My ten-year-old son was bullied recently. He was told that he was an “embarrassment.” He was told to “shut up.” He was yelled at and scolded in a tone of voice tinged with disgust and disdain. He was told he would be punished for any mistakes he or his peers made in the future.

Surprisingly, this didn’t happen at school. The bully wasn’t even a peer of his. The bully was his swim coach, a young lady of perhaps 26 years of age. She was desperately trying to motivate her swimmers to swim fast in the big meet the next day. And this was her attempt at motivation.

In speaking to the lady in charge of the coaches on this swim team, it quickly became apparent that this type of “incentive” was not only okay with her, it was actually encouraged. She said that 9- and 10-year-old boys were “squirrely” and “needed to be taken down a notch.” She was in full support of her coaches yelling at, embarrassing and insulting young children to motivate them to swim faster. “That’s just the way swimming is,” she said. Had I not spent 12 years of my childhood swimming competitively, I may have believed her.

So this raises some interesting questions…

How do you know if your coach is a bully?

If the coach is a bully, what do you do about it?

How Do I Know If My Coach is a Bully?

To determine if a coach is a bully, you must first know what bullying behavior looks and feels like.

Bullying is aggressive behavior that occurs repeatedly over time in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power or strength. Bullying can take many forms, including physical violence, verbal abuse, social manipulation and attacks on property. Physical violence is not usually a component of a coaching relationship. If your coach is physically violent with an athlete, call the authorities.

Much more common in the world of athletics is verbal abuse and emotional mistreatment over time which can lead to severe and long-lasting effects on the athlete’s social and emotional development. In a world where “more is better” in terms of training and “no pain means no gain,” there is a great deal of machismo in coaches. Most coaches coach the same way that they were coached while playing the sport growing up. This means that many coaches are still operating as if the training methods used in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s are state of the art. Central to this old school mind set is the idea that threat, intimidation, fear, guilt, shame, and name-calling are all viable ways to push athletes to excel. News flash: None of these are worthwhile motivators for anyone. These are the bricks which line the road paved to burnout, rebellion and a hatred of a once-loved sport.

What Does Verbal and Emotional Abuse Look Like in Athletics?

Usually, this involves a coach telling an athlete or making them feel that he or she is worthless, despised, inadequate, or valued only as a result of their athletic performance. And here’s the catch, such messages are not conveyed merely with the spoken word. They are conveyed by tone of voice, body language, facial expression and withdrawal of physical or emotional support. This is a large part of the reason why the problem of bullying in athletics is so hard to quantify – a clear definition of bullying is somewhat elusive. Even if we can define it, as above, it’s highly difficult to measure.

Bullying is partly defined by the subjective experience of the athlete. In other words, if the athlete feels shamed, frightened, or anxious around the coach due to his or her constant shouting, name-calling or threatening, then the label “emotional abuse” is warranted.

How Widespread is Bullying by Coaches in Athletics?

At this point in time, there are no hard and fast figures on coaches who bully. In school, we know that 90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of some form of bullying at some point in their past. In a 2005 UCLA study, Jaana Juvonen found that nearly 50% of 6th graders reported being the victim of bullying in the past five day period. In general, boys are more physically aggressive (physical bullying), whereas girls rely more on social exclusion, teasing, and cliques (verbal or emotional bullying).

In 2006, Stuart Twemlow, MD gave an anonymous survey to 116 teachers at seven elementary schools, and found that 45% of teachers admitted to having bullied a student in the past. In the study, teacher bullying was defined as "using power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure."

Psychological research has debunked several myths associated with bullying, including one that states bullies are usually the most unpopular students in school. A 2000 study by psychologist Philip Rodkin, PhD, and colleagues involving fourth-through-sixth-grade boys found that highly aggressive boys may be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms, as seen by their peers and teachers. Another myth is that bullies are really anxious and self-doubting individuals who cope using bullying as a way to compensate for their low self-esteem. However, there is no support for such a view. Most bullies have average or better than average self-esteem. Bullies, in general, are not loners and misfits with low self-esteem. Many bullies are relatively popular and have "henchmen" who help with their bullying behaviors.

And so it was with the swim team where the coach’s bullying is supported and endorsed by the woman in charge of the team. Bullying does not take place in a vacuum. There has to be an environment around bullying behavior which allows it and enables it to survive.

Back to the original question of how widespread is bullying by coaches in athletics. We know that bullying is rampant among children as well as adults. We know that 45% of teachers admit to having bullied a student in the past. On average, teachers have more training (1 to 2 years post graduate) in areas such as child development and educational and motivational theories than the average coach of youth athletics. So it’s appears safe to assume that teachers are less likely than the average coach to engage in bullying behavior. Assuming that’s the case, it seems safe to assume that roughly 45 - 50% of coaches have bullied an athlete in their past. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, there are approximately 2.5 million adults in the United States who volunteer their time to coach each year. Using our tentative number of 50% would mean that there are roughly 1.25 million adult coaches who have bullied a child athlete in the past. And this number does not even take into account coaches who are paid for their services and who may be more likely to bully due to the pressures and expectations placed upon them.

"So What? A Little Yelling Will Toughen 'Em Up"

The old school of thought was along the lines of the nursery school rhyme “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The old school of thought was that a little yelling at players will “toughen them up and prepare them for real life.” Fortunately, we now know better. A 2003 study by Dr. Stephen Joseph at University of Warwick found that “verbal abuse can have more impact upon victims’ self-worth than physical attacks, such as punching…stealing or the destruction of belongings.” Verbal attacks such as name-calling and humiliation can negatively impact self-worth to a dramatic degree. Rather than helping them to “toughen up”, 33% of verbally abused children suffer from significant levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the same disorder that haunts many war veterans and victims of violent assault. Verbal bullying leads to anxiety, social withdrawal, nightmares, and can negatively impact the psychological health of children. Words do hurt and the scars they leave behind can last a lifetime.

A UCLA study from 2005 demonstrated that there is no such thing as “harmless name-calling.” The study, by Jaana Juvonen, Ph.D., found that those 6th graders who had been victimized felt humiliated, anxious, angry and disliked school more. What’s more, the students who merely observed another student being bullied reported more anxiety and disliked school to a greater degree than those who did not witness any bullying. The major lesson here is that the more a child is bullied, or observes bullying, in a particular environment, the more they dislike being in that environment. So any bullying done by coaches will virtually guarantee a hasty exit from the sport by the victim.

A 2007 Penn State study found that the trauma endured by children due to bullying results in physical changes in the body. The study, performed by JoLynn Carney, found that levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were elevated in the saliva of both children who had been bullied recently and in those children who were anticipating being bullied in the near future. Ironically, when cortisol levels spike, our ability to think clearly, learn or remember goes right out the window. So those coaches who rely on fear and intimidation ensure their athletes won’t recall any of what they said while they are ranting and raving. Repeated exposure to such stressful events has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, greater chance of injury, chronic pelvic pain, and PTSD.

It appears to be the anxiety which is the most dangerous aspect for the victim of bullying. The anxiety stays with the victim and fuels deep internal beliefs such as “the world is a dangerous place in which to live” and “other people cannot be trusted.” As demonstrated in Martin Seligman’s work, such core beliefs lay at the heart of depression. Thus, bullying is directly linked to trauma and anxiety and indirectly linked to depression and higher cortisol levels.

What Can I Do About Bullying Coaches?

If you are a parent, if possible, make the coach aware of his/her behavior. Ensure the safety of yourself and your child first. It’s difficult to predict when you’ll be met with an uncooperative, and potentially hostile, attitude. However, it’s important that you be courageous and stand up to the bullying behavior. To the extent that you sit by, complain in the background, but do nothing to prevent bullying behaviors, you allow it to continue.

If, after bringing it to the coaches attention, you don’t see a change in the behavior of the coach, report their specific behaviors which you view as bullying to any supervisor or league authorities. Be as specific as possible to help others identify and change the behaviors in question.

In extreme cases, you may find that with the people in charge of the organization are in support of bullying coaches. In that case, you must weigh the financial, physical and psychological costs of moving your child to a different team or coach. Staying with the same coach is likely to lead to increased anxiety and decreased athletic performance at a minimum. Moving to a different coach may mean increased financial expenses, driving time and leaving behind the friendship of other parents and children.

If you are a coach, be aware of your tone of voice, body language, and other nonverbal messages. The majority of what we communicate with others is done nonverbally and through tone of voice. Tone of voice provides the greatest insight into how a coach is feeling when he or she speaks to an athlete. Tone of voice alone can convey disgust, delight, disappointment, anger, contentment and much more. It’s not as much what you say as how you say it.

And keep in mind that most of the athletes you coach are not going to become rich and famous. The best you can do is encourage your athletes’ love of the game. So keep it fun. Keep it low key. Turn down the volume on your competitiveness. Remind yourself that it’s just a game. It’s not a matter of life or death. Don’t get overly attached to winning. Focus on helping your athletes perform at their peak level.

If you are an athlete, realize that your physical and psychological health is of the greatest importance. It is the primary reason that you are involved in athletics. So, listen to the feeling in your gut. If you feel angry, ashamed, guilty, anxious or sad every time you come near your coach, you may want to look for a new coach. You have a right to be treated with respect and dignity. Exercise that right. Depending upon how volatile your coach is, and how strong a bond you have with him or her, you may want to try talking with your coach first to see if they are able to change their behavior. If your coach is explosive, talk to your parents first and ask for their support. Ask them to intervene on your behalf. Tell them how you feel. If you go to your parents and tell them you feel anxious, scared, angry or ashamed every time you approach your coach, hopefully, they will recognize the need for a face-to-face with the coach.

As far as my family goes, we’re moving to a different swim team. My wife and I spoke to the people in charge of the current swim team and found that their driving value was merely to win which, in their minds, justifies the use of old school negative motivators such as group punishment for individual mistakes. That’s their choice. It’s their team. And I'm all for winning. It's just that there are far better ways to get it done. So my choice is to take my children and swim somewhere else – somewhere where they are treated with respect and dignity.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. John Schinnerer is the author of “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,” which was recently awarded the “Best Self-Help Book of 2007” by East Bay Express. He has written articles on corporate ethics and EQ in the workplace for Workspan magazine, HR.com, and Business Ethics. He has given numerous presentations, radio shows and seminars to tens of thousands of people for organizations such as SHRM, NCHRA, KNEW and KDIA.

Dr. John Schinnerer is President and Founder of Guide To Self, a company that focuses on coaching individuals and groups to their potential using the latest in psychology, psychoneuroimmunology and physiology. Dr. John Schinnerer hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. Schinnerer has been a coach and psychologist for over 10 years.

Dr. Schinnerer is also President of Infinet Assessment, a psychological testing company to help firms select the best applicants. Infinet Assessment was founded in 1997 and has worked with companies such as UPS, CSE Insurance Group and Schreiber Foods.

Dr. Schinnerer’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development to sports psychology. He is a noted speaker and author on topics such as emotional intelligence, sports psychology, and executive leadership.