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:


  • 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.

Limitations of referee offside calls

This post introduces one of the most difficult decisions a referee has to make. But before we get into the details, I strongly suggest you test yourself using the below video.

It will show you 25 very brief clips that ask you to decide if the player is offside or not. Then at around 4:20 you will be given the answers for each of the 25 clips. How did you do?

What makes it so difficult to correctly decide if the player is indeed offside is the limitation of the human eye and brain. It’s called the Flash-Lag Effect, which makes a moving object appear to be ahead of its actual position.

Click here for a great webpage if you want to dig deeper. I’m quoting:

Top referees are aware of the Flash Lag Effect and practice hard to factor it into their thought process when considering whether a player is in an offside position. They also know that the faster the players are moving, the more tolerance they have to factor in to their decision making.

This is why close offsides are the most difficult calls in the game. The AR has to override what his own eyes and brain are telling him and, if they make a correct call, when it appears to every person in the stadium including himself that he is incorrect, then that call is of genius proportions. 

Here is probably one of the most ‘genius’ decisions in World Cup history. Look very closely at the final still image showing the heal of the defender keeping Chicharito onside.

However, as Offside Explained says, “this decision could have gone either way – at this speed had the pass come 0,02 seconds later we would see a clear offside in the still-image. There is no way for a (human) referee to know if it’s offside or not.

Also, according to the laws we have to evaluate head, body and feet. When players are running fast it is very hard to recognize the position of the feet vs body.

This is why we have to accept marginal mistakes when the player is offside and there is fast movement. But the players and the fans do not accept nor understand this, but there is no other way for the referees.”

The only solution to this is technology – either video replays (as is currently being tested successfully at the top level in select leagues) or somehow tagging and then sensing in real-time the position of every part of each player’s body and the ball, which is much more complicated than video replays.

In the above World Cup example a video replay would have been an obvious decision. The game was halted anyway because a (suspected) goal was scored. The referee would run to the sideline to watch a replay in super slow motion and then determine if the restart is a kick-off for blue (if Chicharito was indeed onside and scored a valid goal) or a free kick for blue (if Chicharito was offside after all).

Unfortunately, at the youth level coaches, players, and spectators will have to accept the errors that the Flash-Lag Effect introduces into the game.


Where are the crazy youth soccer players?

There’s been a notable emphasis in recent years on a primarily passing-based style of play. I see and hear this consistently during many games that I officiate and observe it first-hand during my kids’ practices. Some clubs do it more than others, and this can also differ significantly from coach to coach, but the overall trend seems to be toward ‘quick passing’.

Parents typically also encourage quick passing to a player who is ‘open’. They get frustrated when a player who is holding the ball and tries to dribble past players loses the ball….”Why didn’t he pass? Johnny was wide open!”.

And the large majority of parents don’t have the understanding nor patience to support a coach who isn’t ‘winning’. Keep in mind that coaches have to make a living so it is very difficult for them to resist parental pressure for long.

The focus during practices and games is on being ‘open’ in the right position and then quickly finding a teammate when receiving the ball. The ideal case would be quick one-touch passes and movements into open space to give your teammate another ‘open’ option. It’s what Barcelona in Spain is known for – beautiful ball possession through quick passing and constant movement of players. A style of play perfected during these last twenty years or so.

There is little doubt that this quick passing game is effective for youth teams if the key metric is ‘winning’. For example, two weekends ago I officiated a tournament Final between a U13 boys’ team from close to where I live and a hispanic team from Sacramento.

The local team played the above passing game but the Sacramento team didn’t have this kind of formal playing style – the kids were improvising and they didn’t appear to have the same endurance as the local team. The local team looked better and won the game. Players, coaches, and parents were happy and surely encouraged by their team’s performance. However, note that I saw little creative and/or technical play (apart from good first touch and reasonably accurate passing) from the local team. Good touches, smart decision-making, and good movement, but no creativity.

A couple of months ago I officiated a tournament Final and a third-place game for top U16 boys’ teams. The contrast was striking.

The two teams playing for third place played solid passing soccer. Athletic boys from Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Cupertino hustled hard. The game ended 0:0 and went to penalty kicks primarily because they were evenly matched athletically and stylistically and there was little creativity and inventiveness that might have opened up more scoring opportunities.

The two teams playing in the Final were from the East Bay and San Bruno. These primarily hispanic teams played a much more creative and less scripted style of soccer. They did many unexpected things, showed very good technical skills, and dribbled more. Their ‘tool bag’ was larger. The game was very entertaining for the spectators – even my wife commented on how entertaining the game was. It was a privilege to officiate this game.

So which teams will that U13 local team resemble more in three years from now? The solid, athletic third-placed teams or the creative, entertaining Finalists?

My premise is that introducing the passing game early increases the early success rate for teams and the kids will grow into good, solid players. But these kids will most likely never become very good or even great players. And it is probably also safe to assume that they are more likely to lose interest in soccer because there’s little room for self-expression. It’s all about practicing a system of play and becoming physically stronger and faster. That gets boring after a while. Here’s an article that should be informative in this context: http://changingthegameproject.com/the-massive-importance-of-play/.

This doesn’t bode well for the competitiveness of U.S. Soccer at the international level. Solid college teams, yes, but not good enough to compete against quality players from other countries. And it doesn’t bode well for the ongoing growth of professional soccer here because the lifeblood of a sport – entertainment – isn’t exciting enough. Folks pay for entertainment – the more entertaining, the more money will flow into soccer, which in turn gets more youth to play and allows us to build better facilities and invest in better player development across the country. It’s a virtuous cycle.

On a related note I observed an eight year old girl on my youngest daughter’s team who clearly had a spring in her step during games a year ago. She was clever, inventive and she clearly enjoyed playing. She was a high-impact player and a joy to watch. Her mom told me that she was playing soccer with the boys during every break in school. This was a lot of unstructured street soccer! And she had little formal coaching at the time.

That was a year ago. Unfortunately, she doesn’t look the same anymore. She’s still ‘good’ and hard-working and follows the coach’s instructions, but I don’t see the spunk anymore. I asked her mom about her school soccer and she told me that she stopped that about a year ago. So no more ‘street soccer’. And a change in coaching about a year ago led to much more emphasis on passing over skills and dribbling. We don’t know for sure what the underlying cause-effect relationships are, of course, but it might be a useful anecdote nevertheless.

Why don’t we wait until, say, U14 or even U16 to introduce and perfect systems of play? The creative aspects of player development should be deeply ingrained by then and we are more likely to keep more youth playing for longer. And top coaches know how to introduce systems of play without extinguishing the creative/crazy aspects of the players.

How about we encourage more street soccer? How about we focus more on skills and creativity? How about we dial back the formal systems based coaching and add more free play? How about we encourage and celebrate ‘the crazy ones’?

This iconic Apple clip applies equally to top soccer as it does to technology innovation in my view:

TED Talk – Changing the game in youth sports

Click here for the website of Changing the Game Project

About John O’Sullivan:

John started the Changing the Game Project in 2012 after two decades as a soccer player and coach on the youth, high school, college and professional level. He is the author of the #1 bestselling books Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids and Is it Wise to Specialize? John is also a regular contributor for SoccerWire.com, and his writing has been featured in many publications including The Huffington Post and Soccer America. John is an internationally known speaker for coaches, parents and youth sports organizations, and has spoken for TEDx, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, IMG Academy, and at numerous other events throughout the US, Canada and Europe.

Originally from New York, John is a 1994 graduate of Fordham University, where he was a team captain as a senior, and a member of the 1990 Patriot League Championship team. After a stint playing professionally for the Wilmington (NC) Hammerheads of the USL, John began his coaching career as the Varsity Boys Soccer Coach at Cardinal Gibbons HS in Raleigh, NC. He then moved on to become the Assistant Men’s and Women’s Soccer Coach at the University of Vermont, before delving into the world of youth club soccer. Since that time, John has worked as a Director of Coaching for Nordic Spirit SC (Vt), Ann Arbor Youth Soccer Association (MI) and most recently as the Executive Director of Oregon Rush Soccer Club in Bend, OR. He is currently the Central Oregon Regional Training Center Director for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. He holds his USSF A License, NSCAA Advanced National Diploma, and US Youth Soccer National Youth Coaching License.

John received his BA in History from Fordham University, and his Masters in History from the University of Vermont. He resides in beautiful Bend, OR, with his wife, Dr Lauren O’Sullivan, and two wonderful children and aspiring young athletes: Maggie Shea, age 9, and Tiernan, age 7.

Our experiences at Surf Cup 2015

SoCal Soccer Complex Bues Cup 2015 Low Res
Pano of SoCal Soccer Complex where the girls compete during Surf Cup, taken during Blues Cup 2015, one month after Surf Cup. Click on image to enlarge. About 25 full-sized fields covering an enormous area – this photo doesn’t do it justice. On the far right you can just about make out the car parking area.

surf cup

We just returned from the elite Surf Cup Tournament in Oceanside, CA (http://www.surfcup.com/). This is arguably the top tournament for youth soccer in the country. Or at least in the Western half of the country.

Both of my daughters played (U10 and U13) – the younger one didn’t win a game, the older one went to the Final but lost on penalty kicks against a team from Seattle.

Irrespective of win or loss, this tournament was a very good experience for my older daughter from both a soccer development and team bonding/social perspective. The tournament was well organized. It’s a nice venue, the referees were good, games started on time, the hotels are good, the area has many restaurants and attractions including nice beaches, Legoland, and shopping. So I can fully recommend the event.

However, I wonder if the younger kids really have to travel to tournaments like this. There is a lot of competition and quite a few tournaments in our home region and I strongly suspect that the player development of younger kids won’t suffer if they focused only on regional events.

Keep in mind that the cost for Surf Cup for one parent and one player is around $1,500 to $2,000 (including flights, hotel, rental car, and dining), depending on how long the stay is. Then there’s the time lost for the parents – pretty much the entire weekend plus often an extra day to travel on a Friday and Finals are typically on a Monday. So this can be a four-day commitment. Add more money for every additional parent and/or sibling, of course.

We decided to drive from our SF Bay Area to the tournament because we made it a family trip (for six of us). This saved a lot of money on flights, but the hotel cost increased, of course. Just the hotel was $1,350 and each meal ended up being ~$100 for a total estimated cost of around $1,800 (including fuel and misc cost). Keep in mind that families have to stay in tournament-mandated hotels, which is typical for tourneys like this. So your ability to shop around for cheaper hotels or stay with family is limited.

Of course, the tradeoff to ‘only’ spending $1,800 is that we spent nine hours door to door on the road, each way.

My older daughter also played in the Manchester Cup at the same venue in June and will be playing in the Blues Cup at the same venue in early September. So we are spending roughly $4,500 this summer just for her three tournaments. She is a top player and old enough to benefit from the experience, so we are making this commitment in money and time for her.

But for boys and girls younger than her we simply don’t see the value. Competitive youth soccer is already costly without these travel tournaments. Regular season fees are roughly $1,000. Add to that cost for additional weekly clinics, equipment and uniform plus local/regional tournaments and the time it takes to bring them to practices and games. Total cost for a typical year is roughly $3,000. I just don’t see the value of a nine year old (U10) playing in a tournament in San Diego that costs $1,500.

My suggestion is to wait until the kids are at least 12 years old (U13).

The dangers of sun exposure

I am pasting below an article I came across recently from a U.S. Soccer Referee. I can’t find the actual website anymore despite googling for it so I can’t add a link here. But I pasted it into an email and sent it to my wife so I’m pasting the actual (shortened) text below:

My Time in the Sun – Mike Krebs, U.S. Soccer Referee

George W. Bush. John McCain. Maureen Reagan. I’ll never make the headlines like these people, but I suffer from skin cancer just as they have. Skin cancer is caused by too much exposure to the sun over a long period of time. The problem usually does not appear until later in life, twenty or thirty years after exposure.

I spent my teenage years outdoors – camping, hiking, swimming at a pool or the beach, playing baseball (soccer was not an option then) and working as a lifeguard and summer camp counselor. I loved the sun but hated the greasy, oily feeling of sun lotions and a white zinc oxide nose was just not cool.

I have been visiting a dermatologist every three months for many years and every visit yields new skin pre- or cancerous sites that need to be treated. I will be doing this for the rest of my life.

Here are a few facts about skin cancer:

  • The chronic effects of overexposure to the sun are cumulative, persist throughout life and are irreversible.
  • People can acquire 50% of their lifetime exposure to the sun’s rays by age 18.
  • By age 21, more than 80% of a person’s lifetime sun exposure can be acquired.
  • One serious sunburn early in life can increase the risk for skin cancer by as much as 50%.
  • It is estimated that one of five people will get skin cancer at some time during their lifetime.
  • There are over one million cases of skin cancer reported yearly, increasing yearly.

Regular use of a sunscreen of SPF-15 starting at age 6 months through 18 years is reported to reduce the lifetime incidence of skin cancer by as much as 78%. An SPF-30 or higher product would be even better.

When UVA and UVB (ultraviolet) radiation is absorbed by the skin, it causes a series of damaging reactions called photo trauma. Sunburn, blistering, and redness are typical signs of photo trauma; even tanning is damaging to the skin. Prolonged exposure to either natural or artificial sunlight can cause a range of problems:

  • Prematurely aged, or photo-aged, skin appears dry, scaly, leathery, deeply wrinkled, rough, sagging, age-spotted, freckled, or yellowed.
  • Actinic keratosis – a pre-cancerous lesion or rough, crusty spot on the skin.
  • Basal cell carcinoma (cancer) – the most frequently reported skin cancer develops slowly over a lifetime and does not metastasize or spread to other parts of the body.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma – may develop into tumors and metastasize to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant melanoma – the most serious skin cancer; can spread to other tissues, resulting in death.

Most of my sites have been actinic keratoses. They are usually found on the face, neck, arms, hands and legs, the parts of the body most exposed to the sun. Sometimes a site appears more advanced and a biopsy (a test for cancer) is needed. With three biopsies in the past two years, two have identified sites of skin cancer, one a basal cell carcinoma and one a squamous cell carcinoma; both were surgically removed.

How can you minimize the risk of skin cancer? Easy, if you are going to be in the sun, use an SPF-30 or higher sunscreen. There is even a mixture of sun lotion and insect repellant available for those spring matches near the woods. Apply it before you leave home. If you will be outside all day working a tournament, reapply every couple hours and find some shade under the trees or in the referee tent in between matches. It will help prevent the ultraviolet rays from reaching your skin. Simple!
Play Hard! Play Fair! Have Fun! And Use Sunscreen!

The only thing to say to your child after their game

I love to watch you play.


Germany 2014 FIFA World Cup Champions

My country of birth, folks, and where I grew up playing the game. My first post simply had to be about this. Fully deserved after many many years of hard work by the German Football Federation and countless coaches and players.

Fourteen years to be precise, with the introduction of a revamped youth development system. Germany has always been a soccer powerhouse, but to become true World Cup contenders again required many improvements in player development and coaching.

Here are a couple of articles summarizing some of those improvements:


P.S.: I just have to add this 7:1 win over Brazil in the semifinal. Arguably the worst defeat in the history of soccer.

%d bloggers like this: