The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

Benched with Fear and Confusion

Time for Sport Parents to Step Up

Sport parenting is a thankless task.  Mothers and fathers invest money, time, and care and hope their children reap all the physical, social, and emotional benefits of play.  Throughout this process parents are too often seen as adversaries of coaches.  The brush of “bad sport parent” paints in broad strokes, regardless of the best intentions of most sport parents.  The message is in essence, sign your kid up and back away… far away.  This may have some appeal to coaches and sports organizations where the over-involved parent has caused headaches, but needs to be second guessed now more than ever.

“Well being” of young athletes has become an increasingly important topic of scientific and societal concern.  The sexual traumas inflicted upon developing athletes was thrust further into the spotlight by Gary Smith’s recent cover story for Sports Illustrated about Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and gold medalist Kayla Harrison.  It is clear that predators do not discriminate between the weak and seemingly strong.  Beyond such clear horrors, research is showing that sport parents (and sport organizations) need to strongly consider the emotional abuse inflicted on developing athletes.  Gretchen Kerr and Ashley Stirling’s recent research has made it clear that tough coaching and abusive coaching are too often one in the same… and too often silently accepted.

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Over a decade ago, I recall sitting on a dissertation committee where a South American tennis coach reflecting on coaching in the United States stated, “What you call child abuse, we call coaching.”  The point was well taken, perhaps American's had become hollow peddlers of positive reinforcement.  Over a decade later, it must be considered how far the pendulum has swung the other way.  Kerr and Stirling’s recent publication, “Parents’ Reflections on their Child’s Experiences of Emotionally Abusive Coaching Practice,” is both a compelling and a painful read.  The normalizing of abusive coach-athlete relationships makes the reader cringe.  The passivity of parents in response to unhealthy situations for their children can be infuriating.  The power of athletic coaches is awe-inspiring… or awful inspiring.

Emotional abuse can be tough to put one’s finger on because it lacks the visual scars of physical abuse and the public profile of sexual abuse.  This makes its impact no less concerning.  The depth of many coach-athlete relationships is such that emotional abuse can take root - a pattern of deliberate behaviors that threaten feelings of safety and trust which have the potential to be harmful to an athlete’s well-being (including but not limited to: humiliating, threatening, exploiting).  Strong, intertwined relationships with individuals holding various levels of power require keen eyes, ears, and morality.

The competitive sport setting holds the potential for fellow adults to reign over one another.  At the conclusion of their child’s athletic careers, parents in Kerr and Stirling’s examinations have mentioned being concerned about coaches behaviors, but inactive.  They were “star-struck” by coaches and ordered to be obedient.  Their children loved the sport and encouraged them to be silent.  In the youth sport triumvirate (athlete, parent, coach), parents were emasculated and were sent to the end of the bench with fear and confusion.  The psychological balance of power tipped dramatically, leaving mothers and fathers unable to do the most basic of parental instincts – protect your child.

Before persecuting these parents, societal acceptance of certain coaching behaviors must be considered.  In his reflections, Smith gets it right, “the enormous energy field that everyone [is] living in, the one created as sports became religion, a field charged with power and vulnerability.”  The culture of elite sport too often has become cult.  Abusive coaching can become confused for tough coaching and then it is accepted with a nod and a shrug.

Perhaps some of the solution to this challenge lies in parents substituting the word “teacher” for “coach” when reflecting upon what they see at practice and games.  Teachers of children young to old all share the same goals of athletic coaches – prepare individuals to strive and thrive in a chaotic and competitive world.  It seems reasonable that coaches should be held to the same standards of behavior that public and private school teachers are expected to fulfill.  Perhaps parental intimidation from coaches occurs because not everyone can skate, jump, swim, hit, or game plan terribly well.  Yet just because many of us can read, write, and do arithmetic does not mean that school teachers should be viewed as any less special than an athletic coach.  If you would not tolerate the treatment your child is receiving from their middle school teacher, it should also be unacceptable from their coach.

Athletic excellence is exciting… effort, passion, and commitment are required to achieve it.  It does not require abuse… even if it did, it does not seem worth the collateral damage levied on children and young-adults.  On the developmental journey, the teaching of sport skills should be relinquished to coaches.  The physical and emotional protection of one’s child should not.

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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