Emotional abuse of youth players is more common than we realize

This is a complex topic, and one I believe we as coaches, parents, officials, and players don’t talk enough about. During my many years of officiating, coaching, and observing youth soccer across pretty much all levels of play, age groups, and both genders, I have unfortunately observed too many situations where boys and girls appear to be subjected to persistent negativity and emotional abuse by coaches and also parents.

For example, during a U17 girls game that I was officiating the coach for one of the teams kept putting his key midfielder down throughout the game. She was arguably the best player on the team, battling hard, and a team player, yet the coach kept blaming her. She was clearly emotionally affected by this.

At an opportune moment during the game I spoke some encouraging words to her, but I wish I could have done more, including talking to her parents. The challenge is that these situations are tricky. Accusing someone of abuse, even just speculatively, is quite the charge and I only had this one game to go on and no other context.

Unfortunately, coaches and parents too often don’t appreciate how quickly negative coaching can destroy a player, take away the excitement of playing a sport, and how destructive persistent emotional abuse can be for a child (and any person of any age for that matter). The effects often don’t show themselves immediately (which makes it more difficult to recognize cause and effect), but they can last a lifetime and manifest themselves in the form of mental and physical health issues.

Coaches and parents submitting the boys and girls to emotional abuse aren’t necessarily intentionally doing it or even aware of it – they often don’t realize that they are doing it because they are struggling with their own demons. Unfortunately, kids are an easy and vulnerable escape valve for those demons.

Parents, tolerating a negative coaching environment is equivalent to tolerating an activity that keeps given your son or daughter physical pain. The mental bruising from the former is far more damaging because it persists, deepens, and damages the core of who your son or daughter is and growing up to be.

Imagine your son or daughter returning home from a daily activity that gives them bruises all over their bodies, every single day. You’d never subject your child to this nor would you accept emotional abuse from a teacher at school.

So why should sports be any different? Probably because of some perverted view that this “toughens ’em up so they can cope better with life.” Exactly the opposite!

The Positive Coaching Alliance has been working for twenty years to improve this aspect of youth sports, but it starts with us parents. We need to know what to look for and proactively identify coaching environments that are negative and emotionally abusive and remove our boys and girls from that environment, and possibly call out the coach for his/her behavior. Some parents also need to take a hard look at their own behavior.

On February 14, 2018, a new law went into effect, S.534, the “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017”, which established the U.S. Center for Safesport and published a parent toolkit to educate parents about the various forms of abuse in sports. U.S. Soccer also launched its Safe Soccer initiative and a Safe Soccer Framework.

To take a closer look at what emotional abuse in a youth sports context can look like, I’m including here some key passages from the above referenced toolkit:

Child abuse is a complex issue. The term may evoke a strong emotional response and can create confusion as people try to agree on what is and is not abuse. Child abuse includes many forms, including physical, sexual and emotional harm.

The complexity is caused in part because individual families and communities have many different values about how to treat children. Further, child abuse is defined differently by the criminal justice system, the civil court system, and clinicians.

The clinical standard is the one of primary importance to this discussion, and it simply is ‘does a child feel as if they have been abused?’ Many acts rise neither to the level of civil nor criminal charges, but leave a child feeling awful.

Sharp observation by parents and coaches, and open communication between parents and children, can help identify when language or behavior has crossed a painful boundary for a specific child, and swift, compassionate intervention is called for.

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological maltreatment, is considered the most common type of maltreatment, but the least reported.

Psychological maltreatment is defined as “a repeated pattern or incident(s)…that thwart the child’s basic psychological needs…and convey that a child is worthless, defective, or damaged goods [whose value is] primarily…meeting another’s needs.”

Victims of emotional abuse are left to feel expendable, which is the exact opposite of the message a child needs to develop healthy self-esteem.

Forms of emotional abuse may include verbal acts, non-contact physical acts, and acts that deny attention or support. The following list describes major categories of emotional abuse, and examples of how they might play out in youth sports:

Verbal

  • Use of degrading or shaming nicknames
  • Repeatedly telling a child they are not good enough to be on the team
  • Repeatedly mocking a child for poor performance
  • Repeatedly calling out a child for their differences (e.g. race, ethnicity, disability)
  • Threats of frightening and inappropriate repercussions from a coach

Acts That Deny Attention & Support

  • Acts or words that reject and degrade a child
  • Consistently excluding a child from playing time, even in practice
  • Singling out a child to consistently have the least favorable position or assignment
  • Consistently having the same child sit alone
  • Consistently giving a child a job or chore that removes them from the rest of the team

An isolated incident of inappropriate behavior may occur when an adult is under stress and makes a reactive comment. Some parents become uncomfortable reading these definitions for the first time, remembering that they may have behaved or spoken like this to their child on occasion. A healthy adult recognizes their mistakes and offers the child a sincere apology. A key factor in the definition of emotional abuse is the ongoing and repeated exposure to these painful and negative behaviors.

The good news is that the negative effects of emotional abuse can be buffered by the ongoing support from a nurturing loving parent or caretaker, but a parent must become aware of the abuse to help.

Please, parents, take a closer look at the coaching environment your son or daughter is subjected to. There is no place for emotional abuse – ever. Even persistent negativity has a lasting mental health effect.

Pull your child out of that environment immediately and share your concerns with other parents to help them make informed decisions about their children too.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

2 thoughts on “Emotional abuse of youth players is more common than we realize

  1. This issue is so very important in youth sports. I don’t know why youth soccer coaches get sucked into this screaming behavior, but it’s real and affects players, parents and clubs. This is what I have observed time and again: attacking players make mistakes and no one seems to care that much. But if a defender makes a mistake it’s obvious, in a critical area of the pitch, and can often result in shots on goal or goals. The incessant screaming we see comes from male coaches, directed at players during a match. If it happens once or twice per match, I think players and parents can accept that. But if you can count on more than one hand the times a coach is screaming at a player, there is a problem with the coach and the club/league should intervene. No such program exists for this kind of intervention. US coaches are now so used to micromanaging player location and action on the pitch, they’re destroying the joy kids have for the sport. You can see it in the body language of the player. My son, who is a good defender and is occasionally a very good player, has had 7 coaches so far playing club and school teams. 3 of them have been screamers, and the screaming directed at my son has killed his joy of the game. It’s not that the coaches are bad people, or bad coaches. It’s that the mentality of the child/player is affected at a formative time in their life and can have bad knock-on implications. The screaming has to stop, and only will stop once coaches stop rationalizing their Xbox management of players on the pitch. We need a committee at the league level called Player Protection to intervene with these coaches. Of course, leagues are run by coaches, so good luck with that!

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    • Fully agree. There is no place for negative coaching – fear and shame are NEVER acceptable emotions. These emotions cause lasting damage and don’t lead to better performance, especially the type of performance needed for player development. It’s a medical/scientific fact: a fearful mind can’t learn, it can’t be creative, it can’t solve problems. And a shamed mind flights – it will want to withdraw.

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