Abuse in youth sports: Words CAN hurt you

Forty years later, one man recalls the damage done by a verbally abusive coach. Is yelling really optimal in youth sports today? Photo: pricetimmons.blogspot.com

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2013 – The coach’s spit flew into his seven-year-old victims face: “You’re not tough enough to play football! You’re a pussy! You’ll never amount to anything! Get out of here and don’t bother coming back!” 

The young boy had been quietly standing outside a fence watching his former team practice. He quit the team a few days before because the coach constantly yelled at him (and other kids), but wandered back over to the field just to watch, since that’s where all his friends were.

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When the coach spied him, he stopped practice and unleashed the words that would change the boy’s life forever.

It was 1973 and the boy, James T., lived on a military base in Germany because his dad was a military contractor. The team he wanted to be part of, but very soon didn’t, was run by young recruits determined to whip those kids (ages 6-8) into shape.

After all, it was how they, as recruits, been whipped into shape at boot camp.

Abuse isn’t new to sports but the recent high-profile sexual abuse stories have dominated our thinking about it. Unfortunately, in some regions and in certain sports, verbal abuse is seen as commonplace and even a desired way of coaching. In others, it’s seen as the lesser evil type of abuse.

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The Women’s Sports Foundation has determined its position on abuse in sports.

An excerpt:

“Any type of abuse has debilitating consequences both for its victims and for the society as a whole. In the context of athletic programs it lowers the self-esteem and limits the ability of participants to develop their full potential in sports and physical activities. It impairs the future capacity of its victims to experience full athletic participation and to pursue employment and leadership roles in athletics.

This, in turn, deprives the society as a whole of the contributions of these individuals and damages a genuine appreciation of participant’s athletic achievements and contributions.”

Further, the Foundation defines verbal abuse like this:

“Verbal Abuse – The most commonly occurring type of abuse in sports includes 1) name calling, 2) hurtful comments regarding performance, 3) swearing at players or game officials and 4) comments meant to demean a person’s integrity.”


It should come as no surprise that verbal abuse perpetrated against young athletes can have long-term, devastating effects. According to Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship and Victory Over Verbal Abuse, “No one is more influenced by verbal abuse than a child. The negative impact of verbal abuse on children cannot be measured. Certainly some children succeed who were verbally abused in childhood but are they better people?” 

And that “typical” coach screaming? Not necessary, according to one source in the rugby world. 

In his article, “Verbal Abuse in Sports,” Tim Goodenough, Mental Toughness Specialist for RugbyIQ.com, writes:

“Why screaming sessions mostly don’t work is that the verbal attacks are commenting on the value of the individual, and not their behavior, they are personal and not about the group. The experience of hearing abuse from a trusted source – the coach – in front of the team, is negative enough to not support the player learning anything, other than to not want to have that experience again.”

“Screaming as a style breaks down relationships, a key component in high performance. Fear – often the result of a scream - is a very short-term motivator. Fear can be effective for brief moments of time however over the longer term fear is very seldom effective for high performance. (If ever – I haven’t met an athlete yet who performs at their best by experiencing strong fear).”

James is a case study for how early trauma related to sports can shape a person’s entire life. Now in his mid-forties, James is built like a swimmer and will admit that swimming and running are the only sports in which he truly likes participating. “I was never on a team, though. I never wanted to be. I didn’t want to be the last kid chosen, the fat kid, or the kid who was called out for not being good enough.”

In a society where men are often judged for their ability to be athletes and to talk sports, James shies away from as much of it as possible. “I can hold my own if I have to with clients,” he says of having to converse on sports. “But I don’t buy-in to the importance of sports for kids. Physical activity, yes. But not team sports.”

Four decades later, the abuse James suffered is still painful and evident. And his decision to stay out of sports seems more like a defense mechanism than a true choice. Given his height and build, one wonders if he would have made a good outfielder or forward. Maybe he would have enjoyed coaching.

Maybe his own son would be involved in sports.

James has never been on a team that worked hard to make a play happen, bummed out over a loss, or learned from a compassionate coach who grew men and not just athletes. He never heard his parents cheer him on from the sidelines or felt his friends pat him on the back for making a save.

And he won’t.

All because one coach, forty years ago, abused him so intensely and publicly that he eschewed sports forever. 

Organized youth sports are touted as great places for kids to learn teamwork, responsibility, accountability, and the importance of physical activity. But for some kids, sports are places where they suffer abuse, verbal or otherwise, at the hand of trusted adults, sometimes with the complicity of parents who are as invested in winning as the coaches are.

Experts in the fields of child and sports psychology encourage parents and coaches to make sure kids aren’t treated in a way that, off the team or in general, would be considered abusive. Otherwise, sports will be more detrimental to a child’s self-esteem and future participation in physical activity than not playing organized sports at all.

For more information on how parents can stop verbal abuse in sports, go to www.chillmanager.org.

READ MORE CHILL MORE with Jennie McNamara, the Chill Manager

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Jenni McNamara

With over ten years’ experience in the youth sports as a parent, coach, administrator, and fan, Jenni McNamara has seen how good sportsmanship can positively affect kids and families, but also how poor sportsmanship can have a devastating impact on their physical and emotional health.

As a volunteer with USLacrosse, first on its Youth Council and now on its Board Development Committee, Jenni has seen a national trend toward integrating sportsmanship into activities at the youngest ages. Her company, CHILL Manager ™, provides tools for organizations looking to enhance their sportsmanship efforts.

She writes a blog on sportsmanship at www.chillmanager.blogspot.com and her training information can be found on her website: www.chillmanager.org.


Contact Jenni McNamara


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