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.”
COACHES WHO BULLY
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.”
BREAKING DOWN BULLYING
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.
THE TIME FOR CHANGE IS NOW
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.