Aggressive Coaches: What Parents Can Do
If a youth sports coach is verbally or physically abusive or pushes too hard, it’s time to act
Patrick, a college student, works as an umpire for a youth baseball league in suburban Atlanta. He’s seen, up close and way too personal, the ugly side of coaching and the fallout aggressive coaching has on young kids (in this case, kids ages 7 through 10).
He tells stories of coaches who yell and complain incessantly; who pack up and quit when the calls go against their teams, even though the kids still want to play; who bump and curse umpires; who berate their players. He’s had parents complain about having to listen to coaches yelling … from across the park. From another field.
All while kids are supposed to be having fun and learning the game. Not worrying about getting yelled at, made fun of or worse.
“The biggest problems come from coaches who just don’t know how to coach,” says Patrick, who doesn’t want his last name used because he’s still umping. “It can get very intense. Coaches are getting invested in the outcome … sometimes a little too much.”
Every year, stories of overzealous coaches who push kids to the point of injury in the name of winning or “building character” hit the headlines. The Louisiana coach who gave an unwitting kid steroids, the softball coach in Oregon suspended for allegedly forcing players to drink a high-energy drink before a game, to name just two recent examples. Florida lawmakers have introduced a bill that would suspend youth coaches for bad behavior.
Most youth coaches are good-hearted volunteers who try to help kids discover the joys and lessons in sport. Still, stop by any park or gym, and you may see — or hear — a bad one. And they can be dangerous to your child’s mental and physical well-being.
Here are simple ways to protect your child from an overbearing coach.
Watch the behavior
Lots of parents go to games. Experts suggest parents of young athletes — especially pre-teen athletes — go to as many practices as they can, too. That’s where most of the coaching is done, after all.
“If you can’t be there for a practice or a game, make sure another adult you trust has eyes on your kid,”advises John Engh, the chief operating officer for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). “Don’t just accept what’s going on. That’s why you're there. To have another set of eyes. Don't be afraid, at any time, to jump in for the safety of your kid.”
While you’re watching, ask yourself these questions:
- Are the practices too long or too strenuous?
- Do the kids seem to be working too hard?
- Are players getting the water breaks they need?
- Are any injuries promptly treated? Does the coach grab, push or handle kids roughly?
In short, does the coach seem to care about the kids, and about safety?
“Caring is a very critical part of what a coach does. When the parent looks at that coach and how they interact with the kid, do they perceive any caring behaviors?”asks Clete Bulach, PhD, an associate professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia and author of “Creating A Culture for High Performing Schools: A Comprehensive Approach to School Reform, Dropout Prevention, and Bullying Behavior.”“Because if they don’t, that’s a warning sign that this isn’t right.”
If your kid has a coach who cares more about winning than safety, experts say go straight to the league’s administrators. Don’t wait.
Listen to your child — and the coach
On the surface, some yelling might seem tame. Certainly, a loud “Attaboy!”or “Way to go!”is not only fine, it’s welcome. As players get older and into more competitive situations, more pointed remarks may become commonplace and more accepted.
For younger kids, though, a simple pointed remark can be devastating, experts say. A mother of a young athlete who played in the league in which Patrick umps recalls a coach of 10-year-olds calling an overweight player on his team “Lightning” in front of his teammates. The coach was, in effect, singling out a young player for ridicule. And that sends a message to his teammates that it’s OK to tease, too.
If a coach’s comments turn nasty — personal or abusive in nature — that’s crossing a line, experts say. Again, get a league administrator involved. Experts advise going to the league so they can mediate instead of approaching an angry coach yourself.
If the coach’s voice is raised too often, or directed at an individual, the coach may be about to lose it or simply isn’t cut out for the job, according to Bulach.
“There’s a difference between yelling at them and controlling them. You can be very controlling with a calm voice,”Bulach says. “A coach who yells is losing control. That’s why they yell. They are losing control or fear they are losing control.”
“As a coach, restraint is such a big deal,” agrees Engh.
Most of all, listen to your kid. Some coaches can be intimidating and coercive —suggesting, say, to play through pain or injury. So ask your young athlete about his personal interactions with the coach.
Remember, too, that though the NAYS and other organizations push background checks, training, in-season evaluations and accountability for youth coaches, many coaches are still untrained volunteers.
“You don’t have a bunch of paid coaches with PhDs in psychology out there,”Engh says.
That means to make sure your kid has a good, safe experience in sports, parents need to step up to the plate.
Related: Keeping Your Young Cheerleader Safe