Parents should never under-estimate the importance of coaches in their children’s lives. Coaches can boost or undermine kids’ confidence and self-esteem. If you see any signs that a coach is hurting your young athlete’s confidence, it’s critical to take action.
Parents should be wary of coaches who yell at, tease, put down or intimidate their young athletes.
“I want to know how I should handle a coach who teaches in a very negative way,” says one parent. “He puts the children down and scolds them in front of everybody. He calls my son a knucklehead all the time and gives negative comments. There is very little positive. My son is very sensitive to this and wants to quit.”
It’s understandable this child wants to quit. Insults and bullying can hurt kids’ self-esteem, undermine their social skills, make it hard for them to trust and in some cases such behavior can cause kids to feel anxious and depressed.
Writes John L. Schinnerer , Ph.D., “Verbal and emotional abuse in athletics…can lead to severe and long-lasting effects on the athlete’s social and emotional development.”
In addition, it’s common for bullied athletes to feel as if they are only important in sports when they perform well. The young athletes focus too much on the “win” and the “score” in order to please the coach, and don’t experience many of the social and emotional benefits of taking part in sports.
One of the main complaints from parents is that coaches yell.
Says one parent, “I have two sons who play soccer at the US Soccer Development Academy level. The challenge we have is with coaches who use short-term motivational techniques like screaming, insulting and sarcasm to get the boys to perform.”
Some coaches view yelling as a good coaching technique. That may be because their coaches yelled at them when they were young athletes. They sometimes also believe that shouting will motivate kids. However, a study by McCarthy and Prosser found that coaches who yell don’t help novice athletes improve their skills.
If you feel as if your child is being bullied by a coach, you need to take action. Often, parents are hesitant to intervene. For example, one coach in Portland, Ore. continually bullied a group of 5th grade basketball players. He yelled at them, insulted them and in some cases threw balls at them when he was angry. The parents were afraid of approaching him. Ultimately, one of the parents stepped up and challenged the coach and her son quit the team.
Says Twemlow, “It’s important that you be courageous and stand up to the bullying behavior. To the extent that you sit by, complain in the background, but do nothing to prevent bullying behaviors, you allow it to continue.”
When you speak to the coach, try to avoid blaming him or her. This will only make the coach defensive. You might say, “I’m concerned that your yelling at my son is hurting his confidence.” Don’t say, “You’re a terrible coach because you yell.”
If the coach doesn’t change his or her behavior, be sure to report the coach to the supervising league. It will be most helpful to the supervisors if you can be as specific as possible about the coach’s behavior.
In some cases, you may find that you can’t change the coach’s behavior. If this happens, you should consider moving your child to a different coach or team. “Staying with the same coach is likely to lead to increased anxiety and decreased athletic performance at a minimum,” says Twemlow.
While you’re making these decisions, understand it’s critical for you to nurture your athletes’ physical and psychological health. If your players act as if–or say–they feel angry, ashamed, guilty, anxious or sad about playing for their coach, listen to them. If you can’t improve the situation or find a new coach, your young athletes may quit sports altogether.