into the area and flushing waste away using the lymphatic system, a part of the circulatory system that sucks up waste and debris for removal. The lymphatic system carries lymph, a clear fluid derived from the plasma in the blood. Junk from the injured site gets sucked into the lymph and carried away for removal. The system works via the muscle pump mechanism, which literally means muscles squeeze the lymphatic vessels to move the fluid inside them, much like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Icing literally freezes the lymphatic system in its tracks, preventing it from kick-starting the healing process.
A 2013 study found 15 minutes of icing immediately after intense exercise and three, 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise not only didn't speed recovery--it made it worse.
Icing, Recovery and Performance
Many studies have tried to determine whether and how icing impacts performance and recovery. Bad news for ice--the results don't look good.
A 2013 study found 15 minutes of icing immediately after intense exercise and three, 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise not only didn't speed recovery--it made it worse. This study looked at eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage, the same kind of damage that occurs to the muscles while pitching.
Icing is usually applied after a pitcher is finished throwing, but some athletes use cold therapy between bouts of exercise to increase performance. The research is split on this one, with some studies showing that cold therapy helps and others showing it hurts performance.
A study at the University of Alabama looked at the use of cold therapy on pitchers' elbows and shoulders between innings of a simulated game and how it affected pitching velocity. Interestingly, researchers found cold therapy actually increased pitching velocity, but only by about 1.3 miles per hour. It's a small difference, and only eight pitchers were studied, so there's no reason to start icing between innings to bump up your fastball.
What to Do Instead?
The point isn't that ice is totally bad or that you should never ice after throwing. But icing may not be the miracle cure it was once thought to be. There are other ways to speed up recovery without disrupting the natural healing process.
Light activity/exercise. The lymphatic system is triggered by muscular movement. Light exercise such as mobility work, dynamic stretching, weight lifting or foam rolling can improve healing and reduce soreness.
Proper nutrition. You can manage chronic inflammation with a proper diet. Foods like olive oil, fruits, vegetables and fish have been shown to reduce inflammation, while processed foods high in sugar and trans fat make inflammation worse. Cleaning up your diet may help you recover faster after throwing, without the need for ice.
Sleep. Not surprisingly, getting plenty of sleep will help recovery. Cortisol, a hormone that regulates inflammation and can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system, is lowest during deep sleep. Growth hormone production also spikes during sleep, which increases protein synthesis and speeds healing.
The Stone Cold Truth
It's hard to argue with the science. Icing just isn't the magic healer we once thought it was. That doesn't mean you should ditch it completely. If a doctor or athletic trainer recommends ice to treat an injury, listen to that advice. But, don't be afraid to ask "Why?" They should understand the science behind icing and be able to explain why icing is the right choice for your situation.
None of us have Wolverine healing powers. We have to do everything we can to recover from games and workouts so we can play and perform at our best. When choosing a recovery method, think twice before you ice.
Adam, K., and I. Oswald. "Sleep Helps Healing." British Medical Journal, 289.6456 (1984): 1400-401.
Basu, A., S. Devaraj, and I. Jialal. "Dietary Factors That Promote or Retard Inflammation." Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 26.5 (2006): 995-1001.
Bishop, Stacy, Robert Herron, Gregory Ryan, Charles Katica, and Phillip Bishop. "The Effect Of Intermittent Arm And Shoulder Cooling On Baseball Pitching Velocity." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, E Pub Ahead of Print (2014).
Crowe, M., D. O'Connor, and D. Rudd. "Cold Water Recovery Reduces Anaerobic Performance." International Journal of Sports Medicine, 28.12 (2007): 994-98.
Kwon, Young S., Robert A. Robergs, and Suzanne M. Schneider. "Effect of Local Cooling on Short-Term, Intense Exercise." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27.7 (2013): 2046-054.
Tseng, Ching-Yu, Jo-Ping Lee, Yung-Shen Tsai, Shin-Da Lee, Chung-Lan Kao, Te-Chih Liu, Cheng- Hsiu Lai, M. Brennan Harris, and Chia-Hua Kuo. "Topical Cooling (Icing) Delays Recovery From Eccentric Exercise--Induced Muscle Damage." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27.5 (2013): 1354-361.
Teen volleyball player takes her dispute to another kind of court
When Audrey Dimitrew won a spot on a club volleyball team in Chantilly, Va., the 16-year-old hoped to impress varsity coaches and possibly college coaches.
But when her coach benched her and the league told her she couldn't join another team, the action shifted from one court to another -- she and her family sued.
Audrey said she could miss a pivotal season this spring and thinks that a large, controlling league has lost sight of its primary mission: encouraging kids to play sports. The league has said that Audrey is disgruntled with her playing time and that transferring her to another team would create a flood of similar requests.
"It would be really heartbreaking not to play," Audrey said. "I would be losing a big part of my life."
The lawsuit is one of a number filed across the country in recent years as families have increasingly turned to the courts to intervene in youth sports disputes. Parents upset that their children have been cut, benched, yelled at by coaches or even fouled too hard are asking judges to referee.
Some experts see such lawsuits as part of a shift in youth sports in recent decades away from sandlot play and intramural teams to professionalized leagues and tryout teams partly aimed at snagging scholarships for players and giving them a leg up in college admissions.
Although most kids join just for fun, or to hang out with groups of friends, for some families the competition takes on a more serious focus. Parents are spending thousands and giving up countless weekends for kids to participate on travel teams and prestigious high school programs. Experts say parents want a return on that investment -- and a handful are willing to sue if they don't get it.
"Youth sports is not just about orange slices and kids running free," said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Project Play and author of a book on the topic. "It's about aggregating talent in as elite a setting as possible so that your kid can receive a reward at 17 or 18."
Audrey said she's not sure whether she will play in college, but the Dimitrews think the spring season of 10th grade is a crucial one for getting exposure to coaches who can elevate her game.
Like many suburban families, the Dimitrews' weeks often revolve around practices and games. Audrey played on the junior varsity team at Purcellville's Woodgrove High School and traveled regionally for club play. Then, there's sand volleyball and the youth team she coaches.
The family juggles this and more while running a company that builds custom high-end homes. Susan Dimitrew estimates the family will spend $6,000 on her daughter's volleyball this year.
They are hardly alone. Club teams require substantial investment for coaches, gear and more. Project Play estimates the average travel team parent is spending about $2,300 a year, while those of the most elite players lay out $20,000 a year or more.
Audrey said the lawsuit is not about money or future prospects for her. Amid AP classes and drama productions, volleyball has been a refuge since she followed her older sister onto the court in sixth grade.
She can't understand why her league, the Chesapeake Region Volleyball Association (CHRVA), won't let her join another team. The league is one of the largest in the region with more than 8,600 girls on teams.
The dispute began after Audrey and about 75 other girls competed for spots on the under-16 Chantilly Juniors in November. The coach told Audrey she was the best setter at the tryout and would get playing time, according to court documents.
Audrey got an offer to join Chantilly that night and three more from other teams she tried out for. She selected the Juniors and signed a contract with the team -- something common among youth travel teams today.
George Doumar, an attorney for the Chantilly Juniors, who were also named in the suit, said that "we wish Audrey well" and added the dispute "is really between [the Dimitrews] and the. . . association."
Farrey said competitive club and travel teams have been growing. They began with hockey in the 1980s and then spread to soccer and other sports in the '90s and beyond.
The increase comes in part from parents hoping to groom their kids for sports scholarships, which have mushroomed from nearly $600 million a year in the early '90s to more than $2 billion today.
Sent to the bench
Audrey's season began with promise. She said she was getting practice and scrimmage play but was benched for the first two tournaments in mid-January.
The coach told Audrey she was not ready to be a setter on the team and would not play much for the rest of the season, even though she had "college level" skills, according to court documents. The family was disappointed, perplexed and felt they had not been given what they were promised after a significant investment.
"She is devastated," Susan Dimitrew wrote to the coach about Audrey. "It is important that she plays, and plays the position you offered her of setter as that is the position she plays in high school."
The coach gave Audrey two options: She could be a practice player for the Juniors or transfer to another team in the league. She chose the latter option, and her parents found a team willing to take her.
But the league, which must approve such moves, said it would set a bad precedent. According to league bylaws, players can switch teams only if they demonstrate a "verifiable hardship," a rule that was not spelled out in the contract Audrey signed.
The Dimitrews argue that Audrey's case applies, but league officials disagree.
"Should CHRVA allow players the ability to move teams when they are unhappy with the amount of playtime they are receiving, we would be overwhelmed with requests to change teams," a CHRVA official wrote to the Dimitrews.
After appeals failed, the Dimitrews filed suit in mid-March. More and more parents are doing the same.
In 2013, a father in the suburbs of Philadelphia sued his son's high school track coach for $40 million after the teen was cut. The man claimed his son's chances of getting a college scholarship were badly damaged.
Last year, a Dallas-area father filed a racketeering lawsuit against an elite lacrosse camp, accusing officials of intimidating players into attending. He cited as evidence the fact that his son wasn't made an official member of the varsity team by a coach who also worked at the camp.
Farrey, the executive director of the Project Play, said this moment in youth sports has been building for years as a competitive strain of youth sports has grown in some communities, particularly affluent suburbs like those in the D.C. area.
The competition has pushed kids to specialize in sports younger and parents to look for early advantages. There is now an under-8 national championship in basketball. A Colorado company markets a $169 test that will determine a child's genetic predisposition to strength or endurance sports. Another makes athletic training videos for 6-month-olds.
Experts say the collision of big aspirations and big money is fertile ground for lawsuits.
"I refer to it as the global warming of youth sports," said Mark Hyman, a George Washington University professor of sports management.
Some parents are blowing the whistle. A 2014 ESPN Project Play poll found roughly 70 percent of parents surveyed thought youth sports were too expensive and time-consuming and placed too much emphasis on winning over having fun.
A legal back-and-forth
On a recent morning, Audrey and her attorney sat in a wood-paneled courtroom in Fairfax County across from lawyers for CHRVA and the Chantilly Juniors. With the season quickly slipping away, the family asked for a temporary injunction so Audrey could play the rest of the season with a new team.
The attorneys spent nearly three hours debating the league's bylaws and how much Audrey would suffer by missing games.
"This young lady has nowhere to play," argued her attorney, Robert Cunningham.
CHRVA's attorney said the suit might sink the entire league.
"They are seriously contemplating disbanding the club because of the expense of being sued," said attorney Kenneth G. Stallard.
Fairfax County Judge John Tran was sympathetic to Audrey's predicament, saying he was "unhappy. . . that a child is not given an opportunity to play."
But he said the law did not allow him to intervene in the decision-making process of a private organization. He declined to issue a temporary injunction.
The ruling effectively meant Audrey wouldn't play this season, but Susan Dimitrew said the fight will continue.
"I never imagined in my wildest dreams there would be a lawsuit over this," she said. "But I think it's the right thing to do. I don't think my child is the only one that has experienced something like this. They don't think they have to answer to anyone."
Arrested softball association leader has criminal past
An ex-president of the Wylie Fastpitch Softball Association who was arrested for stealing last week has a criminal past
-- a criminal history that didn't stop her, even after a background check, from leading the organization.
Kandace Raymond, 50, was taken into custody after Abilene police say she stole at least $45,000 from that league.
League officials have said the latest alleged crime involving Raymond has put the league's future in jeopardy.
KTXS looked into Raymond's background and found at least four other crimes, such as forgery and credit card fraud. In addition to serving as league president, Raymond also served as a coach at a time when coaches with the Amateur Softball Association are required to pass background checks.
Now, some parents and league board members want to know how she was able to fly under the radar.
"You know we want nothing but the safety for the girls at the fields," said Tim Farrar, board member of the Wylie Fastpitch Softball Association.
KTXS took a look at Raymond's criminal past and found a felony credit card fraud charge from 1999 in Virginia, a felony forgery charge filed in 2000, a felony falsifying business charge out of New York, and back in 1987, a guilty plea to theft by deception in New Jersey.
Wylie Fastpitch Softball Association board members want the public to know they are "not" in charge of doing background checks on coaches. That, instead, is the responsibility of the Amateur Softball Association.
"I don't make the decision as to whether they coach or not," said Donnie Hart, commissioner for the ASA's District 11.
Hart is charged with ensuring background checks are done, but he says "national" headquarters decides who gets one of these badges that gets them onto the fields.
According to Hart, Raymond's criminal past got her red flagged, but the ASA decided to let her coach, anyway. Hart said only crimes like sex crimes and drug use get a potential coach automatically banned. The ASA looks and determines if it is going to be a threat for the individual to coach a group of girls in 2015 versus what they did 20 or 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, the ASA and Wylie board assure there's no bad blood between the two organizations. That said, board members say they're looking into doing their own background checks to make sure both their kids "and" their money are protected.
"We're really just looking at internally doing our own investigating and our own background checks," Farrar said.
Chris Adams, president of the Wylie Fastpitch Softball Association, says the league is in a dire financial situation after losing the $45,000.
Editors Note: ASA did a background check on an
individual and it was reported they had a history of financial criminal
activity. But that did not prevent them from coaching. The
association, placed trust in the individual based on that background check to
run the association's finances -- and lost $45,000 in the process, because ASA
didn't believe financial crimes impacted a person's ability to coach.
Should the background checks on individuals in your program be done by your
program? The league? Or the sanctioning body in which they play
(some teams may play in many sanctioned programs, e.g. ASA, USSSSA, PFG, PONY,
etc). Is it important to know that the coaches on other teams also had a
background check completed?
The Real Bullies at School
Teachers are vilified for being too hard on students, so
why aren't coaches held to the same standard?
Playing basketball had been a singular source of joy for her. She had taken it up in first grade, honed her talent in year-round competitive leagues, and earned a spot on the varsity team as a high-school freshman. Now a sophomore at a private California high school, the girl
-- whom I'll call Erin -- began to dread practice. She felt stupid and insecure. According to Erin, the head coach regularly scolded the team for lacking commitment, punished them with sprint drills for losses and mistakes, and yanked them out of games if they missed a lay-up or turned the ball over.
"She liked to yell a lot," Erin said, though she found the coach's failure to instruct almost as demoralizing.
"She'd not explain a drill, I'd mess up, and then we'd have to run for my
mistake ... If I asked for directions, she'd say, 'You should have been paying
It got so bad that Erin sometimes had panic attacks during practice.
"She kept yelling at me, 'Your shot is terrible! You need to get it off
faster!'" Erin recalled. "She's like a ticking time bomb, and you don't know
when she's gonna go off ... I started to hate the sport."
Erin's mother said she was so alarmed by her daughter's declining spirits that she brought her concerns to the school's athletic director. When the director reasoned that it's common for parents to be upset when their kids don't get playing time, she went to the head of school. To her surprise, the school head had never heard any misgivings about the coach.
"I've seen parents try to get a preschool teacher fired for serving the wrong apple juice," Erin's mother told me.
"But if their child has the worst soccer coach on the planet, they say nothing.
Why is this true in the athletic arena, and nowhere else?"
Parents aren't surprised when coaches belittle and holler. Anyone who's ever played or watched a competitive sport is familiar with the trope of the cruel coach: the sullen football coach who makes his underperforming team run sprints until the first person vomits; the red-faced baseball coach who screams at 10-year-olds to shut up and listen when they start monkeying around in the dugout; the freshman lacrosse coach, barely out of college himself, who explodes at the team when they blow a simple play.
"You have a cruel coach with high expectations who brings out the best in his
players, and at the end they're grateful ... Parents have seen too many movies."
"I don't think there's any arena where you're not going to find this," said John P. Sullivan, a clinical sports psychologist who works with the NFL and consults with collegiate teams. But rather than intervene and demand civility from the adult in charge, parents, school officials, and bystanders often remain mute. Indeed, few seem to even notice.
Because such coaching behavior is hard to quantify, solid data on the extent of the problem is lacking, according to John Engh of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. In a reliable study conducted in 2005, 36 percent of coaches working with fifth through eighth graders admitted to yelling angrily at players for making mistakes.
"This style isn't eroding," Engh said.
What makes the persistence of these coaching methods perplexing is America's cultural intolerance for threatening or demeaning language in other public spheres, especially schools. College professors are expected to warn their students before discussing potentially upsetting subjects to avoid triggering trauma. Schools are keen to prevent bullying: Every state but Montana has passed anti-bullying laws or policies that prohibit peer-on-peer abuses of power, making school districts responsible for weeding out bullies and protecting the abused. Certain types of language are off-limits even among fans and players at sporting events. In 2013, New Jersey became the first state to impose no-nonsense sportsmanship rules that prohibit biased and malicious language at all public high-school sporting events; players, fans, and coaches who trash talk or offend their opponents can be punished. Ridiculing your own team, apparently, remains permissible.
So what makes coaches impervious to cultural pressure against demeaning language and harsh methods?
"It's a cultural meme almost," Laurence Steinberg told me. Steinberg is a psychology professor at Temple University and the author of the recently published Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, which explains what recent findings about the brain say about adolescent behavior.
"You have a cruel coach with high expectations who brings out the best in his
players, and at the end they're grateful ... Parents have seen too many movies."
Is it harmless? "They're children; it can't be good for them," Steinberg said. "Because of the way we've raised the stakes with athletics, kids are already very anxious and have terrible performance anxiety before games." Critical, highly emotional language directed at children, on top of the pressure-cooker atmosphere, is doubly powerful, he says, because during adolescence the brain is particularly sensitive to emotional arousal.
"When an adult is delivering a message to an adolescent, if it's in an emotional way, the kids will pay more attention to the way the message is delivered than to what is in the message," he said. And as any parent knows, adolescents are acutely attuned to the sensibilities and opinions of their peers, making a humiliating remark delivered by an adult in front of the team all the more agonizing.
"Not only do they suffer from the loss, but they're also screamed at in front of other people, which is worse," Steinberg said.
Sports psychologists, meanwhile, have long known that yelling at athletes does not improve performance. In a 2013 report that summarized the research on coaching styles, a team of academics affiliated with the American Psychological Association concluded that supportive coaching delivers better results:
"Coaches who provide high levels of encouragement, support, and autonomy are
more likely to foster positive psychological responses in their athletes and
ultimately lead to higher levels of performance."
Yet there's little public appetite to address the problem. Young athletes are typically ill-equipped to confront an intimidating authority. And particularly for boys, who often use sports to signal their physical and mental toughness, complaining about a coach's abusive tactics can smack of weakness.
"Guys are supposed to be macho and tough and suck it up," said Nancy Swigonski, a pediatrician at the Children's Health Services Research Institute in Indiana.
Other athletes consider the screaming coach just one in a long list of miseries they have to endure for the sake of their sport, says Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer who started Safe4Athletes to combat coaching abuses. And when you're talented and bursting with ambition, it's hard to challenge a coach's orders.
"Your personal dream traps you," she said.
"She's like a ticking time bomb, and you don't know when she's gonna go off
started to hate the sport."
Some parents will challenge a coach for using severe or demeaning language. But most parents are conflict averse and too worried about retaliation to speak up, Kody Moffatt, the who directs the pediatric sports medicine department at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, told me.
"They're afraid to make the person who has the most control over playing time angry at them," he said.
"They're worried that they could make the situation worse." And the problem gets harder to confront as the sport gets more competitive. On club teams, for example, coaches may control all aspects of play and avoid even the limited oversight that exists in schools.
"Because so much power is given to the coach -- a college scholarship might be on the line!
-- there's a lot of incentive for parents to look the other way," she said.
"There's a wall of denial."
Tim Lear, a longtime coach and college counselor, surmised that some parents keep quiet out of a subconscious desire to expose their children to a little tough love. Today's parents are more involved and invested in their kids' lives than ever, and they find it harder to provide structure, discipline, and criticism.
"They kind of rely on outside people to be the taskmasters," he said. Maybe the tough coach will inject a little adversity into their lives; some un-sanctioned (but ignored) pokes from an adult authority might shrink the effects of all that parental coddling and give the kids some grit.
"I understand this as a parent, because it's almost always more fun to play the good cop," he said.
Of course, not everyone has kept silent. Starr was sexually abused by her swim coach and started Safe4Athletes four years ago to protect vulnerable young athletes from all kinds of misconduct, including the verbal variety. The organization provides club teams with management and policy guidelines that are designed to protect athletes, and works to persuade governing bodies in sports to adopt legislation that mandates such safeguards. On the list of prohibited behaviors by coaches included in its handbook are three that bedeviled Erin:
"Verbal or cruel harassment, including yelling and screaming; Mentally abusive or demeaning behavior; and Creation of excessive fatigue unrelated to normal training expectations and activities." These efforts serve to expose coaching behavior that is ordinarily ignored, and to empower athletes to challenge abusive methods.
"Until we collectively stand up and say we've had enough, it's not going to change," Starr said.
To protect younger kids, The National Alliance for Youth Sports aims to educate volunteers who often coach children in sports associations. Today, kids play on teams and clubs outside school more than they ever used to, according to Engh, and in these clubs most coaches
-- often parents of the best players -- have had no instruction on how to behave. The central mission of their training, he says, is to help coaches navigate the emotionally charged situations they'll encounter in competitions, so they know not to pick a fight with an umpire, say, or screech at Annie for letting a ball go through her legs.
"The buzzwords in youth sports are background checks for coaches, and concussion awareness," Engh said.
"How about basic training?"
Pediatricians also are waking up to the damage a bullying coach can cause. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a statement about the problem and discussed it at national meetings. Swigonski, who has written about the impact of bullying coaches on kids, says that the most frequent question she gets from parents about sports is whether or not a child should be allowed to quit. These unhappy children complain of not getting playing time and feeling inferior to others on the team, but
"the parents don't consider the behavior of the coach as a reason why they don't like it," Swigonski said, suggesting that schools set standards for coaches and monitor their behavior at practice. Over the long term, she believes kids would be better off if schools adopted athletic policies that promoted lifelong fitness over winning championships. When collecting victories becomes the main purpose of youth sports, the real value of playing
-- for health, discipline, and fun -- is often sacrificed, especially when a frenzied coach forgets that her players are just kids.
And others think that unsavory behavior would decline if coaches were trained properly and treated like educators, not part-time technicians. As it is, most high-school coaches have limited professional training and earn scant respect, and coaches of younger kids are often volunteers.
"They're ignored and told to do whatever they want," Sullivan said. Meanwhile, some coaches lack emotional control and get swept up in the drama of a tight game, according to Steinberg. Others belittle and scream as a last resort, he said, just as harried parents do when they have run out of tools to engender compliance. If more schools provided professional training and institutional support, Sullivan added, coaches who fall back on these methods would learn better ways to inspire their players. But without outside pressure, institutions that hire coaches to bring home wins are reluctant to take action. The cost of re-educating the offenders is high, he said, and school budgets already are tight.
After Erin's mother came forward, news of her complaint reached the coach. "I don't think she said my name once during the second half of the season," Erin recalls. But her high-school season recently ended, and she has club basketball to look forward to. Her coaches on that team encourage the players, set high standards, and help them understand and correct their mistakes.
"They make you want to go to practice," Erin said. "We're like a big family on
that team ... That was not the feeling on the high school team."
Don't get me wrong, because I'm not trying to be a know-it-all
-- trust me.
Since retiring, I've had the opportunity to get around and an enjoy youth sports and the volunteers who make them possible. I believe strongly in the value of youth sports because of the excitement and anticipation of the young players each time they step onto the hardwood, field, ice, track, mat or pool deck.
We are talking about St. Croix Valley Athletic Association youth sports in general, and the girls' basketball program in particular.
According to former NBA player and youth basketball expert Bob Bigelow, the rule of thumb regarding youth sports is this:
"Always adapt the game to the kids, never adapt the kids to the game."
Having my interest piqued in youth basketball over the years during discussions with parents who I knew through football
-- and now that I have more time on my hands than Denny Hecker -- I decided to consult one of my favorite former phy-ed students.
Sarah (Howard) Thompson, who by the way was also an all-state basketball player and Jim McLaughlin Award winner before she became an All-American basketball star at St. Cloud State University, is currently coaching a 5th-6th grade VAA girls' hoops team and she invited me to come and watch them play in their season-ending tournament.
One of the things I was surprised to see was that the basket height was 10 feet. Back in the old days, we used to lower our baskets at the old Stillwater High School (now SJHS) to eight feet every Friday after school for the VAA basketball games the next morning.
In watching these current games, it looked like some of these girls were trying to heave a 10-pound medicine ball up to the basket, which looked like it was preparing them for a construction job.
Another thing that I noticed is that they were using regulation-sized balls, which is the same size used in the high school and college game. One reason I noticed this is because these girls seemed relatively small
-- there were no potential Terri Hills, Carolyn (Frisk) Caprigliones or Marlene Junkers out there. The ball seemed too big for them.
In addition, more than 50 percent of the free throws shot were complete air balls
-- in other words, no wood, no metal, no glass and no score. Would it be presumptuous to move the free throw line in a few feet closer to give these kids a chance of at least hitting the rim?
I understand that we have fewer teams in the VAA this year, which necessitated us combining programs with the Woodbury program (WAA). What if we moved to smaller-sided games, like 3-on-3, which would mean we could have more teams with fewer players and maintain our own program? Plus, 3-on-3 might be better suited for these younger kids anyway.
Kids get to touch the ball more, which lends to better skill development. It creates more open space, fewer turnovers and less clutter. There seems to be more opportunity for the kids to have success
-- such as making a shot or successful pass, dribbling without turning the ball over, etc.
-- with a smaller number of players on the court.
I ran these ideas past my buddy, Sarah, and she responded: "I agree completely with what you're proposing. Having lower baskets, smaller balls, a closer free throw line and fewer players on the floor will result in kids having more success at this level, which equates to more fun and keeps them coming back next year.
"We need to get away from the hurry to get these elementary-aged kids playing the adult-sized game. I like the way Bigelow puts it,
'don't confuse where these young kids might play in the future with what is best
for their play and enjoyment of the present.'
"Would anyone demand a fifth-grader study trigonometry or calculus before they master basic math? So why do we rush these young kids into the adult game before they have the physical ability or skills to play it successfully?
"Adapt the game to the kids, not the other way around."
In conclusion, take my advice because I'm not using it.
Sarah and I also agree on one other point: we have a five-star girls' varsity coach in Willie Taylor.