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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Imagine an epidemic of mentoring

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The term mentor originates in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey written over 2500 years ago. Odysseus must leave his infant son, Telemachus, and go off to war. He puts a close friend, Mentor, in charge of his son. What’s so fascinating is that when Telemachus is a young man, Athena, goddess of wisdom, decides to disguise herself as Mentor when she approaches him. At this time, Telemachus is oppressed by the suitors and missing his father. Athena galvanizes him to stand up to the bullying suitors and inspires him to undertake a journey to find his father.

This is exactly the power of mentoring. It’s transformational. It gives confidence and demands courage to move beyond one’s safe-place or metaphorical “home” and travel to unknown places. I was amazed to find out that in the Public Service in British Columbia, all government employees, not just the executives, can avail themselves of a performance coach. They are all encouraged to spend time with a Mentor. The BC Public Service tells its employees what they can expect:

  • Expanded leadership capacity
  • Increased accountability and commitment to business results
  • Heightened self-awareness, confidence and resilience
  • Inspired vision for the future
  • Enhanced relationships, engagement and productivity
  • Optimized individual, team and organizational performance
  • Strengthened interpersonal communication and ability to manage conflict
  • Increased clarity about what motivates you at every phase of your career

Now, compare that list of expectations from one’s career with the list below compiled by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety that outlines what to expect when you are bullied at work:

  • Shock.
  • Anger.
  • Feelings of frustration and/or helplessness.
  • Increased sense of vulnerability.
  • Loss of confidence.
  • Physical symptoms such as:
    • Inability to sleep.
    • Loss of appetite.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms such as:
    • Stomach pains.
    • Headaches.
  • Panic or anxiety, especially about going to work.
  • Family tension and stress.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Low morale and productivity.

It’s time organizations followed in the footsteps of the BC Public Service and created workplaces that were built around the concept of mentoring rather than bullying. We all have a divine-like capacity to mentor young people by sharing our wisdom and coaching them to have courage and take on challenges.


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Coach & author review Teaching Bullies

5.0 out of 5 stars Kudos to Dr. Fraser Sept. 3 2015
By Randy P Nathan
Format:Kindle Edition
Bullying in Sports is real!! Kudos to Dr. Fraser for raising awareness on this very serious issue. This needs to be required reading for all athletes, parents and coaches at all levels of sports!

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Heart-Breaking Review of Teaching Bullies

on November 17, 2015


I had to stop reading after the first chapter. I had tears welling up in my eyes remembering what my youngest son had to go through. Being verbal abused/degraded with other basketball players and being denied an opportunity to compete for junior varsity; a right he and others earned. Hearing parent feared retaliation against their kids if they complain. Seeing and experiencing the walls of silence and protection go up. As a parent being denied access to people to report this abuse. Sitting in front of the athletic director as he said the worse things about my son. Feeling helpless and realizing the parents were right about retaliation. Knowing that there were adults who were willing to hurt my son for voicing concerns about abuse. Realizing how many parents and teachers were willing to look the other way. This happen in 1998/1999. Jennifer’s book is talking and identifying teacher bullies/abuse that has been around for years. This book should be reading for all parents whose children play sports. All teachers need to read to be part of the solution not part of the cover up. Coaches should read it to remember who they are coaching and why they are coaching. Jennifer talks about the psychological and physiology effects of bullying and abuse on young men and boys. Her book is must read and should inspire all of us to fight bullying and abuses in our school and playing fields.
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Review by Author and Anti-Bullying Advocate

on September 16, 2015


In Teaching Bullies, Dr. Jennifer Fraser identifies the essential, moral question of the 21st Century:

How do we prepare our children for a tough, cruel, global society, where ISIS runs amok, social media aggrandizes dangerous behavior, and governments control their citizens through intimidation?

Do we abuse our youth by “toughening them up” using degrading techniques or do we empower them with the life-enhancing ability to choose fearless and determined independence?

In my opinion, the latter holds more value.

Coaches are responsible for the development of student character. Dr. Fraser makes an effective case that the goal of prep school athletics, believe or not school administrators and alumni, is not about winning championships. It’s about 360 degree, community-based child-rearing.

Whole brain child neuroscience teaches us how teenaged brains function, how they can be wounded, and how they can be healed. Dr. Fraser posits that we may not be able to prevent abuse in society but we can equip ourselves and our children to minimize the damage and to claim ultimate victory over those who would destroy us for institutional preservation purposes.

She demonstrates how the freedom to choose our response to aggression gives us transformative power. When we decide to fight for our dignity using our knowledge and skills, we cannot hear the taunts from Trumpish courts chanting “loser.” Instead, we possess the power to redefine the situation and to move into more healthy and rewarding situations. Even those who find themselves in the most traumatic situations can reach for meaning in their lives and discover sturdy hope.

I realize this may sound arrogant as my traumas and those of high school athletes are, after all, first world problems and healing is accessible to all of us. But, Dr. Fraser’s book and its many references to the work being done by neuropsychiatrists makes me wonder if perhaps my personal and professional emphasis on intervention and prevention was not misplaced.

Power structures always insist on the demonization of others. Perhaps child and civil rights advocates would better spend their energy making legal systems responsive and providing greater accessibility to the therapies that have been proven effective? I do not have the answer to this question, but Dr. Fraser’s journey stimulated the query.

And. Isn’t that why we read heart-wise books like Teaching Bullies — to identify patterns and create strategies that work?

Thank you, Dr. Fraser, for your courage in sharing your thought-filled journey.

Harriet Showman
writer and creator of book and artwork
former executive director, Children’s Trust Fund of South Carolina

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