Playing basketball had been a singular source of joy for her. She had taken it up in first grade, honed her talent in year-round competitive leagues, and earned a spot on the varsity team as a high-school freshman. Now a sophomore at a private California high school, the girl—whom I’ll call Erin—began to dread practice. She felt stupid and insecure. According to Erin, the head coach regularly scolded the team for lacking commitment, punished them with sprint drills for losses and mistakes, and yanked them out of games if they missed a lay-up or turned the ball over. "She liked to yell a lot," Erin said, though she found the coach’s failure to instruct almost as demoralizing. "She’d not explain a drill, I’d mess up, and then we’d have to run for my mistake … If I asked for directions, she’d say, 'You should have been paying attention!'"
It got so bad that Erin sometimes had panic attacks during practice. "She kept yelling at me, ‘Your shot is terrible! You need to get it off faster!’" Erin recalled. "She’s like a ticking time bomb, and you don’t know when she’s gonna go off … I started to hate the sport."
Erin’s mother said she was so alarmed by her daughter’s declining spirits that she brought her concerns to the school’s athletic director. When the director reasoned that it’s common for parents to be upset when their kids don’t get playing time, she went to the head of school. To her surprise, the school head had never heard any misgivings about the coach. "I’ve seen parents try to get a preschool teacher fired for serving the wrong apple juice," Erin’s mother told me. "But if their child has the worst soccer coach on the planet, they say nothing. Why is this true in the athletic arena, and nowhere else?"
Parents aren’t surprised when coaches belittle and holler. Anyone who’s ever played or watched a competitive sport is familiar with the trope of the cruel coach: the sullen football coach who makes his underperforming team run sprints until the first person vomits; the red-faced baseball coach who screams at 10-year-olds to shut up and listen when they start monkeying around in the dugout; the freshman lacrosse coach, barely out of college himself, who explodes at the team when they blow a simple play.
"I don’t think there’s any arena where you’re not going to find this," said John P. Sullivan, a clinical sports psychologist who works with the NFL and consults with collegiate teams. But rather than intervene and demand civility from the adult in charge, parents, school officials, and bystanders often remain mute. Indeed, few seem to even notice.
Because such coaching behavior is hard to quantify, solid data on the extent of the problem is lacking, according to John Engh of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. In a reliable study conducted in 2005, 36 percent of coaches working with fifth through eighth graders admitted to yelling angrily at players for making mistakes. "This style isn’t eroding," Engh said.
What makes the persistence of these coaching methods perplexing is America’s cultural intolerance for threatening or demeaning language in other public spheres, especially schools. College professors are expected to warn their students before discussing potentially upsetting subjects to avoid triggering trauma. Schools are keen to prevent bullying: Every state but Montana has passed anti-bullying laws or policies that prohibit peer-on-peer abuses of power, making school districts responsible for weeding out bullies and protecting the abused. Certain types of language are off-limits even among fans and players at sporting events. In 2013, New Jersey became the first state to impose no-nonsense sportsmanship rules that prohibit biased and malicious language at all public high-school sporting events; players, fans, and coaches who trash talk or offend their opponents can be punished. Ridiculing your own team, apparently, remains permissible.
So what makes coaches impervious to cultural pressure against demeaning language and harsh methods? "It’s a cultural meme almost," Laurence Steinberg told me. Steinberg is a psychology professor at Temple University and the author of the recently published Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, which explains what recent findings about the brain say about adolescent behavior. "You have a cruel coach with high expectations who brings out the best in his players, and at the end they’re grateful … Parents have seen too many movies."
Is it harmless? "They’re children; it can’t be good for them," Steinberg said. "Because of the way we’ve raised the stakes with athletics, kids are already very anxious and have terrible performance anxiety before games." Critical, highly emotional language directed at children, on top of the pressure-cooker atmosphere, is doubly powerful, he says, because during adolescence the brain is particularly sensitive to emotional arousal. "When an adult is delivering a message to an adolescent, if it’s in an emotional way, the kids will pay more attention to the way the message is delivered than to what is in the message," he said. And as any parent knows, adolescents are acutely attuned to the sensibilities and opinions of their peers, making a humiliating remark delivered by an adult in front of the team all the more agonizing. "Not only do they suffer from the loss, but they’re also screamed at in front of other people, which is worse," Steinberg said.
Sports psychologists, meanwhile, have long known that yelling at athletes does not improve performance. In a 2013 report that summarized the research on coaching styles, a team of academics affiliated with the American Psychological Association concluded that supportive coaching delivers better results: "Coaches who provide high levels of encouragement, support, and autonomy are more likely to foster positive psychological responses in their athletes and ultimately lead to higher levels of performance."
Yet there’s little public appetite to address the problem. Young athletes are typically ill-equipped to confront an intimidating authority. And particularly for boys, who often use sports to signal their physical and mental toughness, complaining about a coach’s abusive tactics can smack of weakness. "Guys are supposed to be macho and tough and suck it up," said Nancy Swigonski, a pediatrician at the Children’s Health Services Research Institute in Indiana.
Other athletes consider the screaming coach just one in a long list of miseries they have to endure for the sake of their sport, says Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer who started Safe4Athletes to combat coaching abuses. And when you’re talented and bursting with ambition, it’s hard to challenge a coach’s orders. "Your personal dream traps you," she said.
Some parents will challenge a coach for using severe or demeaning language. But most parents are conflict averse and too worried about retaliation to speak up, Kody Moffatt, the who directs the pediatric sports medicine department at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, told me. "They’re afraid to make the person who has the most control over playing time angry at them," he said. "They’re worried that they could make the situation worse." And the problem gets harder to confront as the sport gets more competitive. On club teams, for example, coaches may control all aspects of play and avoid even the limited oversight that exists in schools. "Because so much power is given to the coach—a college scholarship might be on the line!—there’s a lot of incentive for parents to look the other way," she said. "There’s a wall of denial."
Tim Lear, a longtime coach and college counselor, surmised that some parents keep quiet out of a subconscious desire to expose their children to a little tough love. Today’s parents are more involved and invested in their kids’ lives than ever, and they find it harder to provide structure, discipline, and criticism. "They kind of rely on outside people to be the taskmasters," he said. Maybe the tough coach will inject a little adversity into their lives; some un-sanctioned (but ignored) pokes from an adult authority might shrink the effects of all that parental coddling and give the kids some grit. "I understand this as a parent, because it’s almost always more fun to play the good cop," he said.
Of course, not everyone has kept silent. Starr was sexually abused by her swim coach and started Safe4Athletes four years ago to protect vulnerable young athletes from all kinds of misconduct, including the verbal variety. The organization provides club teams with management and policy guidelines that are designed to protect athletes, and works to persuade governing bodies in sports to adopt legislation that mandates such safeguards. On the list of prohibited behaviors by coaches included in its handbook are three that bedeviled Erin: "Verbal or cruel harassment, including yelling and screaming; Mentally abusive or demeaning behavior; and Creation of excessive fatigue unrelated to normal training expectations and activities." These efforts serve to expose coaching behavior that is ordinarily ignored, and to empower athletes to challenge abusive methods. "Until we collectively stand up and say we’ve had enough, it’s not going to change," Starr said.
To protect younger kids, The National Alliance for Youth Sports aims to educate volunteers who often coach children in sports associations. Today, kids play on teams and clubs outside school more than they ever used to, according to Engh, and in these clubs most coaches—often parents of the best players—have had no instruction on how to behave. The central mission of their training, he says, is to help coaches navigate the emotionally charged situations they’ll encounter in competitions, so they know not to pick a fight with an umpire, say, or screech at Annie for letting a ball go through her legs. "The buzzwords in youth sports are background checks for coaches, and concussion awareness," Engh said. "How about basic training?"
Pediatricians also are waking up to the damage a bullying coach can cause. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a statement about the problem and discussed it at national meetings. Swigonski, who has written about the impact of bullying coaches on kids, says that the most frequent question she gets from parents about sports is whether or not a child should be allowed to quit. These unhappy children complain of not getting playing time and feeling inferior to others on the team, but "the parents don’t consider the behavior of the coach as a reason why they don’t like it," Swigonski said, suggesting that schools set standards for coaches and monitor their behavior at practice. Over the long term, she believes kids would be better off if schools adopted athletic policies that promoted lifelong fitness over winning championships. When collecting victories becomes the main purpose of youth sports, the real value of playing—for health, discipline, and fun—is often sacrificed, especially when a frenzied coach forgets that her players are just kids.
And others think that unsavory behavior would decline if coaches were trained properly and treated like educators, not part-time technicians. As it is, most high-school coaches have limited professional training and earn scant respect, and coaches of younger kids are often volunteers. "They’re ignored and told to do whatever they want," Sullivan said. Meanwhile, some coaches lack emotional control and get swept up in the drama of a tight game, according to Steinberg. Others belittle and scream as a last resort, he said, just as harried parents do when they have run out of tools to engender compliance. If more schools provided professional training and institutional support, Sullivan added, coaches who fall back on these methods would learn better ways to inspire their players. But without outside pressure, institutions that hire coaches to bring home wins are reluctant to take action. The cost of re-educating the offenders is high, he said, and school budgets already are tight.
After Erin’s mother came forward, news of her complaint reached the coach. "I don’t think she said my name once during the second half of the season," Erin recalls. But her high-school season recently ended, and she has club basketball to look forward to. Her coaches on that team encourage the players, set high standards, and help them understand and correct their mistakes. "They make you want to go to practice," Erin said. "We’re like a big family on that team … That was not the feeling on the high school team."