Where did we ever get the crazy idea that to get children to do better, first we have to make them feel worse?” – Jane Nelsen

Early in my coaching career, I was speaking with a parent of an athlete about the methods employed by her daughter’s coach. The parent explained how the coach ruled by fear and demeaned the children, but they won a lot of games and the kids were getting exposure to great opportunities. The parent didn’t seem alarmed by this behavior.

I asked if the Coach’s behavior was acceptable.

“Not really, but he gets results.”

A year later, that same parent brought the athlete to one of my soccer camps and asked me to use the week to help “fix” the athlete.

“Fix what?” I asked.

“I need you to undo all the damage the coach has done. She is lacking confidence, playing tentatively, and seems to not be enjoying the experience at all.”

What good would I do in one week to undo all the damage done by a coach who has had years with her? I was furious. The parent had to see the damage this coach was doing.

“You need to find a new coach.” I said. I couldn’t “fix” her in a week. Besides, the coach would simply unravel all I did with his first practice.

“I understand, but he is our best shot at getting into a good college, and he gets great results.”

This girl was 12.

I did my best to build this athlete back up, bolster confidence, and help with coping with stress that week. I knew all I had done would be gone within a week of being verbally abused and fear-mongered by the other coach.

Two years later, after my TEDx talk on the Power of a Coach’s Words, I got a message from that same parent. She revealed her daughter was an emotional and physical wreck. There were signs of depression, lack of confidence, regular meltdowns, and an unwillingness to participate in sports. The child was broken.

The parent said, “You were right. I should have found a new coach years ago. It’s too late. The damage is done.”

The damage to this young athlete was done.  It was avoidable.

I cannot imagine what a parent must feel like in that situation. The guilt. The shame. The embarrassment of allowing her daughter to be treated so poorly, and her short-sighted approach to sports. She risked everything for a few trophies and empty promises at future success. I cannot imagine the helplessness that parent feels now that her child is ruined and those promises are gone.

Further, I cannot imagine how powerless it must feel as a parent to sit back and watch this abuse happening…and feel like you cannot do anything about it! It would not happen in school, dance, or music. Why allow it in sports?

Just this week, we had another example of terrible, abusive treatment of an athlete, only this time the athlete was able to record it:

Why do we allow this? Why would we go back to it after we have seen a better way to coach and treat children? Why will we not advocate for our own children just because someone gets a few positive results in the win column?

There is no place in coaching for adults who treat children this way. The only way to stop it is for parents to stand up, not simply for the current athlete, but the future human being!

We fail our kids when we ignore the very real long-term damage of abusive coaching for the fleeting celebrations of short-term results. Besides, there are far more coaches who don’t verbally abuse players getting the same kinds of results, but also building up excellent humans too.

The belief that abusive behavior toward children is acceptable as long as the adult goals are achieved can be dangerous. We see this across all youth sports at all levels of play. As long as the kids are winning, the unacceptable behavior is not only permitted and forgiven, but in many cases it can be celebrated and rewarded. It is a short-term view. This is a sprint to the wrong finish line when we allow the wrong means to justify the wrong ends.

Science says that negative coaching is a short-sighted viewpoint

Negative coaching provides, at best,  short-term results. Any person may perform at what we believe is “optimum” output for a short period of time under extreme duress, but research shows at some point the stress will be too much for the performer. As the stress continues to increase the performance will no longer correlate with it. In fact, performance will subsequently “drop off the cliff” inversely with the amount of stress. (See the Yerkes-Dodson Law for more.)

The physical ability of the body can only sustain so much stress before it succumbs. It is not just the arousal-performance curve that proves this is short-sighted. Genetics plays a role. We tend to correlate successful outcomes in children with the adult-employed methods and techniques, though we should be cautious in taking credit at all times. We can scream at a group of 8 year-olds for ten weeks, demean them, pit them against each other, punish the ones who cannot perform and reward the ones who can, and see tremendous leaps in skill, but that does not mean it correlates with our coaching. Saying their success is a direct result of the coach’s work is akin to what Nate Silver talked about in The Signal and the Noise:

“Most of you will have heard the maxim “correlation does not imply causation.” Just because two variables have a statistical relationship with each other does not mean that one is responsible for the other. For instance, ice cream sales and forest fires are correlated because both occur more often in the summer heat. But there is no causation; you don’t light a patch of the Montana brush on fire when you buy a pint of Haagen-Dazs.”

In fact, genetics and normal childhood development may play a greater role than any screaming a coach. Some children develop faster than others. Some win the genetic lottery and perform well at young ages in comparison to peers. No outside force created the rapid development. It was mere biological development. They were more physically apt to perform the skills and progressed quickly.

Secondly, the change is more related to brain development than a screamer with a clipboard. The child’s brain is filled with billions of neural connections. At young ages, the brain is rapidly developing and changing as children interact with the world around them. Synaptic connections are either pruned or enhanced based on whether they are used. Use a certain neural connection more often and it fires more efficiently. This is skill. Build a neural pathway, use it more often, make it more efficient. Do not use it enough and the brain will prune that connection. Some children are building neural skill highways and that shows very clear skill development.

This also explains why some children can fare better than others. This is where the coach’s words can actually correlate with development. Some kids are simply ahead in the development process and can perform the requested skill. Some are not. The ones who perform well get encouragement or praise and will attempt it again and again to receive that praise.

Others fail at the skill and are ridiculed by the coach. The brain is stressed. The amygdala reacts, hindering performance. The skill is not “grooved”. Furthermore, they avoid performing the skill in the future to avoid the pain of ridicule. The neural pathway is neglected and pruned.

Sports is a marathon. Aim for the right finish line and there’s no need to sprint. Exercise patience, have empathy, and let sports develop what matters more than a few victories: values, life skills, habits of excellence, and behaviors that benefit children when the game ends.

What is the long-term damage?

Even if a coach is getting results with negative coaching behaviors now, those behaviors are detrimental to long-term success. Biology, brain science, and psychological adaptation may account for results in the first few years of exposure to this kind of behavior, but in the long run, the system will break down under the stress.

What long-term cost will the negative words our coaches speak to our children have on them? Is this worth the “results” we see now?

Think of it like a fuel line in a high-performance vehicle. We add something to the fuel to give it a boost for short runs. We win a few races because our car is faster than the others, but that additive is building up in the fueling line. Soon that additive clogs the fuel line enough that less fuel is getting through. That clogging will one day not only prohibit peak performance, it could cause the entire engine to shut down.

The negative words our coaches use with our children are the additive to the fuel. Children are processing their own words, their parents’ words, their teammates’ words, and so on. The coach’s words, because of the immense influential power we hold, are the fuel additive. Positive words are clean burning and leave no “build up”. Negative words leave a residue.

They aren’t simply spoken and forgotten. They are remembered. They leave marks. They build up until the player no longer has a voice of his or her own. The player only hears the words of the coach. Those are the echoes they hear. The negative words will prohibit performance and destroy the engine in the long run.

Short-term results from destructive language toward children extracts a massive long-term cost. Are those short-term results worth it? (Here is a list of the actual damage done by verbal abuse)

What is a parent to do?

  1. We must focus on the development of the future human and not the current athlete and results. What do we want for our children 20 years from now? When the ball stops rolling and life takes over, do their sport skills become life skills? Sports has that massive opportunity to shape character traits teach life skills but only if we make that the priority instead of “results”.
  2. We must evaluate coaches and clubs on how they positively impact the future human and not whether they get these short-term results. We must hold coaches accountable to the same standards we would expect of any other adult who holds tremendous influence over our children.
  3. We must be our child’s advocate. Instead of stressing over playing time or which team they made, we should be ensuring they are in the right environment to help them grow and develop into the amazing humans we wish them to be.
  4. We must find a coach that keeps them loving the game. Remember 0% of children who quit sports get an athletic scholarship. First and foremost they must love the game and stay in the game, and negative coaching usually drives them out.

Think about the conversation you’ll have with your child in 20 years. When you look back on the sporting career and the lessons learned. When you evaluate whether it was all worth it. Will you be apologizing to your child for not getting her away from that abusive coach sooner? Or will you be grateful she had an experience with an amazing adult who helped transform her into this truly wonderful human being too? Were the “results” of a few youth sports tournaments worth trading the future happiness and success of your child?

Nothing will change until we become advocates for the children in the game, whether they are our flesh and blood, or another’s. Take the long view, mom and dad, and choose to end abusive coaching. We shouldn’t feel helpless about the way coaches treat our children ever again.


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