Emotional abuse or just tough love?


Playing sports is definitely much harder on today’s youth than the last generation for many reasons. Chief among them is the overheated competition our kids are facing in all aspects of their lives. 30 years ago, there was no such thing as "select sports" and "showcases." This extreme competition and the "win-at-all-costs" mentality that comes with it have left some casualties and I see them in my office every week.

Unfortunately, many parents feed right into this mentality thinking they are doing their child a favor by "preparing them for real life."

The vast majority is largely unaware of the destruction going on in their own homes unless it becomes a huge issue. Unfortunately, that is often too late and the long-term damage to young minds has already occurred, often in subtle ways.

I recently heard one of my young athletes complain…

"Whenever I play and know my coach is watching me, I would feel scared.  One mistake leads him to shouting sometimes or cursing at me in front of my teammates and the people watching. It made me feel very ashamed.

After the game, I hate going back to the locker for fear of what the other kids will say to me. Sometimes I feel like crying. I know it’s not only me who gets yelled at and I try to believe that it’s his way of pushing us to do well in the game and win."

Not all young athletes respond this way, but many young athletes can be deeply affected and take hits to their self-esteem and confidence. Most end up wanting to quit before the next season.

Trust me, even if you had the same treatment from your parents or coaches and did just fine, even mild forms of emotional abuse, for some kids, can cause them to feel humiliated, rejected, intimidated and even depressed.

It doesn't matter if it is spoken by the child’s coach, parents or even his or her team mates, it still can make a huge impact, cause trauma and leave a scar that can affect their behavior for the rest of their lives.

Emotional abuse takes many forms, including these phrases that might be common among sidelines: 

  • Name calling- "Hey, Stupid, Skinny, Fatty, Klutz"
  • Threatening - “If you don't win, forget about taking a break over Christmas vacation."
  • Bullying or taunting by a teammate. "You're an embarrassment to our team."
  • Ridicule - "I could have gone faster if I was crawling."
  • Unconstructive questions - "How could you let that guy beat you?"
  • Withholding praise or affection by not speaking to or comforting the child when they play poorly or the team loses and showing obvious signs of disappointment
  • Punishing or yelling for not playing up to your expectations or when her team loses.

What you can do as a parent:

  • Remember that children are extremely sensitive so sitting down with them for a one-on-one, private talk is critical. Let them talk about what they are feeling without interrupting or trying to make them feel better.
  • When you feel they have completely shared everything they are willing to share, explain how coaches are human and may have been coached like that themselves or do not realize how damaging their words are.
  • When necessary, approach the coach with respect to make sure you get a fair hearing and with as little emotion as possible explain how your child is feeling. If the coach does not seem like he will alter his behavior, it may be time to get a new coach.
  • Alternatively, you can band together with other parents on the team and approach the league or organization director. 

Either way, it is up to us, as parents, to not tolerate over-the-top screaming, ranting and raving by any of our children’s coaches. Everyone involved in youth sports must keep a sharp eye and ear out for this, our children’s emotional health is at stake!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

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