At 17, Mary Cain was one of the brightest stars women’s running had ever seen. Now, at 23, having all but disappeared from the limelight, she’s speaking out against the abuse she allegedly experienced as a member of Nike’s Oregon Project, which was the sport’s premier training group until it was shut down in October. But experiences like Cain’s aren’t isolated to Nike, or to elite runners. Athletes of all sports and at all levels can be targets of abuse, according to sports psychology consultant Kay Porter.

In a New York Times op-ed, Cain describes being told she had to maintain a certain weight, at the expense of her performance — and her health. She lost her period for three years. As a result she lacked the estrogen to maintain her bone health and broke five bones. By the time she quit the NOP in 2016, she was at risk for osteoporosis and infertility, was having suicidal thoughts and was cutting herself. She says she felt trapped. Nike has promised to investigate Cain’s claims.

The problem

While research shows an outsized focus on weight can be damaging, as was the case for Cain, it’s not the only way that coaches can hurt young athletes. According to the European Journal of Sport Science, abusive behavior may be physical or verbal, or it can involve a denial of attention and support. Cain says she experienced all three. As a result she faced an impossible choice: leave the world’s best running program and abandon her Olympic dreams, or suffer in silence.

According to Porter, the pressure Cain says she felt to keep quiet is not uncommon. For high school athletes who dream of making a Division I college team, quitting doesn’t feel like an option. “It’s incredible pressure,” says Porter. So, she says, they simply “suck it up.”

One Colorado mom, who asked that her name be withheld so she could speak candidly, shared a similar story about emotional abuse her daughter endured from her gymnastics coaches. The girl, who is now 14, started gymnastics when she was a toddler and had always loved the sport. But a switch to new coaches when she was 10 changed that.

The girl’s mother said she eventually learned the coaches took a punitive, fear-based approach and rarely, if ever, offered positive reinforcement. She says her daughter called one day for a ride home in the middle of practice. She thought perhaps her daughter had misbehaved, but she was being penalized for failing to master skills. “[The coaches] would say ‘You’re not taking this seriously. Go call your mom.’ ”

“Looking back I feel terrible I didn’t pull her sooner from that gym,” says the mom, whose daughter quit gymnastics in 2017 after two years in that program. But she says her daughter, like Cain, felt trapped. She loved her teammates and felt guilty about quitting the sport in which she and her parents had invested so much time and money. Knowing her coaches would retaliate against her in practice if her parents talked to them, she was reluctant to speak up. But the mom says her daughter appeared depressed during her final year of gymnastics. “I just felt like she lost her happy little spirit.”

According to Porter, it’s not uncommon for athletes in an unhealthy coaching relationship to experience a loss of self-esteem and to develop self-doubt that bleeds into all aspects of their lives. The experience can also rob athletes of their joy for a sport.

There are, however, steps parents and kids can take to find sports programs that support kids’ personal and physical growth.

Vetting a Sports Program

Porter recommends asking any potential coach — and their supervisor — about their coaching style. Specifically, she advises parents to ask whether the coach uses resources from Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to creating positive, character-driven youth sports environments. Other questions to ask include “What is the sport culture?” “How do you support the athletes?” and “What are the consequences of losing?”

Conversations with current athletes and their parents can also be helpful. According to Porter, the most revealing source of information is often a chat between the child and a current member of the team. “Always watch the coach,” Porter adds. She recommends attending a competition and observing coach-athlete interactions.

Amy Manson, a trainer with Positive Coaching Alliance, says parents should ask themselves: “Do the kids and coaches look stressed out? Happy? Is coaching done with a teaching spirit rather than a critical or degrading spirit?”

Another factor to consider, particularly for younger children, is the time commitment. Melody Fairchild, director of the Boulder Mountain Warriors youth running club, says parents of younger children should be cautious of any program that practices more than three days a week. Fairchild, who was a high school runner, doesn’t advise kids younger than 11 to focus on a single sport. “Multisport athletes are more well-rounded mentally and physically,” she says.

The training schedule should also allow kids to have a family life, says Fairchild. The gymnast’s mom recalls feeling anxious about emailing her daughter’s coaches about the family’s annual summer vacation, knowing her daughter would be berated for being “behind” upon her return.

Red Flags

While there’s no clear line between subpar coaching and abuse, here are some things that may point to a deeper problem.

Yelling/name-calling. “Look at the coach’s anger,” says Porter. If a coach yells at players, or calls them names, there may be a deeper issue at play.

“A good coach builds up, they do not break down,” says Manson.

Crying after losses. Porter notes that while it’s not unusual for kids to cry after a loss, parents should find out why, particularly if there are multiple athletes crying on a regular basis. The gymnast’s mother says her daughter cried herself to sleep every night for a period just before she gave up gymnastics.

Humiliation. Porter says parents should be wary of coaches who publicly criticize or single out athletes. Cain and other Nike athletes recounted times when they say head coach Alberto Salazar (who is serving a four-year doping ban) made disparaging comments about their bodies in front of teammates.

Dismissed concerns. If athletes and/or their parents are raising concerns to the coach or their supervisor and nothing changes, this could be a sign of a deeper problem. Cain told the New York Times that when she let Salazar and his staff know she was cutting herself and that she was having suicidal thoughts, they told her they were tired and had to go to bed. Salazar told the Oregonian neither Mary nor her parents ever brought these issues to his attention.

Overemphasis on weight. While a leaner frame is an advantage in many sports, excessive pressure to lose weight is unhealthy. Cain says Salazar was obsessed with her weight, to the point of forcing her to take supplements that violated track and field regulations. That claim that has been supported by Steve Magness, a coach who worked under Salazar.

Loss of joy. Every expert I spoke with said an athlete’s loss of love for the sport should set off alarms. The Colorado gymnast’s mother says she wishes she’d been more proactive when she saw her daughter’s enthusiasm for the sport waning. Since quitting the team, though, the girl has found a new sport. She is involved in a climbing program with coaches who emphasize fun, and “her self-esteem has been rebuilt,” her mom says.

Pam Moore is a freelance writer, group fitness instructor and mom based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter @PamMooreWriter.

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