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Adolescents and Bullying Coaches

When secondary school coaches bully players, parents must intervene.

The question put to me was basically this: "It's bad enough when students bully other students, but when it's an adult who does the bullying, it's even worse. My son has a bully for a coach at school. What should I do?"

Fortunately, it's the exception not the rule when secondary school coaches abuse their authority to manage student athletes in their care. But when this misconduct occurs, a lot of damage can be done to adolescents who, despite their proud bravado to the contrary, really do care about how they are treated by significant adults, particularly when in front of peers.

Secondary school coaches have a lot of power. Unlike the mandatory taking of academic classes, athletic participation is voluntary, students electing to be there because they really want to play. In this situation, the coach sets the terms of involvement and students accept those terms out of their desire to play. How the coaching is conducted is part of the price of admission students must pay. That adult can determine who makes the team, what team membership requires, how players are treated, which players get reprimanded, who gets game time, and who gets kicked off for not fitting into the program.

It's hard to have power over someone's life and not abuse that power as most parents do sometimes while parenting their child, using a loud voice, threatening words, or the grip of angry hands to get their way, frightening the child into submission, bullying the youngster to get their way.

So the coach has power over the players' athletic lives, and in his or her zeal to win, in frustration with practice or play, or out of innate hostility, may bully a player for example's sake to show other adolescents what can happen if they do not adequately perform, if they step out of line, or if they fail to do as told.

Bullying behaviors from coaches include intimidation (using yelling and threats to scare into obedience), insulting (name calling to demean appearance, toughness, or worth), ridicule (making fun of bad play or lack of skill), humiliation (singling out a player for public embarrassment or blame), and benching (refusing to let a student play.)

The impact of these kinds of actions on adolescent age players can be performance anxiety about making mistakes, hesitant play because of unsure decision-making, loss of confidence one's capacity to perform, believing mistreatment is deserved, losing enjoyment of the sport one once enjoyed, even quitting the sport to avoid any coaching at all.

So what is a parent to do if their son or daughter falls prey to this kind of coaching? Consider five possible steps.

The first parental step is to give your child empathetic support for the hurt he or she is feeling. Then see if you can parcel out how much of the adolescent's adverse experience is due to what the coach is doing and how much is rooted in the teenager's personal response. Their student athlete needs to have realistic expectations. In general, students need to expect that playing for a secondary school coach can be more seriously competitive, more demanding of hard work, more critical of mistakes, and more personally intense than the nurturing, recreational coaching received playing on younger teams. Part of the hardness of playing secondary school sports is having a coach who can be harder on you.

Also, determine if the young person is taking personally treatment that is just part of the coach's harder operating style and given to all. For example, the coach believes in one trial learning and is impatient with anyone who doesn't incorporate a new instruction the first time it is given.

The second step is to get the teenager to specifically describe what feels like bullying behavior - what operationally happens, how often it happens, and to who it is directed. Now the parent needs to make sure the young person is not taking the mistreatment personally. A clear distinction needs to be made. The bullying is not about anything wrong with the player; it is about something wrong with the coach. If a determination of repeated bullying is made, the parent needs to ask the teenager's permission to talk with the coach on the young person's behalf.

This can be a hard decision. Bullying coaches with a successful program can have a lot of community support. In the world of sports, winning excuses a multitude of sins. In addition, bullying coaches create an atmosphere of fear that players, and their parents, can give extortionate power. The student player can avoid speaking up for fear of being seen as a complainer or a troublemaker, injuring their opportunity to play. The player's parents can fear speaking up for fear of making a bad situation worse for their son or daughter, or invite censure from other parents who support the program.

In both cases the coach is not confronted. The painful truth for players and their parents is that there are no self-made bullies. Bullies are partly made by the consent of those who allow themselves to be shut up and pushed around.

The third step, after getting specifics of mistreatment from their adolescent, is for the parent to ask for a private talk with the coach. Because parents tend to feel victimized and angry when their child is bullied, they have to get themselves in a calm place where they can present the specifics of their concerns without criticizing or attacking the coach.

Better to go into the interview acting like you and the coach share the same objective - to help your adolescent become the best athlete he or she can be. Your message is that for your child some of the coach's behaviors are getting in the way of this objective. Not all hard coaches mean to be mean. Some are just tougher in their approach and more competitively intense than others. Such a coach can simply be ignorant of his or her impact and be willing to modify the coaching to get players more enthusiastically engaged.

The fourth step, if the coach refuses to acknowledge or alter the bullying behavior, is for the parent to check with other parents to see if they share similar concerns about the coaching. If they do not, that can suggest your child is, for whatever reason, being singled out. If some do share your concerns and are willing to do so, suggest they all collaborate and make a united appeal, requesting a meeting with the principal, the coach, and the school district athletic director to lay out their concerns. In these cases, the voice of many is usually taken more seriously than the voice of one.

The fifth step is what to do if the individual or group appeal falls on deaf ears, nothing is going to change, and now the adolescent wants to leave the team, and even abandon the sport. "All coaches are bullies!" the young person objects. Not so. One abusive experience with a coach does not mean all coaches are abusive. While an understandable hurt response, this kind of generalizing is not a helpful way to deal with a bad experience. This would be like being bitten by one dog and deciding thereafter to beware the entire breed, or to swear off dogs entirely.

The parent needs to try and strike a bargain with the adolescent. Support the young person leaving this team if, after an agreed upon time out, he or she will consent to try another team with another coach who the parent can check out in advance. An experience with a bullying coach should not be reason for a hurt adolescent to give up on playing the sport itself, an activity in which the young person has invested a lot of time and effort, and from which he or she gains important self-esteem.

Bullying coaches abuse the authority of their position, often equating being respected with being feared. Of course they mislead themselves. It's not respect these coaches earn from players but resentment and contempt, because nobody respects a bully. By browbeating and mistreating players, bullying coaches can give a fine profession a bad name.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Also, my book, "Why Good Kids Act Cruel." More information at:

Next week's entry: Parental Put Downs, Power Tests, and Power Struggles with Adolescents