Review of Documentary Film “Training Rules” about abusive coach

I wrote this for University of Iowa’s journal:

Training Rules (2009). Dir. and Prod. Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker. WomanVision. 63 mins.

Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker’s multiple award-winning documentary Training Rules tells the story how Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland ruled the court with homophobia for twenty-seven years. Portland headed up Penn State’s Lady Lions basketball team starting in 1980. She built a highly respected, highly achieving program as seen from the outside. However, Training Rules exposes her rules against lesbians and their impact on those who played for her.

Mosbacher and Yacker hit hard by juxtaposing photographs and fast-paced footage of exceptional athletes on the court, alongside interviews with these same players as older women looking back on the harm they suffered both as athletes and individuals. Former Penn State basketball players who tell their stories include Cindy Davies, Lisa Faloon, Chris and Corinne Gulas, and Courtney Wicks. Portland’s assistant coach in the early 1980’s, Liz McGovern speaks up as does Sue Rankin, a former Penn State softball coach who has fought against homophobia at Penn State for over thirty years.

Training Rules appears to have ushered in greater awareness of coaching abuse. In the six years since the film premiered, there have been many media reports of coaches being fired for abusive conduct. It is now common to see reflective pieces like the 2013 New York Times article, “A Sad History of Abusive Coaches.” Similarly, Alexander Wolff’s 2015 Sports Illustrated feature asks: “Is the era of abusive college coaches finally coming to an end?”

Six years earlier, Training Rules provided disturbing answers to Wolff’s question: college and sport communities tolerate and reward abusive coaches; homophobia is normalized in sport; and coaches are given power over athletes that other educators are not. This sets up the necessary conditions for abuse to flourish and to decimate targeted student-athletes like Jennifer Harris, whom Portland recruited to play at Penn State in 2002.

Although they breached Penn State’s discrimination policies, Portland enforced three training rules: “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” The filmmakers reveal that Portland to put her own prejudices above winning. Nonetheless, she was honored and rewarded by the athletics community and protected by the university. In particular, Joe Paterno stood behind her. After the Jerry Sandusky trial, it is distressing to see Paterno supporting yet another abusive coach.

Training Rules focuses on the 2006 lawsuit Jennifer Harris filed against Penn State University and Rene Portland for discrimination. Under Portland’s abusive regime, Jennifer Harris went from an excellent pre-med student and highly gifted athlete to contemplating suicide. This is not an unusual reaction to coach abuse, as confirmed by the stories of abusive coaches like Kelly Greenberg, Shann Hart and Beckie Harris. But Harris refused to be yet another casualty. Her groundbreaking lawsuit encouraged other victims of Portland’s abuse to come forward and support her in a bitter two year battle in court. Harris cannot speak in the film due to legal issues; however, her parents tell her story and other victims of Portland’s abuse share their experiences. Shining a spotlight on Harris’s unjust suffering and her attempts to fight back make this film a character-driven analysis of a significant social issue.

Men’s sports programs have similar stories of homophobia and failures to protect athletes from it. Perhaps most notably, footage of Rutgers University Coach Mike Rice hurling homophobic slurs at his players surfaced in 2013. Due to the suicide of gay student Tyler Clementi three years earlier, Rutgers refused to sweep away homophobia with the usual platitudes and fired Rice. Putting Rice’s homophobic slurs next to Rene Portland’s anti-gay rule reveals an unsettling truth: college coaches have long been allowed to transfer their prejudices onto their athletes.

It would never be tolerated for professor to insist students enact their ideals of sexuality. It is hard to fathom how this ever has been accepted on a basketball court. And yet, homophobic bullying continues, especially in high school and amateur sports programs where young athletes are often unaware that they are being abused. Coaches often lay down training rules that amount to bullying and discrimination. Beyond the light it sheds on Portland’s Penn State regime, Training Rules provides a useful lesson on coaching abuse and how to combat it.



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Interview for Athlete Minded

PictureDr. Jennifer Fraser

Prep school professor in British Columbia Dr. Jennifer Fraser, author of the book Teaching Bullies, joins us today to discuss the prevalence of bullying in athletics, especially with high school athletes.  Her book Teaching Bullies goes into deep detail about how her son and his teammates were bullied by specific coaches when he was playing high school basketball.

Our conversation was powerful and emotional, and it brought back a lot of memories for me.  We didn’t just blame people, we talked at a high level about the psychology behind bullying, why it happens, and why nothing is done about it.  One of the most powerful moments came when we talked about why nothing is done, and we came to the conclusion that the administrators who know what is going on don’t want to lose their jobs at the school or put their necks out for these kids.  It’s shocking and illuminating, but just the nature of athletics we now live in.

Dr. Fraser also wants there to be laws around emotional abuse, and rules for how coaches can get training, but also how they can lose their jobs if horrible behavior continues.  Overall, an amazing and intense discussion.

To learn more about athletes and bullying, and to check out her book, go to Dr. Jennifer Fraser’s website at To hear the interview:

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Parent Review of Teaching Bullies

This isn’t your average parent. This father has launched a Federal Lawsuit against the football coach who abused his son and so many other student-athletes. This father has unusual courage. He is a former Marine and his son has graduated and is now in the military following his father’s footsteps. They are family that believes in serving before living. They are a family that does not sit back and allow an adult to brutalize children in his power even if it is on a sports field.

New 5 Star Amazon Review of Teaching Bullies:

A book for all parents.

By Josh Chisholm on May 8, 2016

Teaching Bullies is as much a textbook look at the corruption that hides in our school systems and the lagging laws to protect students, as it is a deeply personal insight into a family’s plight. The prose is both technical and painfully emotional.
We all want to believe that we are sending out kids to a safe place in our schools. Sometimes evil hides in the most inconspicuous places. Every parent needs to read this book!

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Review by Up & Coming Writer

Teaching Bullies gets a five star Amazon review from a Writer:

Amazing book about bullying, should be required reading for coaches and teachers

on March 14, 2016

I read this book for research for my novel about bullying, and I loved it. It’s fascinating and has amazing research! I’ve read a LOT of books about bullying, and this one was very different. It has specific information about dealing with sports and classroom bullying from adults, but is also relevant to peer bullying. This book should be required reading for every coach and teacher, in my opinion.

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Coaches Plan Magazine Article

Proud to be alongside former pro-athlete and anti-abuse advocate Sheldon Kennedy in Canada’s National Coaching Magazine.

My article is on holding abusive coaches accountable.

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Rewarding Adults Who Bully

If a coach is successful and wins championships, does it excuse bullying conduct?

The best way to answer this question is to ask it first about kids: if reports come in from multiple sources that a child is bullying and hurting others, should a school principal factor in whether or not the child won a spelling bee or hit a home run? Granted, it might make the principal’s decision more difficult, especially if the child is at a private school that depends on its reputation and achievements to encourage attendees. The principal might feel conflicted and not want to suspend or discipline his star academic or athlete, but most would agree: bullying conduct does not get erased by the child’s successes. Furthermore, it would be difficult for the principal to argue that because the child won the spelling bee or hit the home run, it meant he was not a bully. That kind of logic is faulty.

If this is the way we handle bullying done by children, why do we change the rules when we are dealing with adults? Surely, we hold adults to a higher code of conduct than children. When it comes to bullying, we should hold adults to a much higher code of conduct than children since child bullies do not have control over their target’s physical or psychological health or future like adults do who may be in the powerful position of teacher or coach. We can’t really even compare the severity of child bullying to adult bullying.

Nonetheless, just like the principal might feel conflicted about disciplining the star student, when it comes to adult bullies, the decision may be even more difficult for administrators. Steve Eder in an April 2013 article in the New York Times notes that Rutgers officials knew about basketball coach Mike Rice’s abusive conduct, but did not fire him. Think of the inner turmoil when Rutgers Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, heard a report from a student-athlete who felt bullied by Mike Rice. We can well imagine the thought process. This coach is so talented; he’s pulling in a multi-million dollar salary because he’s so skilled. Worse, the university’s reputation could be tainted if the Athletic Director suspends or fires him. But, the bottom line is: this coach is hurting his players.

A coach has significant control over his or her player’s physical and psychological health and their future. The coach is empowered by the right to say who plays, who gets scholarships, who gets positions. He also has the power to tell an athlete to play even though they are sick or injured. By means of his position, his words and gestures carry far more weight than any of those said by a peer. In a March 2009 article for Sport and Society, professors Ashley Stirling and Gretchen Kerr’ research shows that some athletes imagine the coach’s position, even when abusive, as comparable to a priest or a cult leader. Some athletes even imagine that their abusive coach is omniscient.

Considering how powerful these coaches are, it must take great mental toughness and courage for athletes, especially if they are teenagers, to come forward and report on coach bullying. There was only one upperclassman on Mike Rice’s university team who was able to do it. There are enormous risks to breaking the silence: athletes know that speaking up could cost them position, playing time, scholarships, and a much needed letter of reference if they want to play at the next level. It puts the sport they love, and a future playing it, on the line. There are also major obstacles in the inner psychological world. When an athlete has been exposed to messaging from a bully—from even a child bully let alone a coach—especially for an extended period of time, they come to believe the harmful words. Many of us have heard or read about the demeaning litany of terms coaches who bully use: waste of a player, pussy, soft, embarrassment, pathetic, retard, all reinforced by yelling and swearing. No wonder so few speak up about being bullied.

On teams where abuse occurs, the majority of student-athletes come to believe they deserve to be humiliated and berated. They actually reach a point where they are brainwashed into thinking it’s for their own good. But there are also the few athletes who hit a breaking point and they do speak up. As discussed in an article by Bob Hohler in The Boston Globe in April 2014, for some players, like those on basketball coach Kelly Greenberg’s team, they have to be suicidal before they quit the sport they love and give up their scholarships. Only then do they speak up. That gives us an idea just how hard it is to report coaches who bully.

Basketball coaches Shann Hart, Kelly Greenberg, Doug Wojcik, Mike Rice and others were fired for bullying their student-athletes in the US. Likewise, in British Columbia a legendary rowing coach, Mike Spracklen, did not have his contract renewed by Rowing Canada after adult athletes reported on his bullying conduct. In an August 2012 article by Teddy Katz for CBC Sports, some of the athletes described Spracklen’s culture of favoritism, humiliation and fear. Comparable to high-level coaches like those fired in the US, it must have been a difficult decision for Rowing Canada to not renew Spracklen’s contract because he was so talented and had secured so many Olympic medals with his rowers. He had staunch supporters.

What is surprising is that it has recently been announced that Coach Spracklen is going to be inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. He is being celebrated not only as a winner of multiple Olympic medals with his athletes, but according to staff writers of a June 2015 article in Victoria News, he is also being celebrated as a “true role model.”

No one can argue that any of these coaches whose contracts are not renewed aren’t highly skilled and don’t know the sport inside out, but how do we explain to our children that a coach like Mike Spracklen is being given an award for being a role model? Athletes coached by Spracklen walked away from their Olympic dream rather than be exposed any further to his “verbal abuse” and favoritism (1).  Brian Richardson was Rowing Canada’s head coach at the 1996 Olympics where the team won six medals and he coached alongside Spracklen during the 2004 games in Athens. Richardson praises Spracklen but also offers a caution:

“As a coach he is second to none if you want to win the gold medal … [in the men’s eight] there is probably no one better in the world to do that for you,” Richardson says. But he adds: “You have to be aware there will be a lot of destruction and fallout because of it.” He says Spracklen’s tactics have had the Canadian team close to self-destructing over the years.” (2)

When we induct a coach like this into a Sports Hall of Fame as a “true role model”, we give our children mixed messages. We say to children out one side of our mouths: bullying is not tolerated; it’s extremely harmful, don’t be a bystander. We say out the other side of our mouths: bullying gets results; it makes teams win; it gets you medals and honors. Essentially what we are saying to children is: if you hurt people but win, it’s okay. In fact, people will look the other way. In fact, your winning status may well erase the harm you’ve done.

Again in British Columbia, it is equally interesting to look at the awards and honors given to a high-school teacher and basketball coach, who according to investigative journalist Robert Cribb’s March 2015 article, “Teachers’ bullying scarred us say Student Athletes,” in the Toronto Star had multiple athletes report that he was bullying them (3). The eight students that gave testimonies ranged from first year university to grade 10 and all told the same story of incoherent yelling, conveying disgust and contempt, swearing, personal attacks, humiliating and demeaning conduct. Like the university and Olympic athletes who reported on coach bullying, the teenagers described playing their sport within a culture of fear, humiliation, and favoritism. However, there was one notable difference. When these teenagers reported on the coach’s bullying, the school could not point to his winning status to justify keeping him in position. For over twenty years, the coach had failed to win even a third or fourth tier championship in basketball. In fact, the only time he ever won a top Division Provincial Championship was when he had a player on the team who went on to be a superstar in the NBA. Nonetheless, after students reported on his abusive conduct, the sports community began giving him awards. It almost seemed as if the adults were honoring this coach because he had been exposed as a bully.

How do we explain this to our children?

No player nominated this teacher for a local newspaper’s coaching award. Instead, the assistant coach made the nomination. The Headmaster, who had personally read testimonies and interviewed students about the bullying, did not put a stop to it when someone offered a cash incentive on the school website for people to cast their vote in order to bump up numbers for the coach so that he could get the award. Surprisingly, the contest appears to run on number of votes, as opposed to player testimonies, so that anyone’s vote counts. It wasn’t necessary to have been coached by this high-school teacher. And he won (4).

Although promised confidentiality, the student-athletes who reported on the coach’s bullying, had already been exposed by the Headmaster to the coach himself. Then word appeared to get out so that these student-athletes were bullied and cyber-bullied by peers as if their request to play in a healthy and safe environment was wrong or shameful. When the coach received the award, it was used against the athletes who spoke up to discredit them as if to say: he won this award so he can’t be a bully. Just like with children, this is faulty logic.

On the day this coach was discussed in Robert Cribb’s Toronto Star article as a bully according to multiple student testimonies, the BC Boys Basketball Association gave him another award. On that same night he won, for the first time in over twenty years, a C Division Provincial Championship title (5).  As the award was being handed to him, a reporter asked if the Basketball Association thought calling players obscenities was acceptable, the representative said “no” it was not okay, while at the same time he handed the award to the coach who used obscenities (6).  A sport psychology expert weighed in to say giving an award to this coach “further traumatizes” athletes who spoke up about his bullying (7).  The messaging for child and adult alike is clear: if you refuse to be a bystander, if you speak up about bullying, you will become more of a target. You will be exposed and further humiliated, while the bully will be honored and given awards. You will be further traumatized.

Bullying has reached epidemic proportions and, according to at least forty years of psychological, psychiatric, sport, and neuroscientific research, is directly correlated with addiction, low self-esteem, depression, failure to reach potential, self-harm, athletes quitting sports, eating disorders, chronic illness and suicide. Regardless, at least in some places, bullying appears to be celebrated if the bully is a coach. Bullying is learned behavior; it is taught to children by adult role models and in these cases appears to be sanctioned in our society. We actually reward it.

That is why we should not act as if the recent suicide by sixteen year old, Kennedy LeRoy, who was bullied is shocking (8).  It’s to be expected. In Canada, we know what bullying did to Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, and Ashkan Sultani who all committed suicide and were all widely discussed in national news (9).  We know that bullying harms and that’s why athletes—at Olympic, university, and high-school levels—seek the courage required to speak up and ask for protection. When we give awards to those who bully, it sends out a message that is hypocritical at best and traumatizing at worst.

Kennedy LeRoy stated in his suicide note that words hurt more than physical blows. This teenager that took his life is speaking about words said by children. We can’t even begin to fathom how much words hurt when they are said by adults in powerful positions. We know the soul-destroying impact of bullying and we know that suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescent populations.  If we keep honoring bullies, this may well be the reward we can expect to reap.



1 -Teddy Katz, “No Middle Ground with Mike Spracklen,” CBCSports, August 2012:
2- Teddy Katz, “No Middle Ground with Mike Spracklen,” CBCSports, August 2012:
3- 4-Howard Tsumura, “Coach of the Year: Ian Hyde-Lay,” June 2014: 5 – 6 – 8 – 9 -Rod Mickleburgh, “Before Amanda Todd, the Sultani family suffered silently,” The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2012 and

First Published in Kids in the House

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Psychologist reviews Teaching Bullies

5 stars

A great resource!
By Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on June 7, 2016

An important read on the dangers of bullying at the hands of trusted coaches and teachers, and a powerful call to action to name (and stop) it. For parents and educators alike, this book exposes a prolific culture of bullying under the guise of “old school coaching,” dives into the prevalence and background of a topic we wish didn’t exist, reminds us to pay closer attention to the emotional health of our children, and inspires us to act.

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Second Article in National Alliance for Youth Sports

Is your child’s coach a bully?


By Greg Bach

When video surfaced of then-Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice firing basketballs – and vulgar taunts – at his players during practices three years ago, it reverberated across the sports landscape.

And cost him his job.

But looking back, what lessons have been learned? Horrific stories of mistreatment remain alarmingly commonplace, as it’s no secret that today’s high school, junior high and youth coaching ranks continue to include those operating with disgraceful coaching methods: disparaging and demeaning their young athletes, all under the warped pretense of motivating and building character.

“We’re so culturally locked into believing that you make toughness by humiliating, belittling, degrading and punishing,” says Dr. Jennifer Fraser, author of the fascinating and eye-opening book Teaching Bullies Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom. “The bottom line is bullying is on the rise. And until we start addressing adults who do it, and we actually have real consequences for adults who bully, whether they are in a coaching or teaching position, we’re never going to stop it. It’s going to continue.”


At the time, Fraser was teaching in an independent school in western Canada, and four years ago parents with teens on the school’s basketball team contacted her, voicing concerns about the school’s basketball coaches calling their kids “f—ing retards” among other incredibly inappropriate names.

“That was the beginning of this unbelievable unfolding of events,” says Fraser, who would eventually learn of the abuse directed at her son, too. “The second our son was on the senior basketball team he became a target of vicious and humiliating comments. He was singled out for public scenes of shaming where the coach would yell right in his face all kinds of rhetorical questions like ‘Do you even deserve to play?’ and ‘You’re the best player on the team and you’re not even trying.’ It was just a complete attack on him as a human being. When he would try to get away from his coach the coach would grab his jersey or grab his arm. The other coach would stand and watch.”

These incidents dropped Fraser smack in the middle of a nightmarish situation, one that parents of young athletes dread encountering because they are so incredibly difficult to navigate. It forces parents to weigh two options, neither an easy path: Do I speak up when I see abusive coaching behavior and run the risk that my child will lose playing time, or endure even more abuse, because I voiced a complaint? Or do I sit back in silence and tell my child to try and bear it because speaking up isn’t guaranteed to change the situation?

“We talked to our son about it and he begged us not to say anything,” Fraser shared. “As mothers we have instant disrespect because they say that you’re babying your son. We don’t use the word ‘bullying’ when we’re talking about adults. We use words like ‘motivation.’ It’s hypocrisy in its finest form.”

As complaints from multiple athletes surfaced, the school’s headmaster asked Fraser and another parent who was a lawyer to sit down with several of the students and get their stories, transcribe them and send them to the headmaster. These turned out to be jaw-dropping conversations that will be seared in Fraser’s mind forever.

“I had never heard anything like it,” she says. “They just vented, and some would cry remembering what was done to them. It was really horrendous. Where do coaches get this language from and think that they can speak to their team this way? Why would they ever push an athlete to play while badly injured or sick? The cruelty was shocking to me.”

The physical and emotional damage that children who are bullied sustain is well documented. And the issue of children bullying others is on everyone’s radar these days.

But when it comes to adults in coaching roles and exhibiting bullying behavior, Fraser sees a disturbing lack of awareness – and willingness – by adults to address the issue when it involves another adult in a position of authority.

“When a child is bullying there is instant action,” she says. “Adults move in, they address the problem and there’s a real sense of urgency because we know that bullying is so incredibly harmful. But imagine that the bully is not a kid on the playground, it’s not a teenager in the hallway, that it’s actually your teacher or your coach that has control over whatever it is you care most about. They are able to say who you are and what your value is, so you are absolutely under their control. And either you look down or you look away or you pay a price. And I wouldn’t have believed these things except that I am actually in the midst of still living through them.”


Bullying is often defined as a sustained abuse of power, typically in the context of a youngster bullying another at school, on the playground, in sports or through social media.

However, when it comes to coaches, who carry enormous power and influence over athletes, they traditionally are granted more leeway in how they behave and interact with their team. The irony is they should be held to a higher standard than children, but the reality is they get away with conduct that would never be tolerated from a child. That said, the overwhelming majority of volunteer coaches don’t intentionally set out to harm players through their words and actions.

“Coaches are hardworking, they’re dedicated and there’s no way they wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to harm kids today,’” Fraser points out. “Maybe it was the way they were coached and they might have now normalized it, and they might have parents around them who have normalized it, but it still doesn’t make it safe for children.”

In the pursuit of wins, or pushing to get the most out of their players, that line between demanding and demeaning behavior can be crossed, voices can become raised, cutting comments can be uttered, and abusive interaction has the potential to take place.

And suddenly being a good role model, a builder of character and a promoter of confidence and self-esteem gets shoved to the curb, whether coaches realize it’s happening or not.

These behaviors often lead to players doing anything they can to avoid going to practice. It also affects their mood and performance, which leads to even more abuse for failing to meet the coach’s ever-growing expectations.  It is well documented that bullying by children, let alone adults in positions of power, contributes to a whole host of mental suffering: anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.


Fraser has become a frequent and much sought out speaker on the issue of bullying. And she’s fielding more and more calls from parents throughout the U.S. confronting these same issues she has been fighting.

“If this situation could happen to me – and I’m just a regular person who was going about my life and my child was playing a sport he loves – and I’m being contacted by parents in the States dealing with the same thing, it means it’s happening all over the place,” she says. “And that really scares me.”

Fraser’s widely acclaimed book includes detailed testimony from many of the young athletes on the team, full of R-rated attacks delivered by the coaching staff on a regular basis. The story of the abuse is put in the context of compelling research on bullying and its effects on children, and it issues a call to action.

“We used to think that second-hand smoke was fine for our children to breathe in and we let them breathe it in and breathe it in, but when we found out it was damaging them and hurting them and even killing them, we stopped and laws were instantly put in and you will not find a restaurant or a courtyard even where anyone lights a cigarette anymore,” Fraser says. “So if we can change the laws to protect our children from second-hand smoke, we can bring those same laws and consequences and fines into place for people who verbally and emotionally abuse our children. We all want the best for our kids and coaches want the best for their teams – but nobody is telling them that abuse is not normal; abuse does not get results.”

Originally diagnosed with PTSD and academically falling to pieces, Fraser reports that with counseling and support, her son is doing well now at university. How many others aren’t as fortunate? Fraser says her son will never play basketball again despite his coaches’ predication that he would be sought after on college teams. He was passionate about his sport and it was taken from him. This story is all too common.

“We’re lucky that our son is recovering, even though they set out to ruin him,” she says. “Six boys did not play basketball that year and they had played basketball all through school. In our son’s case it would be like taking the piano away from a gifted musician, telling him he can’t play and he has no future with the symphony. That’s what it was like to take the sport away from our child. How many other kids out there are like that?”

NOTE: The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers Bullying Prevention Training, a free online program for coaches, parents and anyone interested in learning more about preventing bullying in youth sports.

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Interview & Article in National Alliance for Youth Sports

Childhood bullying: The scars remain forever


By Greg Bach

Research regarding youngsters who have been bullied – and the effects these traumatic experiences have on their developing brains – is chilling.

It’s also must-have information for anyone coaching student-athletes these days.

And for parents who have a son or daughter stepping onto a field, court or rink.

“Neuroscientists are looking at evidence on MRI scans and they can see right now that a child who is emotionally abused has the same brain changes and scars as children who are sexually and physically abused,” says Dr. Jennifer Fraser, who has a PhD in Comparative Literature and is author of the widely acclaimed Teaching Bullies Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom. “Why are we protecting children’s bodies and not their brains? The brain is getting changed and scarred by the emotional abuse that abusive coaches dish out to children on the sports field. The brain is a part of the body. Therefore, when you scream and yell at a child and bully them you’re scarring a part of their body. That is physical abuse. It hurts the body; we can see it.”

This revealing neuroscientific research, that confirms over 40 years of work done by psychologists and psychiatrists, casts an even scarier light on the true damage done by bullying.

Besides the torment and humiliation that accompanies being bullied, it’s now clear that it can leave a permanent imprint on a teen’s brain during those crucial adolescent years when the brain is still developing.

“No parent would allow their child to be physically or sexually abused and know about it; they wouldn’t stand and watch that happening,” Fraser says. “So why do we stand and watch our children be emotionally abused under the auspices of sport coaching when we now know that it does as much damage? Bullying by a child is the same thing as bullying by an adult, except that the terrifying thing is the adult has the power – and they can destroy a life.”

Fraser’s book features a fascinating and troubling account of her own experiences dealing with coaches who bullied more than a dozen youngsters, including her son. At the time the abuse occurred, she was teaching in an independent school in western Canada. Part I of our interview with her can be viewed HERE.


Researchers point out that being bullied can lead to reduced connectivity in the brain and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

So, regardless if the bullying is delivered by a child at school, or a coach at practice after school, it’s a form of childhood trauma that has major and life-changing implications.

“The medical community – the neuroscientists, the psychologists, the psychiatrists – they tell a story of a youth population that is in absolute mental decline and it’s costing the system billions of dollars,” Fraser says. “Half of these people who have been bullied go off and become workplace bullies, because they normalize the abuse. They grew up with it and they normalize it.”

While the issue of bullying among children has received enormous attention, Fraser points out that isn’t the case when it comes to adults, in positions of power as coaches and teachers, bullying youngsters.

“I’ve found that since I started to write about this and talk about this, it’s like people want to shut the door in your face; they don’t want to hear about it,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk about the fact that it’s quite possible that a coach is the bully, not the child. Or the teacher is the bully, not the child. We like to talk about bullying as long as it’s contained in a child-based discussion. The second that you suggest that adults are the bullies people get upset – it’s taboo – and I guess it scares people on a certain level.”


Teenagers are highly susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm have become commonplace among today’s youth population. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in teen populations. So if young athletes are playing for coaches who are abusive and lack compassion, the risk for incurring emotional damage runs high.

And its impact is brutal.

“I can’t believe that coaches, who have arguably the most important role in kids’ lives yet they have very little oversight and they have very little education about child psychology, neuroscience and child development,” says Fraser, who was recently honored with the Anti-Bullying in Athletics Award by the Edu-Powered Media Group. “They should be getting the greatest education out there because they’re the most important people.”

So what’s the remedy?

“We have a very mentally ill adolescent population right now,” Fraser says. “And we have to ask some tough questions of ourselves as the adults: What are we doing wrong? Because we are doing something wrong. We shouldn’t have such mentally ill children. All of us can change. But the more this issue is taboo the more it’s going to get worse.”

NOTE: The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers Bullying Prevention Training, a free online program for coaches, parents and anyone interested in learning more about preventing bullying in youth sports.

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We Protect Kids’ Bodies not Brains

An article I wrote on our abject failure to protect children from bullying in schools has just been published in Our Parenting Spot. This failure lies at the heart of our society.

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Why Aren’t We Doing MORE to Protect #Kids from #Bullying?

Did you know that schools in Canada, the United States, and Australia are required by law to conduct fire drills several times a year? The drills are designed to ensure everyone in the school learns to recognize the sound of a fire alarm and they are an opportunity for everyone in school to practice getting outside quickly and safely.[1][2][3][4][5]

I’ve taught for about twenty years in a variety of schools all over Canada. I’ve participated in many safety drills where school administrators, teachers, and students practice what to do in the event of a fire. There are procedures to alert everyone and evacuate the building. Professionals are brought in regularly to assess buildings for safety compliance. They take a look at whether a school’s efforts to keep students prepared for a fire are successful.

Adults understand that fire is dangerous. It’s important that our kids know exactly what to do in the event that there is a fire at school, so the fire drills seem sensible and necessary. Bullying is dangerous too, yet there are no bullying safety assessments or drills.

Why is that?

Danger by the Numbers
This discrepancy in how we address these aspects of child safety becomes even more interesting when we look at the effects of fire versus bullying in schools.

How successful are we when it comes to protecting children from school fires?
According to a report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there were thousands of fires in schools across the United States between 2009 and 2011 and less than 100 children suffered injuries from those fires.[6]

We can surmise from this report that when we have strict safety codes, experts assessing safety compliance, and school communities promoting awareness and practicing safety, the result is schools where fire causes minimal harm and fatalities are rare.

How successful are we when it comes to protecting children from bullying?
According to the U.S. Census, between one in three and one in four students report being bullied in 2011.[7] That year, there were 63 million students enrolled in U.S. schools – which means between 15 to 21 million of those students reported being bullied.[8]

Negative outcomes of bullying – whether a child is a bully or being bullied – can include:

  • absenteeism
  • poor academic performance
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • substance abuse

Consider how many news reports you’ve seen about kids who commit suicide after being bullied. Studies to determine the link between bullying and suicide have yielded mixed results, but kids who report frequently bullying others and those who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior.[9] High school students who experience bullying and other forms of harassment are more likely to report being depressed, consider suicide, and carry weapons to school.[10] From 2009 to 2011, fire did not kill any children at school. In 2011, 4,822 students committed suicide. That’s about 13 children every day.[11]

It looks like we’re not as successful with this aspect of child safety.

No More Excuses
We turn to experts when we want to train school administrators and teachers to keep our kids safe from school fires. We could turn to experts – psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists – to train school administrators and teachers to keep our kids safe from bullying in schools.

On a wide scale, school systems do not:

  • inform school staff and students about the effects of bullying.
  • teach students how to protect themselves from bullying.
  • provide kids with a safe place to report adult or peer bullying without fear of repercussions or victim-blaming.

During fire drills it’s common to see school administrators and teachers with a list of children’s names. They’ll find out exactly who is missing and react with great urgency – even though they know it’s just a drill. Sometimes, school administrators don’t seem to react with the same urgency and concern when children are harmed by bullying. I’m writing from personal experience about the excuses adults make when teachers or coaches bully kids. I’ve listened to my colleagues and school administrators make excuses for staff members who bullied kids – and it was a common occurrence.

Fire on school property is rare, yet we treat it as a serious matter and take definitive measures to stop it. Bullying is so common that we’ve normalized it as part of our education system. For example, when youth sports coaches yell at kids or call kids names during practices or games, many people say it’s to “toughen kids up.”

Perhaps we have trouble responding in appropriate ways to the pain and suffering of bullied children because we can’t see damage to their bodies, but we can learn a better way. For example, no one could see what secondhand smoke was doing to children’s bodies, but we enacted laws to protect them because we discovered there was a correlation between secondhand smoke and serious health issues.[12][13][14]

Children flourish when they are educated in safe, respectful environments; however, without a paradigm shift, the bullying cycle will continue in our schools. Our educational system needs to make a real commitment to bringing about change by gaining knowledge about emotional abuse and the harm it does – and then we need to take action to prevent and stop it.

There are no easy answers to ending bullying in schools. Here are some to consider:

In the UK, emotional abuse within an intimate or family relationship became illegal with the enactment of the Serious Crime Act of 2015. This new law means that adults who isolate, humiliate, or bully a family member can be held criminally responsible. Abusers can face up to five years in prison, significant fines, or both.[15][16] Unfortunately, in the US and Canada, there are no legal protections when it comes to emotional abuse.

Monetary Penalties
In response to a rise in school shootings, teen suicides, and cyber bullying, Monona, Wisconsin, USA, issued a municipal ordinance saying that parents can be fined when their kids bully other children.[17] The Wisconsin townships of Plover & Shawano Wisconsin issued similar ordinances too.[18][19] Only time will tell if these measures help reduce bullying.

Anti-Bullying Requirements for Schools
We teach children “Stop, Drop, and Roll” as a part of fire safety. Children and adults have an emergency number to call for instant help. They can trust that firefighters and other emergency responders will arrive as quickly as possible.

Similar safety measures could save the minds and bodies of children who are bullied in schools. Kids can be taught what to do if a teacher, sports coach, or child bullies them – yells in their face, restrains them when they try to get away, or mutters obscenities at them. They’d need to have an emergency number for reporting bullying, then experts could respond quickly. Schools that do not meet the safety requirements could be forced to take steps toward compliance. This could save thousands of children from harm every year.

What do you think about these measures?
Can you think of other ways to prevent and / or stop bullying in schools?
Please share below.

If we treated bullying the same way we treat fire hazards in schools, we would change our schools. If we stopped normalizing bullying in schools and put emotional abuse in the criminal code, we would probably see a decline in bullying.

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