Have your kids ever had a coach who insulted, intimidated or yelled at them? Bullying is a growing epidemic in sports. As sports parents, it's critical for you to be prepared to protect your young athletes. And if you think this issue won't ever come up in your kids' sports teams, think again. Bully coaches are the number one topic parents write us about at Kids Sports Psychology.
Bully coaches target all kinds of young athletes. They can set their sights on kids who are overweight, small or who lack confidence, for instance. Some also target gifted athletes because they believe their approach will "toughen them up."
Keep in mind that most volunteer coaches are not trained, and many coaches use teaching techniques that their coaches used with them. Some don't understand they're acting like bullies, and they will change their behavior if you approach them in an appropriate manner. We've received letters of confession from coaches who say that once they understood how much their words and actions hurt their athletes, they changed their style.
Whether a coach's bullying is intentional or unintentional, your job as sports parents is the same. It's important for you to be on the lookout for bully coaches and to take immediate action if you suspect your young athletes are being bullied. If they are teased, excluded or otherwise treated badly by coaches, you need to take steps to help keep their confidence in tact, stay focused under adversity and keep playing the sports they love.
What We Hear from Parents
Many sports parents who have written to us about bullying say their young athletes are teased, harassed, intimidated and threatened by bully coaches. Here's what some sports parents have shared with us:
"My daughter was bullied relentlessly on her high school gymnastics team by her coach. She was screamed at in front of her entire team after every meet, called names and criticized for everything, including how she talked, how she looked and what she wore." -- Anonymous Sports Parent
"Our teenage son's football experience has soured because of coaches who do not want their players to have any fun. During one practice, his coach told him to get in line for a drill and he explained that his shoulder and arm hurt too much. The coach told him to quit whining over aches and get in line. When my son refused, from that day on, their relationship has been bad. Eventually, we took our son to a doctor and he missed the rest of the season." -- Anonymous Sports Parent.
How Bullying Coaches Affect Your Child's Experience
Youth coaches are critical to kids' sports experiences. They can influence whether or not young athletes enjoy sports and want to continue to play. Some coaches get kids fired up and motivated, while others may discourage kids or take the fun out of sports altogether.
Bullied kids can think there is something wrong with them. This deflates them and leads to a lack of comfort and security in sports. Often, young athletes' first reaction to being treated this way is to feel shame. They feel as if they somehow caused the coaches to treat them badly, and they don't want to talk about their experience.
What's more, bullying can hurt an athlete's confidence–in and out of sports. Sometimes kids say they can't get a bully's negative words out of their heads. This leads to difficulty focusing on what they should focus on. They sometimes obsess about what a coach might say or do if they make a mistake. The kids are fearful, and preoccupied with gaining approval from the coach (or not disappointing them). Often, they are afraid of how the coach will react if they make a bad move or decision.
Behaviors of Bully Coaches
Bully coaches often tease, humiliate and intimidate kids. Parents should never underestimate the impact of this type of behavior.
As sports parents it's your job to ensure your athletes are in good hands. Bully coaches do not toughen up your young athletes, as they might insist, and they don't improve kids' performance, either. Coaches who bully--either with harsh words or physical harm–can hurt young athletes' self-esteem, undermine their social skills and make it hard for them to trust. In some cases, these coaches can make kids feel anxious and depressed.
What's more, coaches who use such negative feedback are generally focused too much on winning or turning out elite athletes. They give kids the message that winning is everything, and when kids focus too much on outcomes, it can prevent them from reaping the social and emotional benefits of taking part in sports.
Focusing too much on the score or on winning also can hurt kids' performance. They often develop fear of failure. They stop taking risks and they play too tentatively because they're afraid of the coach's reaction.
Before you sign your kids up for a team, it's entirely appropriate and reasonable to interview the coach. You should ask potential coaches about their philosophy and how they handle playing time.
If your young athletes are already part of a team, but don't seem happy with the coach, you need to do some research. Gently ask your kids questions about how the coaches treat the team and watch carefully for how they react. You might also ask other parents what they've seen or heard. Attend games and practices and keep a lookout for signs of yelling, intimidation or physical bullying.
If you see or hear about a coach who intimidates, insults or yells at kids, you should take action. If you merely sit back and complain, you're part of the problem. Instead, begin by talking to the coach. You can gently suggest that his or her behavior may hurt kids' confidence or self-esteem.
In some cases, you may find that you can't change the coach's behavior. If this happens, you should try talking to a league or school administrator who oversees the coach. If that isn't helpful, consider moving your child to a different coach or team. Staying with the same coach will likely increase their anxiety and hurt their athletic performance and confidence--at a minimum.
The bottom line for you as parents: Be on the lookout for bully coaches and arm yourself with the information you need to take action.