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Why we still allow bullying to flourish in kids sports

Coaches continue to perpetuate behavior that would be unacceptable in any other setting.


In the cellphone video, a teenage boy stands at the front of the classroom as his football teammates laugh. The coach walks to the door and closes it. “We don’t want no witnesses,” he says, to more laughter. After hesitating, the boy complies with the coach’s orders to close his eyes and clasp his hands behind his head. Then the coach punches him in the stomach. The boy doubles over and falls to the floor as his teammates laugh some more.

The clip, shot at California’s Beaumont High School, made headlines after it was turned over to local police in October. Equally shocking, however, were the expressions of support by many of the players and their parents, who downplayed the incident and lauded the coach, Will Martin, for his mentoring influence. “If it’s so bad, why are the kids laughing?” one mom asked, while another parent characterized Martin as a “man of God.”

Martin’s behavior may be an extreme example, but physical and emotional bullying by youth coaches is often still accepted or even defended as a way to improve performance and build character. Some coaches use exercise as punishment, including one in Des Moines, who was subsequently fired for it in 2012. And verbal abuse by coaches such as name-calling and belittling players is common at all levels of sports. In one study of 800 youth athletes, more than a third of the respondents said their coaches had yelled at a kid angrily for making a mistake, and 4 percent said the coach had hit, kicked or slapped someone on the team. (The authors note that if their sample is seen as representative of the larger population of youth athletes, this equates to close to 2 million kids being on the receiving end of this type of physical bullying each year.)

In any other setting, that behavior would immediately be recognized as physical abuse, noted Jennifer Fraser, the author of “Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom.” “Imagine two women in a staff meeting,” she suggested. “Would this be seen as motivating? Would she (the victim) be a better employee as a result?”

In many cases, coaches are simply replicating what was done to them or may be taking out their frustration on their players. “When a coach is yelling like that, they’re modeling poor emotional control,” said Kristen Dieffenbach, an associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University and an executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “When I coach soccer and hockey, I yell — sometimes you need to in order to get the kids to pay attention to you. But there’s a difference between high energy and ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ ”

For kids and adolescents, the impact of being yelled at and belittled — or having a coach slap kick or even punch them — is long-lasting. (Even though the majority of the research looks at peer-to-peer bullying, the dynamic in coach-player bullying is consistent with the imbalance of power that’s generally used in definitions of bullying.)

Players may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation. And parents who do so risk being seen as helicopter parents, Fraser noted.

And in fact, there’s no evidence to suggest that this type of domineering coaching is what wins championships. Instead, coaches who use positive methods have a better track record of keeping kids from dropping out of youth sports, increasing player engagement and developing skills and character, which in turn help teams win. The nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance, based in Mountain View, Calif., and featuring an all-star advisory board lineup that includes winning coaches, such as Phil Jackson, Bruce Bochy and Steve Mariucci, calls this double-goal coaching, which focuses on winning and even more so on teaching life lessons. 

Similarly, experts like Dieffenbach believe the best way to combat old-school coaching is through education. Dieffenbach said coaches often get frustrated and resort to dictatorial techniques because they lack other tools. “Is your job as a coach to dominate, or to lead and develop?” she asked.

Requirements for high school coaches vary by state — in Illinois, for example, prospective coaches only need coaching certification if they don’t already have an Illinois teaching, school counseling or similar certificate. And in Hawaii, the governing body for high school sports only requires that coaches participating in state championship events take a “Fundamentals of Coaching” course and allows them two years to do so, even though they’re coaching players in the interim. The course is offered by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which oversees interscholastic sports federations in each state and the District of Columbia and is one of the main groups offering courses to meet these varying state requirements. Dan Schuster, who oversees educational services for the association, noted that the fundamentals course addresses bullying in the context of providing a safe and respectful environment and refers coaches to additional optional resources on the topic.

In addition to educating coaches, though, we need to look at the broader culture that’s made these bullying behaviors seem acceptable. Rationalizing it through a “win at all costs” mind-set or accepting that it’s embedded in competitive sports — particularly in aggressive ones like football — only perpetuates it. Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL defensive lineman who spent most of his career with the Baltimore Colts and is now a minister, has said, “The great myth in America today is that sports builds character . . . (but) sports doesn’t build character unless the coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it.”

We need to make sure that when we talk about bullying, we’re clear about exactly what that means. In a paper published last month in the Sport Journal, Charles Bachand noted that being able to determine whether bullying in sports is increasing or decreasing depends on having a standard definition. Some of the research to date doesn’t even include key components such as the imbalance of power inherent in the coach-player dynamic, Bachand pointed out.

Of course, most coaches are hard-working, well-meaning and passionate about sports. Those who do end up bullying may simply be frustrated or misguided about athlete development.

But when they do bully players, we have a responsibility to avoid defending or normalizing it. I have a son who plays high school varsity football, and I was sickened not just by the clip of the Beaumont High School coach, but by the parents who defended his behavior. A teen who’s been punched in the stomach by his coach has already been failed once by adults and doesn’t need to be failed again.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the university where Kristen Dieffenbach works.