#winning at What Cost?

abusive sports culture, toxic sports culture, abusive culture, abuse, intimidation, fear

I’ve learned to listen to my gut. So when I first started hearing students and teachers describe a certain coach with certain words, it struck me as interesting, and I tucked it away. Fast forward to a year later, and I’m a little more than interested now. A child I know is playing under this coach now, and I’m watching carefully.

There has been little to no communication about the try-out process, practice schedule, or expectations. The students are not told if or when players may be cut, nor when students are told if they made the team. The players are not told when practice is, until literally the day before. It could be 6:30am, or 4pm. Players are not told when practice ends. Parents are notified practice is over when they hear from their child. Players were told they needed 4 different color shirts the night before scrimmages. This is disrespectful and unkind to parents and families. Someone needs to pick up that child or arrange a carpool if they do not live close enough to the school. Someone needs to go out and buy the shirts with little notice.

The players are screamed at if they are caught looking over at the football team on another field. The players are told their skills are “shit.” The players fear angering their coach. They fear getting cut. They fear being dropped down to JV. The players also have funny stories of the coach–the things he says sometimes are funny and appropriate. Parents in the community have some warm stories about the coach in other settings.

So I start to ask around a bit more. I want to know more about this person with a long history of coaching in the community. I ask others about their experiences as parents with their children playing under him. I ask others about their experiences as parents in the school. I ask others about their experiences as parents with children who play other sports or at other schools.

And some people tell me: “Oh, he’s just old school.”
“Oh he just hates parents, there are too many helicopter parents.”
“He’s a winning coach.”
“I hate to tell you this, but you can’t protect your kid anymore. It’s a common sports culture where coaches yell at players to not be pansies.”
“Oh, they’re in high school, they hear curse words all the time.”

Let me break this down. Cursing in high school? Sure, kids are exposed to cursing as early as elementary school–through music, movies, friends, family. But it is never appropriate for a teacher/coach to curse at teenage students. There is a boundary and hierarchy of mutual respect that dictates one should not be cursing in this dynamic. Like at church–cursing, no. At the mall with friends, fuck yeah.

As for protecting kids, I’m not one who has ever saved the day for my kids. If they have an issue with their teacher or grades, they are to use their words appropriately to rectify the problem while I sit at home cursing at the cats. So no, my concern does not originate from a purported over-parenting style.

As for being old school, or a winning coach, or a culture of sports–this excuse is tone deaf in our current climate and is an excuse used to enable. Simply because this is how things used to be does not make it appropriate nor effective nor right. This argument is akin to accepting sexual harassment or assaults as part and parcel of working in the movie industry. Or accepting sexual harassment in any workplace. Just because it was, doesn’t mean it’s ok, or that it has to continue to be this way. Right now, the University of Maryland is struggling with the death of a player because of a purported toxic culture. It’s really easy for things to go badly quickly.

Here is the thing that is not being recognized. Any one or two of the specific behaviors are excusable or acceptable or understandable. But one must look at the entirety of the situation. This dynamic and culture the coach has created through the years is an abusive dynamic.

In abusive relationships, there is control, unpredictability, shame, humiliation, fear, intimidation. Power is created and maintained through these currencies. Control and unpredictability over practice schedule, unpredictability over being cut or demoted–these breed fears and obedience. Being shamed and humiliated in front of your peers, inconsistent praise and uneven moods–these breed fears and obedience.

You wouldn’t accept this if your child was in an intimate relationship with these dynamics. Why would you accept this dynamic from an adult who has power in your child’s life? Stop enabling the abuser.

Abusers are also not monsters. It’s not mutually exclusive to be a good father or nice friend, and be abusive. But we all too often want to paint someone as all good or all bad to make it easier for us to reconcile. Just because he is a winning coach and is kind to certain people does not mean he cannot possibly create and maintain a toxic, abusive dynamic and culture.

Our teenage students also did not sign up for military basic training. This kind of “culture” has no place on any sports field. It is entirely possible to be a strong leader and manager who is supportive and kind, and be a winning coach. It takes more work to be supportive and encouraging and motivating. It is entirely possible to motivate athletes to achieve great goals and work hard without being controlling and demeaning.

So I talk to my children about management styles, and how it might be more effective if a person of power and authority utilized other strategies. I talk to my children about kindness and respect and support. I talk to my children about how someone can want something so badly (to play this sport) he/she will accept certain conditions. I talk to my children to recognize inappropriate behaviors and dynamics.

There’s a fear in the community of being labeled “that parent.” There’s fear that the player might get cut or otherwise punished for complaining. These fears are based in reality when stories are shared about past parents and players who dared to air their concerns. These are hard decisions to make, deciding how much is too much, and how much you might tolerate. All children deserve to be in healthy, nurturing, supportive relationships. We all deserve this. That’s the kind of #winning I encourage.

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5 Responses to #winning at What Cost?

  1. Nora Jessome says:

    Right on! It is also coaching for being a bully, not what I would think parents would want for their children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! The recent research in this is clear (no surprise for us) that coaches who use this approach learned it from being coached in this way. It is high time we teach different coaching styles and methods.


  2. LisaM says:

    Not only the mental abuse that you speak of, but what about the physical ramifications? Most of these “coaches” don’t have any knowledge of anatomy/physiology, exercise kiniesiology, sports medicine etc. Children’s bodies, if injured during crucial growth periods, may never heal, leaving a child with life long injuries and pain….for a stupid game that’s supposed to be fun! This summer, both of my children took a “break” from their sport. Parents are so concerned that their child will be “left behind” that they push their own kids at the expense of their physical AND mental well being. I have never seen anything like this in my life! Here in HoCo, it is a toxic mess of “pay to play” sports that only serves the pocketbooks of the adults “in charge”. This is the “free market” of sports being released upon children and the parents are the greedy consumers. Don’t believe me….look up Tommy John surgery and how many 12-13 yr olds are having this surgery done. The amount of ACL tears in teens has increased considerably over the last 5-10 years. Parents buy this shit….hook, line and sinker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point! I hadn’t thought of the issue of lack of knowledge of anatomy etc. And yes, I’ve heard it’s a problem everywhere, of over-use injuries in kids! The irony is I’ve heard the solution many coaches and parents offer is to ensure the child plays multiple sports, as opposed to dialing it all back a bit. The pressure and competition is real, fierce, and overwhelming! I hope your kids stay healthy–physically and mentally!!


  3. Shannon says:

    I completely agree! Abuse is always wrong, and we cannot stand by as parents and tell our children that such behaviour is acceptable under certain circumstances. We need to speak up, and teach our children to speak up, even if we know there may be consequences to their sporting ‘careers’.


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