A recent article in the Los Angeles Times sheds light on the prevalence of coaches who bully their athletes. In fact, a UK study (highlighted in that article) found that up to 75% of the 6000 athletes they interviewed (that’s 4,500 people!) had suffered some sort of emotional harm via their coach at least once. 75% is a significant number, and regardless of whether you’re a parent, athlete, or spectator, it’s probably something you’ve seen before.

It may be difficult to think of a coach as anything other than a mentor, but being a bully isn’t simply defined by age or playgrounds. A bully is anyone who has perceived power over another individual. Obviously, there is a natural hierarchy of leadership in a coach-team relationship, but that doesn’t mean that yelling, name-calling, or insulting behavior is acceptable either. In the article, Karen Kaplan writes that there are signs to be on the lookout for:

“A coach who justifies his behavior by saying he has always talked to players this way and it has helped the team win….A coach who blames his victims by implying his athletes forced him to be harsh because they weren’t up to snuff. A coach who, when accused of one type of bullying behavior, shifts the focus to something much worse that he didn’t do. A coach who escalates the situation by daring the athlete to quit if he or she (or his or her parents) doesn’t like the way the coach runs things.”

Here’s what our sport psychologists had to say…

What are some good ways for a parent or athlete to approach their coach or deal with bullying if they suspect or feel as though it may be a problem?

Dr. Carly Anderson:

“I would recommend that the parent approach the coach and express their concern and the behaviors that are bothersome to them. It is important to ensure that the athlete is not at risk of retribution by the coach for the parent coming forward. If the coach is unable or unwilling to discontinue the bullying behaviors, then it may be time to consider finding a new coach. Certainly if the bullying looks like abuse, it should be reported. Parents and athletes should not have to tolerate justifications for bullying or threats, and should be leery if the bullying seems to be an ‘accepted’ part of your child’s sport environment. Especially with young athletes, being bullied by an “authority” figure like a coach can be detrimental to self-esteem, confidence, well-being and sport enjoyment.”

Dr. Justin Anderson:

“In youth sport, my recommendation would be to talk with the coach directly. Share some observations and concerns. I wouldn’t accuse the coach right out of the gate, but I would share how your child is receiving his/her messages. In higher level sports (e.g., high school), I would recommend having direct communication with the Athletic Director. Share your concerns and how your son/daughter is perceiving the behavior. Sometimes the AD’s are unaware of the behaviors and so it is important to bring it to their attention.”

How does coaching in pro sports differ from coaching at the youth level? Why might yelling or what may be perceived as bully behavior be more acceptable in these situations?

Dr. Justin Anderson:

“Coaching at the pro level is a very different job than coaching at the youth or high school levels. For instance, yelling and getting into adult athletes’ faces can create some motivation and therefore it can be an appropriate approach at the pro level. However, at the youth and high school sport level, yelling and getting in players faces doesn’t help motivate. It often has the opposite effect long term and can de-motivate athletes and lead to burnout. We strongly recommend that youth and high school coaches set realistic expectations and hold their athletes accountable, but do it with a teaching style versus a yelling style.”

What is a good way for a parent to discuss and process the athlete’s feelings and thoughts concerning the bullying?

Dr. Alexandra Wagener:

“It is essential to allow and encourage your child to talk about his or her bullying experience in a safe environment. Empathize and listen to your child without judgment. It is important to remind your child that while he or she experienced someone who was a bully, there are still many people in the world that are full of kindness and compassion, and following in their footsteps is encouraged. Beginning to move forward one step at a time, working together, and reminding yourself and your child that he or she is resilient can help in the healing process.”

In conclusion, the act of bullying is quite prevalent. However, just because it’s “popular” doesn’t mean that it has to be an accepted behavior. It may be difficult or uncomfortable, but for the sake of your (or your athlete’s) mental health, it’s important to speak up. No win is worth the damaging effects of being bullied.