Much has been written lately about the emotional damage coaches can do to youth athletes. From the baseball coach who yells profanity and racist slurs at his high school players to the hockey coach who throws a bag of pucks at a 9-year-old player in the locker room to the soccer coach who screams, "What were you thinking?!" several times each game, they often hide behind pitiful statements such as, "I was just trying to motivate them to work harder," or "She needs to have a thicker skin."
While I'll be the first to confront a coach who tries to discount his bullying behavior with one of those pathetic excuses, I am concerned that, with the microscope on the emotional aspect of youth sports, the coaches who selfishly overuse and physically push athletes too far for the benefit of the team's win-loss record or their own ego are going undetected.
To me, this behavior, which can impact a youth athlete for life - regardless of his or her professional sports aspirations - is criminal. That's why I call this coaching behavior committing an "athletic felony."
So when do I think a coach should be charged with an athletic felony? When the coach:
- Has the same pitcher started every game, even when the pitcher complains that his arm hurts;
- Asks a tennis player to ‘suck it up' and play in a tennis match even though the player has searing pain his shoulder (which later requires surgery);
- Has a midfielder play every minute of five games in a two-day soccer tournament although the coach knows she is suffering from Osgood-Schlatter disease and she says her knees hurt;
- Leaves a pitcher in the game even after throwing 155 pitches or has a pitcher throw 250 pitches in four consecutive games (The latter was a Division I college prospect who needed Tommy John surgery as a junior in high school; he is currently rehabbing and hoping to go to a junior college for a year before testing the DI waters);
- Forces a runner to run a race even though he has debilitating shin splints and plantar fasciitis and then proceeds to tell the athlete that he should be "ashamed of his time" - which was significantly slower than his norm - in the race.
These are a few examples in just a handful of sports, but all of them are selfish moves by coaches that can negatively impact the long-term physical health of the youth athlete. And while the child spends the next several months in pain or rehabilitating after surgery, the coach moves on to exploiting the next athlete.
So how can we, as youth sports parents, stop coaches from committing such felonious behavior?
- Know the rules: Find out if your child's sport and/or specific league has rules that protect athletes from overuse injuries (e.g., Little League's pitch-count, days of rest, and catcher-pitcher restrictions). If they exist, make sure you know them; do not rely on the coach to have your child's best interests at heart. You, as the parent, are the only one who does.
- Speak up: If you see the coach breaking safety rules, speak up! Do not sit idly by when your child's health and future are at stake. But don't confront the coach in public. Make sure you wait until the game or practice is over, and it's just you and the coach, to discuss the situation. If that doesn't work, go to the league board or other governing body and file a complaint. If the coach is breaking the rules with your child, he's likely doing it with others as well.
- See a doctor: If your child is complaining of pain or an injury, he or she is most likely suffering from overuse and should be resting, not playing. A quick trip to the doctor can confirm many overuse and growth-related injuries. If, after telling the coach of the situation, your child is still being asked to play too much, you need to step in and demand a change. Again, it's your child's long-term health that's at stake.
- Change teams: If none of the above effect a change, you may need to consider pulling your child from the team for his or her welfare. Look for a coach who puts the youth athletes' health and development ahead of his ego.
It's a well-known fact that athletic coaches can have as much - or more - influence on a child than a favorite schoolteacher. But many coaches fail to realize that, whereas the human brain doesn't give out from too much ‘mental exercise', the human body does break down under the strain of too many innings pitched, too many minutes on the soccer field, too much time on the court, too many miles on the track, too many hours in the pool. And those effects can last a lifetime.
Do you have examples of other ‘athletic felonies'? And what do you think would be an appropriate punishment for coaches who commit an athletic felony?