Coach bullying: More frequent than you might think

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(CNN) — Just like issues of concussions and hydration in sports at all levels, bullying by athletic coaches needs to be brought to the forefront.

It happens more frequently than you might think, researchers have found, although it’s under-acknowledged.

Although the issue hasn’t been extensively researched, one study found that 45% of children reported verbal misconduct from coaches, including name-calling and insults during play. Another study of 4,500 students who reported at least one incident of emotional harm during their sports tenure showed that nearly one-third pinpointed their coach as the main source.

Pediatricians are regularly asked by patients and their parents about such bullying. Both parents and pediatricians are often confused by the responses from the coaches, athletic departments and school administrators when the behavior is brought to their attention.

I’ve written a perspective paper on this issue with Brett Enneking and Kristin Hendrix in the journal Pediatrics. In one case we learned of, a woman entered a gym when picking her daughter up early from basketball practice and saw the coach screaming at the team that they lacked intelligence and were lazy because they had not executed a play properly.

When she confronted the coach, she was told that no one was allowed in the gym during practice “for safety reasons.”

After asking around and finding that the coach had a history of intimidating players, she approached the principal, who told her he had spoken to the coach, and the coach had apologized. The coach, he said, was successful and won a state title the year before but sometimes got “overexcited.”

As we note in our perspective paper, most research on bullying addresses peer-to-peer bullying, but “nothing in the definition (of bullying) requires a peer-to-peer relationship, only one individual with perceived power over another.”

Bullying can have dramatic and long-lasting effects on victims, studies have showed.

We have observed four defensive techniques that bullying coaches have used to rationalize and minimize others’ negative perceptions of their behavior. When pediatricians can identify these defensive techniques, they are better able to counsel parents and educate school officials about the use of these techniques in order to maintain focus on the behavior that needs to be addressed.

Moral justification

The bully attempts to portray the behavior as socially acceptable. They use normalization statements like “all coaches lose it once in a while” or “this is how we’ve always done things, and we win games.”

By arguing that the behavior is normal, they attempt to show that common behavior is acceptable behavior. When a culture of bullying is accepted within a team or school, it may actually seem normal, and bullying of athletes tends to be rationalized and ignored.

Backhand apology

This sounds like, “I am really sorry; I got a little carried away, but we really need to work on fundamentals if we are going to win.”

There are two problems presented. First, the coach is minimizing the harm by saying “a little”; second, he or she places the blame on the victims by implying that if the team had mastered fundamentals, he or she would not have acted in such a manner. The apology becomes part of the bullying behavior cycle because it is a power play that belittles the victim.

Advantageous comparisons

A coach might say, “I never push them around or lay a finger on them.” Even if physical violence was not the concern, the coach implies that there are far worse behaviors, to downplay the severity of his actual misconduct.


Inescalation, the “stakes” are raised until the person with the grievance gives up. Here, the bully essentially “bluffs” the person making the complaint into backing down.

With athletes, the coach may make statements like, “If you don’t like the way I do things, you can quit the team.” The bully is not necessarily escalating his bullying behavior but escalating the situation by presenting the secondary consequences a victim might face by fighting back.

Bullying by coaches should be immediately reported to school officials, and a report to child welfare officials may also be warranted.

Such behavior is unacceptable, and coaches should face consequences for not only physical but also verbal misconduct, including demeaning, name-calling and insulting young athletes.

By Dr. Nancy Swigonski, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Dr. Nancy Swigonski is a pediatrician and professor in the Fairbanks School of Public Health and Indiana University School of Medicine. She co-authored a perspective paper published Monday in the journal Pediatrics on bullying by coaches.

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