Abusive Coaching

Condoning Cruelty in the Service of Exceptionalism

Posted Jul 17, 2013

While she has not been removed from her post, it made me wonder if abusive coaching is more rampant than we know -- not only in sports, but in other arenas as well -- and if, too often, it is quietly condoned as a means to an end.

I'm thinking spelling bees, chess tournaments, dance and music competitions. Has anyone watched the adults behind the scenes of those events? As a psychologist who works with a number of child prodigies (and many former ones), I can tell you there are countless talented kids who deal with sadistic coaches -- and pushy parents -- who view cruelty and harsh practices as necessary to achieve success.

Take Annie (not my patient's real name), for example. A college-bound pianist, Annie was having difficulty sleeping when I first met her. She was working toward a scholarship to Julliard -- a "shoo-in," her parents and teacher believed -- but they were worried her insomnia might get in her way. "It's nerves," her mom said, "Otherwise, she's fine. We just want you to help her relax." Considered a musical prodigy at age 8, Annie had been home schooled since 9th grade to focus on piano. She told me her parents supervised her schedule -- two hours of practice, four of tutoring, followed by two for private lessons and two more of academics. Up by 7 a.m., in bed by 10 p.m., her life was all about routine and discipline. Recently, she found it hard to fall asleep and woke up feeling unenthusiastic about her day. She was hesitant to tell her parents, since any hint of disinterest was met with harsh criticism. "Only an idiot would give up now," her dad said. "My teacher calls me lazy and useless. My mom tells me I'm wasting my talent." The words stung, but Annie believed they were right. Besides, she felt they had invested so much in her success, she owed it to them to keep at it.

I brought her parents in for a family session and the pressure in the room was palpable. Annie's dad made it clear that my job was to get her ready for the Julliard audition. Her mom reminded me she needed this scholarship, since they couldn't afford more training without one. Both insisted that Annie's sleep issues had to be fixed, so as not to mess things up. I suggested insomnia sometimes was a reaction to stress, but when I suggested they give her a break here and there to see if that helped, they took Annie out of therapy. I later learned she was accepted at Julliard. I can only hope she (and her parents) are sleeping well.

Then there was Adam (also, not his real name). A quiet, brilliant 6th grader who loved all kinds of strategic games, Adam happened to excel at chess. He had won a number of national awards and loved competing in matches around the country. His parents were less pushy than Annie's -- they both worked in finance and traveled a lot -- but he had an extremely close relationship with his Russian chess teacher, Lance, who was part coach, part babysitter. Adam came to see me when he wanted to change teachers, which surprised his parents, since he had seemed so happy with his long-time coach. Lance had been a ranked player, known to be tough on his students, but passionate about their success.

When I first heard about Adam and Lance's relationship, it seemed typical of a coach and his protégée -- traveling to tournaments together, sharing hotel rooms, long strategy sessions mixed with everyday fun. Adam had great concentration and loved chess, but like most kids, also enjoyed video games. Lance saw them as a distraction, so allowed them only as a reward. He would bribe Adam, telling him that if he performed well at his matches, he'd let him play. But if he didn't, he hid them -- a tactic, Lance told Adam's parents that was necessary to get him to focus.

While I never heard of any serious lines being crossed between them -- no violence or sex abuse -- Adam told me he didn't like it when Lance yelled at him, feeling it was something he thought only his dad should do. One time, while playing a video game, Lance flung it out their hotel window and it scared Adam. It was around this time that his parents came to discuss if a coaching change was the right move. As I learned more about Lance, I sensed his excessive investment in Adam's success. I asked the parents if they thought his involvement was too much, or just enough, to motivate Adam -- a line that is sometimes difficult to draw, but needs to be assessed. I suggested they try a new coach to break up the intensity and see how it goes. They did. I later heard from his parents that another family believed Lance had sexually abused his student. Adam, perhaps, knew something just didn't feel right. His next coach led him to gain a national ranking.

We live in a culture driven by exceptionalism. Parents dream of their children becoming the next Jeter, James, Beyoncé or Bieber. They see little Johnny or Sally as a future "American Idol" or taking first place on "So You Think You Can Dance." Others tutor (and even medicate) their kids to focus on academics and achieve the highest possible SAT scores to ensure entrance into an Ivy League school. The 'every child gets a trophy' philosophy has become popular in part because parents feel their children are entitled to be the best. And, if that includes questionable coaching practices, many seem to look the other way.

I hear about talented kids cajoled, bribed, taunted and ridiculed on a regular basis -- and especially as these youths hit middle school, when social interests become important to them. The distraction from their parents' goal of exceptionalism is frustrating. Moms and dads want them back on track. Coaches, whose income often depends on winning, do what they can to regain control over their once malleable students. Often, this is when the trouble begins.

Some parents (and coaches) try to protect these youths from all the pushing and pulling. Recently, at one private school, a parent (expressing the views of many others) suggested that something be done about its cruel baseball coach. In a letter to the head of school, this father wrote, "The constant abuse of student athletes should be unacceptable to any rational adult, whether the team is losing or undefeated." He believed his son's self-esteem was being damaged by the coach's unrelenting, harsh tactics -- a consequence I'm often asked to undo in my office years later. This school stood by its coach and the team continues to win.

Being successful at almost anything requires hard work, discipline and sacrifice. Coaches -- even gentle, but firm ones -- know that sometimes that means avoiding distractions, pushing past fatigue and keeping focused on the long-term goal of success. But what Mike Rice -- and now allegedly Julie Hermann -- did to bring their students toward that end is unacceptable.

We have to open our eyes to cruel and unnecessary tactics being used to bring exceptional talent to fruition. They need to be separated from practices that foster an equally good work ethic and that balance discipline with fun. Making winning a priority over all else is not good for anyone involved -- coaches, parents and definitely not students -- and ultimately muddies the spirit and joy of healthy competition.


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.





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