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Coaching Abuse - Mental & Physical




 “Coaching ABUSE: The dirty, not-so-little secret in sports” 

What is wrong with a society that places so much importance on winning in sports that it blatantly neglects the needs and well being of the child-athletes that it’s charged with educating and protecting? Are we that out of touch that we’ve lost our perspective on what really matters in life? Are too many parents making a “deal with the devil” and turning their kids over to coaches with questionable methods just because these coaches supposedly produce “champions?” 

As a coach, just how important is winning to you? When your team or athletes win, does that mean that you are doing your job better? Does it make you a more effective coach? Similarly, when your athletes fail, does that mean you are failing? Are your athletes’ and team’s losses concrete evidence of your incompetence? 

If you were brutally honest with yourself, could you look in the mirror and answer this question? “Is winning and all that it means to me, more important than the mental health and happiness of my child/athletes?” If you’re a coach reading this, then I couldn’t blame you for responding to my question with horror and righteous indignation. Who the heck am I to even suggest that you, an adult and professional, would place your needs to be successful over the needs of your young athletes? Of course youknow that the sport is supposed to be “all about the kids.” Certainly, you’re fully aware that “it’s only a game.” You also know that coaching is all about being a good role model, enhancing self-esteem and building character. Furthermore, you know that your number one priority is the welfare and happiness of the kids you coach. A coach doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know all this stuff. But then again, who would ever answer “yes” to my question and admit to themselves and others that they regularly place their own needs as an adult and professional over those of the children their supposed to be guiding?

Here’s the problem the way I see it. Because winning has become so important to us as a culture, because being “numero uno” has been erroneously equated with coaching success and competence, some of our youth sport, club, high school and college coaches have forgotten what their real mission as a professional is. These coaches have come to mistakenly believe that the won-loss outcome of their season is far more important than the process of participation, character development and safety of their athletes. They believe that an athlete’s performance failure is reflective of a coaching failure. And why shouldn’t they feel this way when coaches at every level are regularly criticized and fired for not winning enough? When it comes right down to it though, isn’t the true essence of “good coaching,” winning? Isn’t that what NFL Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi used to say: Winning isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing?

Unfortunately when coaches subscribe to this creed, when they put their needs to win in front of their athletes’ well being and learning, then serious problems develop. Interactions with coaches who believe that the end always justifies the means, that the outcome of winning is far more important than the process of teaching and playing, do significant, long term damage to young athletes. When winning is more important to the coach than the experience of his/her athletes’ participation, then EMOTIONAL and sometimes PHYSICAL ABUSE are the end result. 

There are a lot of coaches who may vehemently disagree with me and defend their treatment of athletes as good, solid coaching. They explain that they’re just making their athletes mentally tougher and physically stronger. You know, it’s the old “if you baby them, praise them too much or falsely build self-esteem, then you’re really hurting the kids because you’re making them weak” argument. Or, “I may occasionally put my kids down in the process of coaching, but I only do it strategically to get them to tough it out and prove me wrong. Deep down, I really do care about them.” Then there’s my favorite: “This is a very hard, dog-eat-dog, competitive world where bosses yell at their employees and everyone has to learn to deal with getting his self-esteem regularly stomped upon. I’m just teaching these kids how to handle it now!” 

Here are my thoughts on this kind of “good” coaching: If it looks like a duck, flies like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, IT’S A DUCK! ABUSE IS ABUSE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT KIND OF SPIN YOU PUT ON IT! ABUSE IS NOT GOOD COACHING, EVEN WHEN IT RESULTS IN WINNING! 

Athletes who play for coaches who are more concerned with their own needs than those of their players, may occasionally experience outward success if they manage to stay in the sport long enough. These athletes may be part of a winning team or championship effort. They may even win gold medals. However, the emotional price that these athletes end up paying in the long run for their “success” is an extremely high one. The damage that abusive coaches can do to preadolescent and adolescent athletes oftentimes haunts them well into adulthood, negatively shaping their future performance experiences and relationships both in and out of competitive sports. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, identity issues and recurring performance problems are often the result of this kind of negative coaching. Abusive coaching is a serious epidemic in our society and it’s time that responsible adults, i.e. other coaches, level-headed parents and competent professionals step up to the plate and drive this garbage out of the ballpark once and for all. 

In this special issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter we will discuss the topic of abuse in coaching and potentially what can be done about it. 


A good place for us to start our discussion is to very clearly define what abusive coaching is and how it differs from more appropriate, positive coaching. To do this, let’s look at the behaviors/actions of the abusive coach and compare them with those of the good coach. 



Regularly uses public embarrassment and humiliation on his/her athletes

Is disinterested in the feelings and sensitivities of his/her players

Rarely uses praise or positive feedback

Is a yeller

Demeans his/her players

Plays “head games” with his/her athletes

Is personally dishonest and untrustworthy

Creates a team environment based on fear and devoid of safety

Is never satisfied with what his/her athletes do.

Is overly negative and a pro at catching athletes doing things wrong

Is more interested in his/her needs then those of his/her players

Over-emphasizes the importance of winning

Tends to be rigid and over-controlling, defensive and angry

Is not open to constructive feedback from players or other parents

Uses excessive conditioning as punishment

Can be physically abusive 

Ignores his/her athletes when angry or displeased

Is a bully (and therefore a real coward)

Coaches through fear and intimidation

Is a “know-it-all”

Is a poor communicator 

Only cares about his/her athletes as performers, not as individuals

Consistently leaves his/her athletes feeling badly about themselves

Kills his/her athletes’ joy and enthusiasm for the sport

Is a bad role model

Is emotionally unstable and insecure 

Earns contempt from players and parents

Coaches through guilt

Is a master of DENIAL!!!!!

A coach doesn’t have to be guilty of all of these behaviors to be an abusive coach. In fact, regularly engaging in a select two or three of these is enough to qualify a coach for abuser status. Unfortunately, most coaches who engage in abuse also refuse to take an honest look at themselves. Because of a well honed sense of denial, they would never admit to themselves or others that they might be doing something wrong. In fact, the abusive coach sees him/herself as a very good coach! 


NEVER uses humiliation or embarrassment as a coaching tool 

Genuinely cares about the welfare and well being of each athlete

Is a pro at catching athletes doing things right

Rarely raises his/her voice 

Is supportive and encouraging 

Builds healthy relationships with his/her athletes

Is honest and trustworthy

Creates a feeling of personal safety on the team

Is able to celebrate his/her athletes’ successes/accomplishments

Is a positive person

Understands that coaching is about doing what’s best for the kids

Has winning in perspective and defines success in appropriate ways

Tends to be flexible, yet still able to set good limits

Is open to constructive feedback from players and parents

Is friendly, non-defensive and approachable

Uses hard physical conditioning appropriately

Is NEVER physically abusive!

Communicates displeasure directly and appropriately to athletes 

Coaches by generating mutual respect 

Maintains an open mind

Is a good communicator

Leaves his/her athletes feeling good about themselves

Fuels the athlete’s enjoyment and enthusiasm for the sport

Is a wonderful role model

Earns respect from players and parents

Does NOT act out his/her feelings/insecurities on his/her athletes

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the abusive coach is that deep down, he/she genuinely doesn’t care about his/her athletes as individuals. This kind of coach only values his/her players in direct proportion to that athlete’s abilities and what he/she can do for the coach. The abusive coach pays more attention to the better athletes as long as these individuals continue to “produce” for him/her. As long as they win, he/she likes them. However, should they get injured or slip into a slump, this coach is quick to turn against or ignore them. In a sense, the abusive coach is not emotionally mature enough to separate out his own feelings and needs from those of his/her athletes. While the abusive coach may deny this, his/her behaviors and actions more accurately reflect how he/she really feels. It would be easy for us to look at this behavior and label it as selfish. However, calling the abusive coach “selfish” doesn’t capture what is actually going on here. 

Deep down, the abusive coach is a damaged human being. He/she is emotionally stunted and immature. The abusive coach usually suffers from deep seated feelings of inadequacy and he/she unknowingly acts these feelings out on his/her athletes. Unlike healthier human beings, the abusive coach is not able to take an honest look at his/her own behaviors. This individual is too busy defending him/herself and blaming others. The abusive coach is a pro at playing head games and manipulating others. He/she is able to convince his/her players that his/her frustration, yelling, anger and bad behavior are all their fault. If the players behaved better, did what they were told, performed at a higher level, listened to the coaching, etc., then the coach wouldn’t have had to get so upset, lose his/her temper or act the way he/she had. In this way the abusive coach never takes responsibility for his/her bad behavior. Like all abusers, he/she is good at convincing the victims that it is they who should feel guilty and responsible. This is not unlike the behavior of a four year old who says, “YOU made me do this!”

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