The Real Damage Bullying Coaches Can Inflict on Kids

5 minute read

Any parent whose son or daughter plays competitive sports knows full well what a blessing or curse a coach can be.

Between Little League baseball and now years of basketball for club and school teams, my 16-year-old son, Nathaniel, has had them all: the ones who nurture and teach, as well as those who scream gratuitously and demean. Most of his coaches have fallen somewhere in the middle—neither inspiring nor injurious.

Recently, the worst type of coaches have found themselves in the spotlight, thanks to “Friday Night Tykes,” the new reality-TV show about youth football in Texas. One weeping child is told by his coach: “I don’t care how much pain you’re in! You don’t quit.” Another coach chides a player, “Don’t give me that soft crap,” while smacking him on the head. Two coaches featured on the show, where all of the athletes are 8- or 9-years-old, were suspended last week.

Such conduct by an adult can have serious ramifications for a child. “It can impair social and emotional development and cause substantial harm to mental health,” Nancy Swigonski, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, wrote last month in a piece in the journal Pediatrics. “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.”

Swigonski’s article opens with the scene of a parent walking into basketball practice at her daughter’s high school, only to find “the head coach screaming at the team that they lacked intelligence and were lazy because they had not executed a play properly.”

This kind of behavior is hardly uncommon. Swigonski cited one study of more than 800 American children in which 45% said their coaches called them names, insulted them or verbally abused them during play. In another study from the United Kingdom, 6,000 young adults were asked about their experiences in youth sports, and 75% said they suffered “emotional harm” at least once, and one-third of that group said their coach was to blame.

But what often gets lost in these stories is the flip side of the equation: A “true coach”—to use the term favored by Morgan Wootten, the first high school coach to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—can also make a lifelong difference for a young person, only in a deeply positive way.

This isn’t to say that coaches should be soft or easy. But there’s a clear line between expecting a lot from kids and being abusive. “It’s good to be tough,” Swigonski said. “It’s just not OK to be a bully.”

Nathaniel’s high school hoops coach is both tough and caring. He dishes out advice, freely and often, to a bunch of too-cool-for-school teenagers, not only about defending the screen-and-roll, but also about eating well, mindfulness, leadership and gratitude. He asks them about their grades, knows what makes them tick and talks to them about who they are and what they want from life.

Before the start of the season, the coach gave the boys a three-page handout that included these guiding principles: “No cliques, no complaining, no criticizing, no jealousy, no egotism, no envy, no alibis.” “Poise, confidence and self-control come from being prepared.” “Earn the respect of everyone, especially of yourself.” “Take care of your health—mental, moral and physical. Be a gentleman in all ways at all times.”

After practices that are as physically and mentally demanding as any my son has ever experienced, his coach assigns “basketball homework.” At one point this season, the players were asked to list each day three things they were grateful for. Later, they had to keep a daily log detailing a random act of kindness they’d performed. (For my son, that meant taking out the garbage without quite so much lip. Thanks, coach!)

Nathaniel’s team, in other words, is fortunate enough to be led by someone who sees himself not just as a coach, but as a mentor. And mentoring matters. A wealth of research has found that kids who have such an adult in their lives are far less likely than their peers to become bullies themselves; are apt to become more engaged citizens; and substantially raise their odds of going to college.

“Coach says he’s not just teaching us about basketball,” Nathaniel explains, “but also about how to be men.”

As parents, it’s our job to protect our kids from bullying coaches, and Swigonski offers several tips on that front. Among them: Sit in on practices and games to observe the coach; confront the coach if there are issues; and, if that’s not helpful, scrutinize the school’s code of conduct and talk to the administration. If things get really out of hand, she advises calling child protective services.

It’s easy to understand why the worst coaches steal the headlines. But it’s the best ones who make a truly lasting impression.

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