The abusive coach is so common in youth sport that players often learn to live with yelling and bullying. That’s not a good thing for them or the sports they play.
Last year my son played in a team with a young coach. He had a bit of mentoring from the head coach, but seemed to take the “you need to be firm” too far. As my son was 15, I could put up with the swearing, despite not liking it. And I accepted that the putdowns and tantrums were part of a young coach finding his way. But as the season progressed, it just seemed to get worse.
The final straw came for me when he allowed his friends to watch the team train while having a few drinks. The snide comments were one thing. But the fact that the team had both boys and girls, turned the training session into a lewd show. No matter what age the coach, or how recreational the sport, we should never tolerate abusive coaching.
What does an abusive coach look like?
Everyone can get frustrated with young people at times and lose their temper. That’s not what I’m talking about here. An abusive coach is one that deliberately exerts their power over a child. A coach that focuses on their own needs, rather than those of the young athlete.
There are four main ways that you can spot an abusive coach:
- Bullying. Forcing a child to do something they might not want to do or be ready to do is bullying. I’ve written another article on bullying, but power difference between a child and coach makes this a tricky issue in youth sport.
- Yelling and verbal tirades. Some yelling is a part of sport. Especially when it’s played on an open field. But yelling that puts a child down or belittles them isn’t helpful. You can’t blame a coach for getting annoyed when kids don’t listen to instructions. It becomes abusive if the yelling singles out one child or turns into a character assassination.
- Physical harm. This can be through striking, but also using excessive physical activity to punish kids.
- Inappropriate touching. Some sports involve physical correction. I’m not talking here about touching that children consent to and that fits with what they’re doing in their sport. This is intimate touching that is unnecessary. Regardless of the sport they play, all kids need to understand that their body is a private space.
A coach needs to remember that sport is just one part of a child’s life.
Playing sport should be about developing skills, challenging themselves and learning about the world. A coach’s job is to make this a great experience and give them the skills they need to do their best in all these areas.
If the coach has to yell, bully, push or shove, they’ve forgotten that this is an experience for kids, not their whole life.
7 things parents can do about an abusive coach
Kids who have an abusive coach are fearful of letting them down and worry about making mistakes. If they’re going to practices out of obligation and no longer enjoy the sport, you should be asking why.
Here’s my tips on getting your child out of this situation:
- Don’t tolerate abuse. Coaches should meet the same standards as a teacher. If you wouldn’t tolerate the behaviour of the coach in a classroom, then you need to do something about it. There’s something wrong with our mindset that a coach yelling at our kids will make them a better player.
- Speak up early. Let the coach know if you feel they’re overstepping the boundaries. Use a calm voice and talk away from other parents or athletes. Be open to hearing their point of view.
- Observe the behaviour yourself. If you’re concerned about your child’s relationship with their coach, watch a training session. Where your child attends closed practices, raise your concerns with the manager. Ask for permission to observe or have someone independent come in.
- Follow the right process. All clubs are expected to have processes in place to manage complaints. If you deal with things on the quiet or just slink off, you undermine that process and the safety of all the kids involved. And if your club doesn’t have a process to deal with a coach that’s out of line, I’d start looking for a club that puts the needs of kids first.
- Older kids need to be in charge. The relationship between a coach and young athlete can be an important one. For many young athletes, they spend just as many hours with their coach as they do with their own family. As they move through their teens, kids need to have a say in what they feel is abusive and how they want to deal with it. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a mentor and share your perspective though.
- Help them to see better examples of a coaching relationship. We can all put up with terrible treatment in the belief that there’s nothing better. Let your child see a different approach by visiting another club or joining a holiday camp.
- Look after your child’s mental wellbeing. A coach that belittles, and yells can set up negative thinking patterns in a child. If you notice your child is starting to show signs of depression or isn’t enjoying life as much, seek out some help from a sports psychologist.
When the relationship between a coach and young athlete is respectful, great things happen. There are many lessons our kids have learned from their coaches that weren’t as easy to pick up at home or school. So if you’re child isn’t benefiting from their relationship with their coach, it’s time to do something about it.
What do you think about abusive coaches? What would you suggest parents do? I’d love you to share your thoughts below.