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Emotional Abuse: Youth Hockey's Dirty Little Secret

Does failure of USA Hockey to lead on issue put kids at risk?

Foglietta twin

Emotional abuse IS abuse

Was what the Fogliettas say happened at the rink that Saturday morning in January "borderline child abuse"? It clearly involved a child, so the only real question is whether it constituted abuse.

Experts in the field agree that a child is abused when someone uses his or her power or position to harm them emotionally, physically or sexually. Emotional abuse is a verbal attack on a child's self-esteem by a person in a position of power, authority, or trust, such as a parent or a coach. It occurs even if the attack is not intended by the adult to cause harm, and can take many forms, including insults, criticism or ridicule, or yelling at a child for losing or not playing up to expectations.

If Coach Norcross did at the rink that day what the Foglietta twins say he did, his conduct clearly constituted emotional abuse: as a coach, he was a person in a position of power, authority of trust. By criticizing Austin in front of his teammates by characterizing his asking for the puck as "ridiculous" and the most selfish thing" he had ever seen, and by directly assaulting the fragile self-esteem of a nine-year-old boy, telling him he wasn't even the best player on the team and naming several players who he said had probably scored more goals, Norcross could be viewed as being guilty of emotional abuse.

The LYH board, the coach, and his supporters say none of this happened, of course, but that conclusion is undercut by several telling bits of evidence.

To begin with it is difficult to understand how both the LYH Board and the discipline panel could conclude that the allegations "could not be substantiated" and that there was "no corroborating evidence from other coaches, parents or players." First, to reach such a conclusion it had to decide that the boys and their father were making the story up out of whole cloth. Second, at least one brave mom came forward to corroborate at least part of the Fogliettas' story, and, if Holly is to believed, other parents would have done so but for fear of retaliation.

Third, another parent, while he said he didn't hear or see the coach say anything to Austin, confirmed another part of the Fogliettas' story - that the coach had been yelling at the referees about calls during the game.

And, fourth, and perhaps most significantly, one of Norcross' assistant coaches admitted - almost boasted - that the coaches yelled at the players in the locker room for not playing better, because that's what hockey coaches do.

The disciplinary panel's decision says the LYH board obtained phone and in-person interviews from the coaches and other parents present at the rink that day, none of whom are identified in the record, but not a single coach or parent appeared or testified at the disciplinary hearing, which leaves one with the definite and firm impression that the panel essentially cherry-picked the evidence - much of it obtained, not by the panel, but by the Board outside of the hearing process - to support the Board's initial decision to back the coach and view Holly's complaint, not as one of a parent concerned about the way a coach had treated her nine-year-old son, a coach who, for reasons which may never be known, was let go from two prior coaching jobs, and some, who had known him since his days at St. Mary's High School, say had been a bully ever since, but as a personal attack on one of its coaches.

The only way, therefore, to make sense of the Board's initial finding that borderline child abuse did not occur, or the disciplinary panel's rubber stamping of that decision, is by concluding that they were operating under a completely different definition of what constituted child abuse, one in which yelling at players, telling them they are selfish, criticizing them in front of their teammates, to the point that they cry, think the coaches are "mean" and are scared and afraid, isn't considered abuse at all.

That this was likely the Lynn board's mindset and that of the disciplinary committee finds support in the comments made by Norcross' assistant coach ("We are hockey coaches. Do we yell? Yeah, we do, but it's no different than any other sport. We told them they could have played better"), as well from what one of the player's father told the newspaper: that he had "no problem with any of [the coaches'] tactics" including yelling at referees about calls during the game and yelling at kids "when they need to be yelled at."

But, since when is this acceptable behavior for a coach and not abuse? Is it acceptable simply because it's what hockey coaches do, that it is essentially part of the very culture of the Lynn Youth Hockey program, if not youth hockey or youth sports in general?

USA Hockey: a failure to lead?

That Lynn Hockey does not appear to have viewed what the coach is alleged to have done as child abuse at all isn't really all that surprising, considering that the message has clearly not come from the top, from USA Hockey, that emotional and psychological abuse by coaches of players will not be tolerated.

The Coach's Ethics Code and Coach's Code of Conduct in USA Hockey's Annual Guide contain a lot of well-meaning language about coaches respecting "the fundamental rights, welfare, dignity, values, opinions and worth of all participants," condemning hazing and bullying, reminding coaches to be positive role models for their players, not to publicly criticize them, and not to yell or verbally or physically abuse players, and contain specific policies on sexual and physical abuse, completely absent from the 133-page handbook is any policy regarding emotional or psychological abuse.

Dave Fischer, USA Hockey's Senior Director, Communications conceded in an e-mail to MomsTeam that there "currently is nothing specifically using the wording psychological abuse" in the either the USA Coaching Ethics Code or the Coach's Code of Conduct, although they included, he said, "several points that could be applicable to allegations of psychological abuse."

My repeated e-mails and phone calls to Dave Ogrean, the Executive Director of USA Hockey, in which I asked pointedly why the organization has no policy on emotional/psychological abuse nor recognized it as a problem have not been returned.

Widespread problem

Why USA Hockey lacks such a policy is all the more surprising given both substantial anecdotal evidence and studies suggesting that the berating or threatening of players, inciting violent play, and demoralizing and demeaning young players is endemic, not just in hockey, but in other sports as well

A July 8, 2010 article in the Toronto Star, for instance, cites data on abuse collected by JustPlay, a national sports research firm in Canada, from reports by officials after games, suggesting that direct abuse (including coaches berating or threatening players, inciting violent play, and demoralizing young players) and indirect abuse (coaches harassing officials, opposing players and spectators) occurs in about 40 percent of all youth hockey, baseball and football games in Canada, which triggers a "‘toxic tornado' with long-lasting effects" on the emotional development of players.

The article cites the story of a 14-year-old hockey player who he and his father say quit because of verbal abuse from a coach.
"My coach would scream and freak out over things in practices, breaking sticks and singling me out in the dressing room saying, ‘You [don't] care about this game, you have no commitment to the team and shouldn't be playing," said Josh Shaddock about the environment in which he played as a 13-year-old in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. "It made me not want to go to my games and practices because I was going to get yelled at. It demoralizes you."

A complaint to the league led to a hearing in which officials ruled that the coach committed four instances of misconduct resulting in a four-game suspension and one year's probation.

And as studies done more than ten years apart suggest, emotional/psychological abuse in youth sports isn't new and continues to be a widespread and persistent problem.

According to a widely reported 1993 survey conducted by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission:

  • Almost half (45.3%) of those surveyed (both males and females) said they had been emotionally abused while participating in sports (i.e. called names, yelled at, or insulted);
  • Slightly more than 1 out of 6 (17.5%) said they had suffered physical abuse while playing sports (i.e. hit, kicked or slapped.
  • More than 1 in 5 (21%) said they had been suffered neglect while playing sports (pressured to play with an injury)
  • 1 in 12 (8%) said they had been sexually harassed while playing sports (called names with sexual connotations)
  • 1 in 30 (3.4%) said they had been pressured into sex or sexual touching.

Twelve years later, a 2005 study by researchers at the University of Missouri, the University of Minnesota, and Notre Dame University reported in the Journal of Research in Character Education found that emotional abuse in youth sports was still widespread:

  • More than four in ten coaches have loudly argued with a ref or sport official following a bad call (youth athletes said 48% of coaches engaged in this behavior, although only 20% of parents said they did so).
  • Seven out ten youth athletes have heard a fan (most likely a parent) angrily yell at an official.
  • Four in ten youth athletes have heard a fan angrily yell at a coach.
  • One in eight parents has angrily criticized their child's sports performance (another study, this one conducted in Fall 2005 by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, reported that more than 4 in 10 parents had seen a verbal altercation between a parent and their child that they thought was inappropriate).
  • One third of coaches have angrily yelled at a player for making a mistake, a high rate "of significant concern" to the study's authors, who wondered, "What would we think if a third of our teachers yelled at students for making mistakes, and 1 in 10 made fun of a student?"
  • One in seven athletes made fun of a less-skilled opponent. About one in ten coaches admitted to making fun a team member. These numbers suggests that on most teams there is a high probability that one or more of the lesser skilled players has been at least mildly victimized.
  • More than four in ten youth athletes reported having been teased or yelled at by a fan or seeing a fan angrily yell at or tease another player.

Emotional abuse: the damage is no less real

But even if one assumes that all Coach Norcross did was to yell at the referee during the game (as one father of player said he did), and yell at the team in the locker room after winning the game for not playing better (as one of his assistant coaches concedes they did), and that it was his practice, as the same father said, to "yell at players when they need to be yelled at", his conduct should still be viewed as unacceptable.

The very idea that nine-year-old youth hockey players, or young athletes in any sport - individual or team - somehow deserve to, much less need to be yelled at cannot be squared with what youth sports should be all about: developing skills and self-esteem, learning positive life lessons, and, above all, having fun.

Perhaps because the damage caused by emotional abuse is not obvious, like sexual abuse, or immediately apparent, like a physical injury, its effect is often overlooked and minimized.

But, says San Francisco child psychologist Maria Pease, the damage is no less real, and, in fact, may be much more damaging and long-lasting:

  • Children are deeply affected by negative comments from parents, coaches and other adults to whom they look up and respect. One comment can turn a child off to sports forever.
  • Children are much more sensitive than adults to criticism: being yelled at, put down, or embarrassed is much more likely to have negative psychological consequences and to cause the child to feel humiliated, shamed and degraded and to damage her feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.
  • If the abuse becomes chronic, a pattern of negative comments can destroy a child's spirit, motivation and self-esteem. Over time, the young athlete will begin to believe what adults say about him. Abusive comments intended to improve athletic performance are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.
  • Children who experience screaming on a regular basis will react in certain ways to protect or defend themselves. This may be adaptive in the moment to survive the screaming, but ultimately be maladaptive and constrict their ability to be psychologically healthy over time.
  • A more anxious, sensitive child may be intolerant of screaming very early on, and remove himself from the sport (he maybe the lucky one). However, he is also more likely to endure the screaming without telling a parent or responding to the coach directly out of fear of reprisal from the coach. A more sensitive child who stays in this situation may be more affected physiologically with overall heightened arousal levels as discussed above.
  • A more secure child will likely have the same physiological responses but be less vulnerable to them. He may find a way to tune out the coach, but this may come at a cost of emotional sensitivity. As the child becomes less sensitive to his own fearful feelings, he can become less sensitive to the feeling of others, leading to loss of empathy. He will also become less sensitive to emotions in general, and have a loss of sensitivity to positive emotions as well. He is also likely to resent the coach for putting him in such a psychologically vulnerable position.
  • Children involved in sports often make strong connections and develop a special trusting relationship with their coaches and instructors, and if the coaches' power is abused, children can suffer severe psychological injuries that may last a lifetime. In a 2004 study of emotional abuse of elite child athletes in the United Kingdom, for instance, athletes reported that the abuse by their coaches created a climate a fear and made them feel stupid, worthless or upset, lacking in self-confidence, angry, depressed, humiliated, fearful and hurt, and left long-lasting emotional scars.

Clearly, much, much more needs to be done by sport national governing bodies to address the issue of emotional abuse.

A zero tolerance for complaints?

In its written decision upholding the expulsion of the Foglietta family from the program, the LYH discipline committee said it was based on what it characterized as an "incredible breach" of its zero tolerance policy.

Yet nothing in either the Parent Code of Conduct to which Holly Foglietta agreed when she signed up her twins for hockey in March 2011 or USA Hockey's Zero Tolerance Policy provides any justification whatsoever for basing a decision to expel the family from the program.

The Parent Code of Conduct states, in pertinent part, as follows:

Hockey Parents Make The Difference

Keep in mind that, above all, the motivating factor for most children who enter an organized youth sports program is their desire to have fun. This is particularly true of young children, many of whom are newcomers to the youth sports scene. With a supportive attitude and a fundamental understanding of the "basics" of hockey, everyone will come away from their youth sports experience with a positive feeling.

In The Stands

Parents can take the fun out of hockey by continually yelling or screaming from the stands. Parents should enjoy the game and applaud good plays. The stands are not a place from which parents should try to personally coach their kids. Kids often mirror the actions of their parents; if they see mom or dad losing their cool in the stands, they'll probably do the same on the ice. There will be a no tolerance policy in which no verbal, physical etc. abuse will be tolerated by any parent towards a player, coach, official, parents, etc. at any time. A course of action followed by USA Hockey could reflect [sic] in a suspension, expulsion, or probation based on what a disciplinary committee decides after hearing reviewing and hearing all documentation of the case.

Car and Home

Some parents not only spoil the fun for their kids at the ice rink, but also in the car, believing it is the perfect place for instruction. Parents should try to keep things in perspective. There's more to life than hockey, and the car and home are not places to coach. Parents need to remember that they are not the coach, and the most difficult kind of parent is the one who coaches against the real coach. It's unfair to put children in the position of having to decide who to listen to - their parents or the coach.

At Practice

Parents have to remember that if a child wants to improve, they have to practice - not just play. Even if a child is not the "star" player for a team, practice stresses the importance of teamwork, establishing goals, discipline and learning to control your emotions, all of which are important lessons children can use both in and away from sports.

Zero Tolerance Policy

Lynn Youth Hockey has a zero tolerance policy that mandates no physical abuse, abusive language, threats, berating of any player, coach, official, etc. Lynn Youth Hockey takes this Parent Code of Conduct very serious [sic] and enforces this to the fullest with suspension or termination for life within Lynn Youth Hockey. By signing and dating below you understand that the Parent Code Conduct [sic] will be enforced at practices, games, or any Lynn Youth Hockey event. (emphasis added).

Even a cursory examination of that policy demonstrates it that was designed to prohibit parents from directing abusive language towards a player, coach, official, or another parent at practices and games, and was not intended to be used to punish a parent for lodging a written complaint with the LYH board about alleged abuse of their child by a coach, even if such charge, initially made in a confidential e-mail, was ultimately found to lack merit.

Ironically, while reminding parents to "keep things in perspective", that they set a bad example for their kids if they "lose their cool" in the stands, can take the fun out of hockey "by continually yelling or screaming from the stands", that there is more to life than hockey, that one of the life lessons youth hockey is intended to teach kids is to "control their emotions", and that "berating of any ... official" is a violation of the Zero Tolerance policy, LYH and its supporters among parents of players do not appear to hold coaches to that same standard. Instead, the evidence suggests that coaches are give license to be "intense", to yell at officials from the bench, yell at their players in the locker room even after a win (!), and lose control of their emotions with relative impunity, secure in the knowledge that they won't be called to account, either because parents are either comfortable condoning such behavior (hey, it's hockey, after all), or too afraid to complain to a board because they fear - with good reason - that when push comes to shove, it will come down on the side of the coaches, not do what's best for the kids. In short, if LYH has a zero tolerance policy, it appears to a zero tolerance of complaints of emotional abuse by its coaches.

In addition to imposing penalties on players and coaches for unsportsmanlike conduct towards game officials, USA Hockey's Zero Tolerance policy is likewise directed at parents as spectators at games, by requiring "all players, coaches, officials, team officials, and administrators and parents/spectators to maintain a sportsmanlike and educational atmosphere before, during and after all USA Hockey-sanctioned games." (emphasis supplied). That it is intended to prevent misbehavior by parents at games is clear from the procedure outlined for dealing with such conduct:

The game will be stopped by game officials when parents/spectators displaying inappropriate and disruptive behavior interfere with other spectators or the game. The game officials will identify violators to the coaches for the purpose of removing parents/spectators from the spectator's viewing and game area. Once removed, play will resume. Lost time will not be replaced and violators may be subject to further disciplinary action by the local governing body. This inappropriate and disruptive behavior shall include:

  1. Use of obscene or vulgar language in a boisterous manner to anyone at any time.
  2. Taunting of players, coaches, officials or other spectators by means of baiting, ridiculing, threat of physical violence or physical violence.
  3. Throwing of any object in the spectators viewing area, players bench, penalty box or on ice surface, directed in any manner as to create a safety hazard.

That there is absolutely no evidence that Fogliettas were ever informed that the January 26 decision by the LYH board to terminate the program's relationship with the Fogliettas was based on an alleged violation of that policy, nor, prior to receipt of the written decision itself, were they ever told that such alleged violation was the issue the panel would be deciding. Considered in its entirety, the record thus leads to but one conclusion: that Lynn Youth Hockey knew it had to come up with some justification to cite as a reason for its decision to protect its coach and sever ties with the Foglietta family, and the best it could come up with was a trumped violation of a policy that had nothing whatsoever to do with lodging what it claimed was a false complaint of misconduct by one of its coaches.

Fatally flawed process

Not only does the evidence undercut the conclusion by, and rationale for, the decisions by the LYH board and the discipline committee to sever ties with the Foglietta family, but it demonstrates that the process - if it can even be dignified by calling it that - they followed was so fatally flawed as to be emptied of any substantial legitimacy, suggesting an adult-centered organization to whom the rules governing the conduct of local youth hockey clubs and certification of their coaches appear to have meant very little.

If the LYH board believed, after speaking with Norcross and conducting its initial investigation, that Holly Foglietta's allegations against him were so scurrilous and unsubstantiated that they warranted the program equivalent of a death penalty - termination for life from Lynn Youth Hockey - for violation of the Zero Tolerance Policy, such disciplinary action should have been taken only after a hearing by the appropriate disciplinary authority following MassHockey and USA Hockey rules and procedures, not, as in this case, before such a hearing; only after giving specific notice of the grounds for proposed discipline, which was not provided; before a committee comprised of "reasonably independent and objective" persons, not a panel counting among a Board member involved in the original decision and a coach who shared ice time with Norcross and was friendly with him and his assistant coaches.