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Abuse in Youth Sports Takes Many Different Forms

Pain of Emotional Injury No Less Real

Surprisingly Common

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 

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, or even by more skilled teammates (e.g. bullying). 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.

Adapted from Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins) by Brooke de Lench.

About: Brooke de Lench is a pioneer in child athlete safeguards and rights, a risk reduction in sports and legal consultant. Founding Executive Director of MomsTeam Institute, Inc., Producer/Director/Creator of the documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer" (PBS). Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition. She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @BrookedeLench.  

Updated June 21, 2018