Supporting the transformation from good to great
Abusive sports coaching – how does it happen?
Abusive sports coaching – how does it happen?

Abusive sports coaching – how does it happen?

There has been a growing change within society whereby the price of sporting success is no longer “whatever it takes”. That athlete well-being is more important than the number of medals won. The old saying that when the coach say’s “jump”, the athlete should ask “how high?” is no longer appropriate. Today, more and more sporting environments are seeking to create the environment where the athlete and coach can discuss the training, where the athlete can ask why and report their feelings and experiences, and where the coach wants to listen and take onboard the information they are receiving.

So how does it happen – even today – that some coaches can be allowed to behave unprofessionally or improperly? To use methods that are harmful to a child or young person’s overall development? To use methods that were accepted in the 20th Century but are considered as athlete maltreatment in the 21st Century?

This question is relevant all over the world but is asked again in light of a documentary entitled Raising the Bar (Hækkum Rána) that was released in Iceland last week. The documentary followed the development and progression of a team of 8-11 years girls in basketball and has resulted in significant debate within the sporting community, academia and more generally within society. The coach of the team has been criticized for coaching the children as if they were professional, senior elite athletes rather than coaching within the framework and guidelines set about by the National Sporting Association. Guidelines that focus on the long-term social, psychological, and sporting wellbeing and development of the child.

So how does the wayward or unprofessional coach (wherever they may be in the world) be given the keys to the sports facility, given access to children, and be allowed to coach through a philosophy and methodology that is not aligned with agreed values within society? Research on abusive coaches and maltreatment of athletes can shed light as to how the environment supports such behaviour.

It can be said that the long-term maltreatment of athletes, whilst perhaps performed by an individual person should be viewed in a systemic and ecological way.

The nature of the environment, from the interpersonal level to organizational policies and societal influences, contributes to the occurrence and perpetuation of athlete maltreatment.

KERR G. ET AL., 2019

Whilst there is not space in this article to discuss the macro influencing factors (such as the role of sporting federations and society’s attitude to winning), we can examine some of the influencing micro or local factors that reinforce athlete maltreatment.

The socialization of parents

One of the interesting questions to ask is what processes take place that result in parents “accepting” and implicitly supporting an unprofessional or even abusive coach?

For many parents, they will not have the knowledge or experience of what a professional and ethical “talent development environment” looks like.  They place their trust in both the coaches but also the club (as an organization).

  • They believe that the club will have a philosophy of coaching that is in line with nationally agreed standards.
  • They trust that the club is monitoring and guiding the coaches, so that the coaches are working in accordance with the club’s long-term development plan and standards.
  • They put their faith in their child’s coach that they are working professionally and ethically, and in the best long-term interests of their child.

Parents that give their trust to the sporting club environment will thus begin a process of socialization into the culture, values and methods used within that club. Some may ask questions about the methodology being used but will be told that this is the nature of the sport and the way to success.

Parents’ reflections indicated a process of accepting disconcerting coaching practices across their child’s athletic career… and can become silent bystanders to their children’s experiences of emotional abuse.

KERR G. ET AL., 2019

If these parents remain at the club for some time, then they may take on leadership positions within the parental board and thus reinforce the maltreatment of athletes (even their own children) as their own belief systems have been socialized from the time their child entered their club.  

Coach authority

Parental socialization and acceptance are also reinforced by the dominant, authoritative coach who can misuse their power by socializing athletes, parents, and club leaders into believing that only he or she knows how to coach:

  • that he or she is there to show everybody how it is done.
  • that those who disagree “don’t understand”, “have less knowledge”, or “haven’t done their homework”.
  • that parents and athletes should “listen to me, do as I say, and I will make your child great!”

Such a coach can also dominate the club’s leadership – particularly if the coach is the only full-time professional within the club – which can give the coach an even greater stature to do what they want! Thus, the club’s leadership becomes socialized into the coach’s “vision” and explanations.

Furthermore, the coach that assumes the authoritative role, whereby no one should question their actions can result in the athlete offering too much respect and trust in the coach and thus becoming “more vulnerable to experiences of emotional abuse” (Sterling, 2011).

Normalization of maltreatment

Along with socialization, there is also a process of normalization within the training environment itself, whereby the daily maltreatment and inappropriate behaviours, messages and actions are accepted and normalized. Erin Willson (2019) writes that:

The behaviours that are consistent with emotional maltreatment are often considered “just coaching techniques”. Moreover, the culture of sport is often laid in a foundation of aggression, and the “win-at-all-cost” mentality is praised and glorified .

HILLS & KENNEDY, 2012; STIRLING & KERR, 2013

In research into emotional harm among athletes, one elite gymnast noted the following in regards to the normalization of maltreatmentthat she is experienced:

Yeah, there was something that wasn’t right, because that was the only place that I ever got treated like that. You know, it wasn’t like that at school, the kids were fine to me, it wasn’t like that at home, this was the only place. But again it was just kind of drilled in to you from anywhere and everywhere, if you wanted to be good, if you wanted to keep going, then this is what you have to do, this is what you have to put up with, and everyone put up with it (Young woman: international gymnastics).

STAFFORD A. ET AL. (2013)

Athletes and parents can begin to rationalise and legitimize the unacceptable practices as being acceptable. It is also why parents may deny any wrong-doing or problems with their child’s coach – they have become normalized to it and may not have any comparison to alternative training environments where coaches display alternative, more appropriate, and positive behaviours.

Avenues to voice concern

Research by Sterling (2011) reported that within abusive coaching environments, parents often had few avenues to voice concerns about coaching behaviours and methodologies. Parents were limited to either encouraging their child to talk to the coach or try talking to the coach directly. Other avenues, such as talking to the club’s leadership were not readily available and, in any case, the parental leadership within the club may have internalised the values of the abusive coach.

The parents discussed concerns of coaching misconduct with other parents and were informed that this is a part of the normal development process.

STERLING (2011)

Access to training

Many clubs will have a policy of not allowing parents to observe training, with coaches and club leadership citing the “fact” that parents at training can disturb the focus of the athlete. However, as noted by Sterling (2011)limiting or excluding parental access to training can provide the abusive coach with any opportunities to display inappropriate coaching behaviours.  Perhaps the coach that cannot keep the athletes’ focus should adapt and improve their training methods rather than exclude parents?

Personal remarks

Maltreatment of athletes – whether that it is though inappropriate training methods, emotional abuse, or some other form, does not occur in a vacuum. The environment around the coach-athlete relationship plays a big role in what happens over the long-term.

Parents and club leadership need to maintain a healthy scepticism and objective viewpoint when it comes to working with the sports coach. We want the coach to have a philosophy, a vision and a methodology grounded in sports science. But we also want a coach who is a leader that can listen, discuss, and work in a cooperative manner, based on agreed values. The authoritative coach, the manipulative coach, or the coach that “knows best” is not relevant in today’s world.

Parents and club leadership need to create space between themselves and the coach to remain objective. Parents and leaderships should not be giving an open-ended trust to their coaches.

There needs to be a partnership between the coach and the club based on an agreed platform of values. The coach needs regular dialogue, guidance, and support to implement the club’s vision. The key point being, that it is the club’s vision – the coach is working for the club.

Furthermore, the club leadership needs to provide avenues for anybody to communicate their concerns as to how a particular coach is working.

Finally, leadership and parents need to be aware of the risk of normalization and socialization and thus keep themselves open to new ideas. For example, visit other clubs’ environments, invite a Federation coach to hold a talk to the parents (so that the parents get to hear to new perspectives).

Brian Daniel Marshall, 23.02.21

The author is a former elite swimming coach as well as professional club director and mentor to elite coaches.

There has been a growing change within society whereby the price of sporting success is no longer “whatever it takes”. That athlete well-being is more important than the number of medals won. The old saying that when the coach say’s “jump”, the athlete should ask “how high?” is no longer appropriate. Today, more and more sporting environments are seeking to create the environment where the athlete and coach can discuss the training, where the athlete can ask why and report their feelings and experiences, and where the coach wants to listen and take onboard the information they are receiving.

So how does it happen – even today – that some coaches can be allowed to behave unprofessionally or improperly? To use methods that are harmful to a child or young person’s overall development? To use methods that were accepted in the 20th Century but are considered as athlete maltreatment in the 21st Century?

This question is relevant all over the world but is asked again in light of a documentary entitled Raising the Bar (Hækkum Rána) that was released in Iceland last week. The documentary followed the development and progression of a team of 8-11 years girls in basketball and has resulted in significant debate within the sporting community, academia and more generally within society. The coach of the team has been criticized for coaching the children as if they were professional, senior elite athletes rather than coaching within the framework and guidelines set about by the National Sporting Association. Guidelines that focus on the long-term social, psychological, and sporting wellbeing and development of the child.

So how does the wayward or unprofessional coach (wherever they may be in the world) be given the keys to the sports facility, given access to children, and be allowed to coach through a philosophy and methodology that is not aligned with agreed values within society? Research on abusive coaches and maltreatment of athletes can shed light as to how the environment supports such behaviour.

It can be said that the long-term maltreatment of athletes, whilst perhaps performed by an individual person should be viewed in a systemic and ecological way.

The nature of the environment, from the interpersonal level to organizational policies and societal influences, contributes to the occurrence and perpetuation of athlete maltreatment.

KERR G. ET AL., 2019

Whilst there is not space in this article to discuss the macro influencing factors (such as the role of sporting federations and society’s attitude to winning), we can examine some of the influencing micro or local factors that reinforce athlete maltreatment.

The socialization of parents

One of the interesting questions to ask is what processes take place that result in parents “accepting” and implicitly supporting an unprofessional or even abusive coach?

For many parents, they will not have the knowledge or experience of what a professional and ethical “talent development environment” looks like.  They place their trust in both the coaches but also the club (as an organization).

  • They believe that the club will have a philosophy of coaching that is in line with nationally agreed standards.
  • They trust that the club is monitoring and guiding the coaches, so that the coaches are working in accordance with the club’s long-term development plan and standards.
  • They put their faith in their child’s coach that they are working professionally and ethically, and in the best long-term interests of their child.

Parents that give their trust to the sporting club environment will thus begin a process of socialization into the culture, values and methods used within that club. Some may ask questions about the methodology being used but will be told that this is the nature of the sport and the way to success.

Parents’ reflections indicated a process of accepting disconcerting coaching practices across their child’s athletic career… and can become silent bystanders to their children’s experiences of emotional abuse.

KERR G. ET AL., 2019

If these parents remain at the club for some time, then they may take on leadership positions within the parental board and thus reinforce the maltreatment of athletes (even their own children) as their own belief systems have been socialized from the time their child entered their club.  

Coach authority

Parental socialization and acceptance are also reinforced by the dominant, authoritative coach who can misuse their power by socializing athletes, parents, and club leaders into believing that only he or she knows how to coach:

  • that he or she is there to show everybody how it is done.
  • that those who disagree “don’t understand”, “have less knowledge”, or “haven’t done their homework”.
  • that parents and athletes should “listen to me, do as I say, and I will make your child great!”

Such a coach can also dominate the club’s leadership – particularly if the coach is the only full-time professional within the club – which can give the coach an even greater stature to do what they want! Thus, the club’s leadership becomes socialized into the coach’s “vision” and explanations.

Furthermore, the coach that assumes the authoritative role, whereby no one should question their actions can result in the athlete offering too much respect and trust in the coach and thus becoming “more vulnerable to experiences of emotional abuse” (Sterling, 2011).

Normalization of maltreatment

Along with socialization, there is also a process of normalization within the training environment itself, whereby the daily maltreatment and inappropriate behaviours, messages and actions are accepted and normalized. Erin Willson (2019) writes that:

The behaviours that are consistent with emotional maltreatment are often considered “just coaching techniques”. Moreover, the culture of sport is often laid in a foundation of aggression, and the “win-at-all-cost” mentality is praised and glorified .

HILLS & KENNEDY, 2012; STIRLING & KERR, 2013

In research into emotional harm among athletes, one elite gymnast noted the following in regards to the normalization of maltreatmentthat she is experienced:

Yeah, there was something that wasn’t right, because that was the only place that I ever got treated like that. You know, it wasn’t like that at school, the kids were fine to me, it wasn’t like that at home, this was the only place. But again it was just kind of drilled in to you from anywhere and everywhere, if you wanted to be good, if you wanted to keep going, then this is what you have to do, this is what you have to put up with, and everyone put up with it (Young woman: international gymnastics).

STAFFORD A. ET AL. (2013)

Athletes and parents can begin to rationalise and legitimize the unacceptable practices as being acceptable. It is also why parents may deny any wrong-doing or problems with their child’s coach – they have become normalized to it and may not have any comparison to alternative training environments where coaches display alternative, more appropriate, and positive behaviours.

Avenues to voice concern

Research by Sterling (2011) reported that within abusive coaching environments, parents often had few avenues to voice concerns about coaching behaviours and methodologies. Parents were limited to either encouraging their child to talk to the coach or try talking to the coach directly. Other avenues, such as talking to the club’s leadership were not readily available and, in any case, the parental leadership within the club may have internalised the values of the abusive coach.

The parents discussed concerns of coaching misconduct with other parents and were informed that this is a part of the normal development process.

STERLING (2011)

Access to training

Many clubs will have a policy of not allowing parents to observe training, with coaches and club leadership citing the “fact” that parents at training can disturb the focus of the athlete. However, as noted by Sterling (2011)limiting or excluding parental access to training can provide the abusive coach with any opportunities to display inappropriate coaching behaviours.  Perhaps the coach that cannot keep the athletes’ focus should adapt and improve their training methods rather than exclude parents?

Personal remarks

Maltreatment of athletes – whether that it is though inappropriate training methods, emotional abuse, or some other form, does not occur in a vacuum. The environment around the coach-athlete relationship plays a big role in what happens over the long-term.

Parents and club leadership need to maintain a healthy scepticism and objective viewpoint when it comes to working with the sports coach. We want the coach to have a philosophy, a vision and a methodology grounded in sports science. But we also want a coach who is a leader that can listen, discuss, and work in a cooperative manner, based on agreed values. The authoritative coach, the manipulative coach, or the coach that “knows best” is not relevant in today’s world.

Parents and club leadership need to create space between themselves and the coach to remain objective. Parents and leaderships should not be giving an open-ended trust to their coaches.

There needs to be a partnership between the coach and the club based on an agreed platform of values. The coach needs regular dialogue, guidance, and support to implement the club’s vision. The key point being, that it is the club’s vision – the coach is working for the club.

Furthermore, the club leadership needs to provide avenues for anybody to communicate their concerns as to how a particular coach is working.

Finally, leadership and parents need to be aware of the risk of normalization and socialization and thus keep themselves open to new ideas. For example, visit other clubs’ environments, invite a Federation coach to hold a talk to the parents (so that the parents get to hear to new perspectives).

Brian Daniel Marshall, 23.02.21

The author is a former elite swimming coach as well as professional club director and mentor to elite coaches.

There has been a growing change within society whereby the price of sporting success is no longer “whatever it takes”. That athlete well-being is more important than the number of medals won. The old saying that when the coach say’s “jump”, the athlete should ask “how high?” is no longer appropriate. Today, more and more sporting environments are seeking to create the environment where the athlete and coach can discuss the training, where the athlete can ask why and report their feelings and experiences, and where the coach wants to listen and take onboard the information they are receiving.

So how does it happen – even today – that some coaches can be allowed to behave unprofessionally or improperly? To use methods that are harmful to a child or young person’s overall development? To use methods that were accepted in the 20th Century but are considered as athlete maltreatment in the 21st Century?

This question is relevant all over the world but is asked again in light of a documentary entitled Raising the Bar (Hækkum Rána) that was released in Iceland last week. The documentary followed the development and progression of a team of 8-11 years girls in basketball and has resulted in significant debate within the sporting community, academia and more generally within society. The coach of the team has been criticized for coaching the children as if they were professional, senior elite athletes rather than coaching within the framework and guidelines set about by the National Sporting Association. Guidelines that focus on the long-term social, psychological, and sporting wellbeing and development of the child.

So how does the wayward or unprofessional coach (wherever they may be in the world) be given the keys to the sports facility, given access to children, and be allowed to coach through a philosophy and methodology that is not aligned with agreed values within society? Research on abusive coaches and maltreatment of athletes can shed light as to how the environment supports such behaviour.

It can be said that the long-term maltreatment of athletes, whilst perhaps performed by an individual person should be viewed in a systemic and ecological way.

The nature of the environment, from the interpersonal level to organizational policies and societal influences, contributes to the occurrence and perpetuation of athlete maltreatment.

KERR G. ET AL., 2019

Whilst there is not space in this article to discuss the macro influencing factors (such as the role of sporting federations and society’s attitude to winning), we can examine some of the influencing micro or local factors that reinforce athlete maltreatment.

The socialization of parents

One of the interesting questions to ask is what processes take place that result in parents “accepting” and implicitly supporting an unprofessional or even abusive coach?

For many parents, they will not have the knowledge or experience of what a professional and ethical “talent development environment” looks like.  They place their trust in both the coaches but also the club (as an organization).

  • They believe that the club will have a philosophy of coaching that is in line with nationally agreed standards.
  • They trust that the club is monitoring and guiding the coaches, so that the coaches are working in accordance with the club’s long-term development plan and standards.
  • They put their faith in their child’s coach that they are working professionally and ethically, and in the best long-term interests of their child.

Parents that give their trust to the sporting club environment will thus begin a process of socialization into the culture, values and methods used within that club. Some may ask questions about the methodology being used but will be told that this is the nature of the sport and the way to success.

Parents’ reflections indicated a process of accepting disconcerting coaching practices across their child’s athletic career… and can become silent bystanders to their children’s experiences of emotional abuse.

KERR G. ET AL., 2019

If these parents remain at the club for some time, then they may take on leadership positions within the parental board and thus reinforce the maltreatment of athletes (even their own children) as their own belief systems have been socialized from the time their child entered their club.  

Coach authority

Parental socialization and acceptance are also reinforced by the dominant, authoritative coach who can misuse their power by socializing athletes, parents, and club leaders into believing that only he or she knows how to coach:

  • that he or she is there to show everybody how it is done.
  • that those who disagree “don’t understand”, “have less knowledge”, or “haven’t done their homework”.
  • that parents and athletes should “listen to me, do as I say, and I will make your child great!”

Such a coach can also dominate the club’s leadership – particularly if the coach is the only full-time professional within the club – which can give the coach an even greater stature to do what they want! Thus, the club’s leadership becomes socialized into the coach’s “vision” and explanations.

Furthermore, the coach that assumes the authoritative role, whereby no one should question their actions can result in the athlete offering too much respect and trust in the coach and thus becoming “more vulnerable to experiences of emotional abuse” (Sterling, 2011).

Normalization of maltreatment

Along with socialization, there is also a process of normalization within the training environment itself, whereby the daily maltreatment and inappropriate behaviours, messages and actions are accepted and normalized. Erin Willson (2019) writes that:

The behaviours that are consistent with emotional maltreatment are often considered “just coaching techniques”. Moreover, the culture of sport is often laid in a foundation of aggression, and the “win-at-all-cost” mentality is praised and glorified .

HILLS & KENNEDY, 2012; STIRLING & KERR, 2013

In research into emotional harm among athletes, one elite gymnast noted the following in regards to the normalization of maltreatmentthat she is experienced:

Yeah, there was something that wasn’t right, because that was the only place that I ever got treated like that. You know, it wasn’t like that at school, the kids were fine to me, it wasn’t like that at home, this was the only place. But again it was just kind of drilled in to you from anywhere and everywhere, if you wanted to be good, if you wanted to keep going, then this is what you have to do, this is what you have to put up with, and everyone put up with it (Young woman: international gymnastics).

STAFFORD A. ET AL. (2013)

Athletes and parents can begin to rationalise and legitimize the unacceptable practices as being acceptable. It is also why parents may deny any wrong-doing or problems with their child’s coach – they have become normalized to it and may not have any comparison to alternative training environments where coaches display alternative, more appropriate, and positive behaviours.

Avenues to voice concern

Research by Sterling (2011) reported that within abusive coaching environments, parents often had few avenues to voice concerns about coaching behaviours and methodologies. Parents were limited to either encouraging their child to talk to the coach or try talking to the coach directly. Other avenues, such as talking to the club’s leadership were not readily available and, in any case, the parental leadership within the club may have internalised the values of the abusive coach.

The parents discussed concerns of coaching misconduct with other parents and were informed that this is a part of the normal development process.

STERLING (2011)

Access to training

Many clubs will have a policy of not allowing parents to observe training, with coaches and club leadership citing the “fact” that parents at training can disturb the focus of the athlete. However, as noted by Sterling (2011)limiting or excluding parental access to training can provide the abusive coach with any opportunities to display inappropriate coaching behaviours.  Perhaps the coach that cannot keep the athletes’ focus should adapt and improve their training methods rather than exclude parents?

Personal remarks

Maltreatment of athletes – whether that it is though inappropriate training methods, emotional abuse, or some other form, does not occur in a vacuum. The environment around the coach-athlete relationship plays a big role in what happens over the long-term.

Parents and club leadership need to maintain a healthy scepticism and objective viewpoint when it comes to working with the sports coach. We want the coach to have a philosophy, a vision and a methodology grounded in sports science. But we also want a coach who is a leader that can listen, discuss, and work in a cooperative manner, based on agreed values. The authoritative coach, the manipulative coach, or the coach that “knows best” is not relevant in today’s world.

Parents and club leadership need to create space between themselves and the coach to remain objective. Parents and leaderships should not be giving an open-ended trust to their coaches.

There needs to be a partnership between the coach and the club based on an agreed platform of values. The coach needs regular dialogue, guidance, and support to implement the club’s vision. The key point being, that it is the club’s vision – the coach is working for the club.

Furthermore, the club leadership needs to provide avenues for anybody to communicate their concerns as to how a particular coach is working.

Finally, leadership and parents need to be aware of the risk of normalization and socialization and thus keep themselves open to new ideas. For example, visit other clubs’ environments, invite a Federation coach to hold a talk to the parents (so that the parents get to hear to new perspectives).

Brian Daniel Marshall, 23.02.21

The author is a former elite swimming coach as well as professional club director and mentor to elite coaches.

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