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Ending Cycles of Abuse in Sports and Society

See it, stop it, heal it.

Key points

  • Covert emotional abuse (CEA) is a tightly woven web meant to ensnare and control the victim. It can lead to other forms of abuse.
  • Signs of CEA in sports include a perpetrator creating a sense of specialness in the victim, and cultivating self-doubt and dependency.
  • Seeing a trauma-sensitive specialist can help athletes heal. Preventative efforts and screening for trauma in childhood may also help stop abuse.

No athlete, no child, no human being should have to endure abuse in pursuit of their dreams. Yet, as the courageous Senate testimony of world-class gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols, and McKayla Maroney recently demonstrated, abuse is all too common. Ms. Biles gave voice to the visceral agony of the victims: “The scars of this horrific abuse continue to live with all of us.”

It is imperative that children and adults learn to recognize and prevent all forms of abuse in sports and society. Focusing on the egregious sexual abuse and the flagrant failures of USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and the FBI are way too little and way too late.

As with other epidemics, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse can be stopped. Together, we can create comprehensive systems of prevention, so that no child has to suffer the injuries and live with the scars of abuse, reopen their wounds in front of the U.S. Senate.

Covert emotional abuse (CEA) is almost always the initial form of abuse, and it all too often leads to physical and sexual abuse. CEA is a tightly woven, almost invisible spider’s web meant to ensnare and control the victim. My intention is to make the web, patterns, and shimmering threads of CEA visible so we can see it, stop it, and heal it.

My analysis and recommendations are informed by diagnostic criteria of both emotional abuse in sport and spiritual abuse, well-documented examples of CEA in sports, and my experience with a covert emotionally abusive coach.

While this post focuses on CEA in sports, the behaviors and solutions apply to all forms of relational abuse, in any setting: entertainment, politics, academics, business, religion, armed services, and domestic.

A 2016 International Olympic Committee consensus statement confirmed that “psychological abuse is at the core of all other forms [of abuse].” In July 2021, a woefully underpublicized study by the Center for SafeSport detailed a disturbingly high incidence of “emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of athletes in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement”: 65 percent of participants experienced at least one of 18 indicators of psychological harm or neglect. CEA frequently causes long-term performance detriments, debilitating physical injuries, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and even suicide.

See it. Stop it.

There are a number of indicators of covert emotional abuse. Here are four of the most important.

Spins a trap of specialness.

The covertly abusive coach creates a sticky tangle of specialness that ultimately ensnares the athlete. In a New York Times article, Kara Goucher, an Olympic distance runner who trained with Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project, vividly describes this sense of specialness. Her description is eerily similar to those of Olympic gymnasts.

“When you’re training in a program like this, you’re constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there, how anyone would want to be there, and it’s this weird feeling of, ‘Well, then, I can’t leave it. Who am I without it?'”

As Goucher describes, the athlete entangled in this sense of specialness feels she can’t escape.

Cultivates fear, self-blame, self-doubt, and dependency.

The coach repeats fear-inducing statements: “I made you the success that you are,” “Without me, you would be nothing,” “Without my coaching, you will never live up to your true potential.” Gradually, the athlete loses faith in herself and develops a debilitating dependency on the coach.

Ultimately, these tactics magnify the inherent power dynamic, making the coach all-powerful, and the athlete increasingly powerless and ripe for physical and sexual abuse.

Alternates love bombing and shaming.

The emotionally abusive coach combines the two tactics above in an endless cycle designed to coerce, control, and manipulate the athlete. When the athlete is compliant, performing well, and expressing appreciation and adoration for the coach, then the athlete maintains her coveted “special” status. When the athlete fails to perform, or questions the coach, the coach humiliates and degrades the athlete. A coach who publicly love bombs and shames athletes instills the desire to please and the fear of being shamed in every athlete in the program.

Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez has described how her former coach Maggie Haney implemented this cycle. “Any compliment was like holy water… It went from one day walking on eggshells with her to her saying the next day that ‘we’re in this together.’” Haney’s shaming included “calling [Hernandez] weak, lazy, and messed up in the head.”

While Hernandez escaped the sexual abuse of Nassar, she experienced equally devastating psychological injury. In a rare victory for victims, Haney’s abuse resulted in a five-year suspension from USAG.

Demonizes those who raise concerns and demands that supporters shun such “enemies."

An emotionally abusive coach subtly undermines or directly demonizes and ostracizes athletes, parents, and staff who courageously question the coach. The coach will tell the “loyal” athlete: that her parents “don’t understand what’s required to get to the next level,” “don’t support your desire to excel,” and “their doubt is holding you back.” They’ll say that the teammate who is raising concerns “doesn’t have what it takes,” or “is just jealous.” The coach persuades “truly devoted” athletes to shun those who raise legitimate concerns.

This ensures that those raising concerns are exiled and can’t expose the coach’s abusive behavior. An athlete isolated from friends and family is easier to abuse. The empowered gymnasts who testified demonstrate that there truly is strength in numbers.

Heal it.

As a global community, our highest priorities must be to heal abused athletes and prevent future abuse. Yet to end abuse, the abusive coach and the culture that promotes abuse must be reformed.

Healing the athlete.

Healing athletes begins with believing athletes who courageously share their experience. Victims share their stories to be witnessed and validated, show others suffering in silence that they are not alone, prevent further abuse, and serve justice. The debilitating mental-emotional-spiritual effects of CEA must be treated by trauma-sensitive specialists with expertise in both sport and abuse.

Healing the coach.

“Hurt people hurt people.” The global community has a shared responsibility to protect athletes. Healing coaches (before they begin coaching) will greatly reduce athletes’ risk of being abused. An abusive coach’s behavior is likely due to intense feelings of unworthiness and a desperate need for power and adoration, stemming from the coach’s own adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). To end abuse, society must ensure potentially abusive coaches heal their pre-existing trauma, so they feel whole and worthy before they start coaching. Ultimately, coaches must show proficiency in positive, compassionate, whole-athlete-centered coaching.

Healing society.

To end abuse in sports requires the implementation of preventive education and protective policies; repeated screening for trauma in early childhood; and expert treatment of traumatized children well before they enter professions in which they interact with youth and have the opportunity to traumatize another generation of children.

As the gymnasts’ testimonies so poignantly prove, society must create holistic coaching curricula, as well as an international code of ethics and systems of accountability for all athletic coaches, associated staff, and institutions. This will ensure that coaches are educated and held accountable, and that staff and institutions do not become bystanders, enablers, or worse, conspirators. The systems of accountability must include mandated reporting of abuse to responsible, proactive authorities; independent, trauma-informed investigations; and enforceable laws. These programs must be fully funded and staffed, so children are protected from the severe harm caused by abuse.

To learn more about how you can see, stop, and heal abuse, see here.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Ashley E. Stirling & Gretchen A. Kerr (2008) Defining and categorizing emotional abuse in sport, European Journal of Sport Science, 8:4, 173-181, DOI: 10.1080/17461390802086281

“Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups.” Spiritual Abuse Resources, www.spiritualabuseresources.com/articles/characteristics-associated-wit….

Mountjoy, Margo, et al. “International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement: Harassment and ABUSE (Non-Accidental Violence) in Sport.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 50, no. 17, 2016, pp. 1019–1029., doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096121.

https://uscenterforsafesport.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/CultureClim…

Cain, Mary. “‘I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike.’” New York Times, 7 Nov. 2019.

Macur, Juliette. “Olympic Gymnast Recalls Emotional Abuse ‘So Twisted That I Thought It Couldn’t Be Real.’” New York Times, 1 May 2020.

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