When does coach yelling crossover to abuse?

It isn't uncommon for parents to cede all control and authority over their child to a sports coach in misplaced deference to the coach's "skill and expertise".  They tolerate emotionally abusive behavior from a coach which they would never tolerate from their child's Math or French teacher.  The misbehavior from the Math or French teacher would possibly provoke them into writing letters of complaint to the school principal or district superintendent, but the coach's misbehavior goes uninterrupted.

Parents accept and excuse the coach' s behavior on the premise that the coach is effective at getting results, and their child/their child's team wins a lot.  Some even think it builds their child's character. And some parents discount their child's complaints about the coach, and return their child to the abusive environment

Expert studies have shown that coach bullying and intimidation may produce results in the short term, but the long term effects can be extremely harmful and jeopardize your child's future.  Emotional misconduct by a coach can also turn an athlete off sports permanently.

That's why we should never tolerate emotional misconduct from the coach.

See   Bullying Behavior by Athletic Coaches

Unlike physical or sexual abuse, we frequently cannot see immediate harm.  Nevertheless,  the emotional and psychological effects are long lasting, and usually show up later on in the form of loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, reduced emotional empathy and depression.  These are issues that will eventually require long term therapy to resolve.

This is what a leading authority on emotional abuse has to say about coach abuse:

Because research that shows that bullying, like other forms of emotional abuse, can have dramatic and long-lasting effects on its victims, impairing social and emotional development and causing substantial harm to mental health. “When bullying occurs in an athletic setting,” “those harmful effects are augmented by the stress kids often feel as a result of athletic competition.
— Nancy L Swigonski, MD, MPH

See Youth Sports Coaches Who Bully Use 4 Techniques to Avoid Blame

As parents, we need to be vigilant.  Even if your habit is to "drop and go" for your child's practice, make sure you drop in occasionally to see what's going on. Red flags include policies that bar parents from watching the practice (for "safety reasons") or coach declarations to your child and teammates that at practice the coach is king, and that parents have no power whatsoever during training.  These policies are designed to keep you out or to impress on your child that the coach can do whatever he/she wants with them.

Parents should pay attention to what's going on during sports coaching.  Take action if you see or hear something that makes you uncomfortable.  Speak to the coach about the behavior and request a different approach.  You can report the coach to the governing body, for a fencer, it would be US Fencing.  Ask the coach for the school or club's code of conduct for coaches to put them on alert that you are aware and watching.

Expert research shows that coach bullies have 4 standard responses to neutralize parents who call them out on their misconduct:

1) Moral Justification - the coach will justify his/her behavior on grounds that he/she loses it and gets emotional sometimes and it is normal, he/she has always done it, and it gets results.  Call BS on the coach!  Many of the intimidation and humiliation tactics of the past are now deemed unacceptable, and harmful to the athlete.

2) Backhand Apology - the coach apologizes for the behavior, and then says that driving the athlete is necessary if there is to be improvement or winning.   So there is inherent blaming of the athlete in this approach.

3) Using Advantageous Comparisons - the coach claims that he/she only goal is to see enhanced performance, and then minimizes his/her misconduct by claiming that the coach's behavior didn't reach into physical abuse.

4) Escalation - the coach threatens the child or parent or both that they can join another team if they don't like what the coach is doing.

In the event that your coach is adamant about changing the behavior, you can speak to the US Fencing SafeSport co-ordinator to consider your options, including the filing of a report against the coach.  In the event of egregious misconduct, you should consider filing a report with US Fencing immediately, whether it involves your child or someone else's.

A systematic pattern of behavior by a coach that demeans, humiliates and intimidates an athlete falls within the definition of emotional misconduct.  The systematic pattern of behavior can be manifested against one athlete, or against all athletes on the team or in the club, and can take place under varying circumstances and contexts. Sometimes, the behavior is on a continuum that crosses into the unacceptable misconduct. These behaviors are violations of SafeSport policy.

Excessive yelling that doesn't serve a productive or motivational purpose is emotional misconduct.  Remember, intimidation, demeaning and humiliating behavior are not considered productive or motivational.

Because of the imbalance of power between athlete and coach, systemic abuse of power by a coach is considered to be bullying, and violation of SafeSport policy.

We must never stay silent when we see these behaviors.

Under the US Fencing SafeSport Policy, EMOTIONAL MISCONDUCT is defined as follows:

(1) A pattern of deliberate, non-contact behavior that has the potential to cause emotional or psychological harm to an athlete or participant, regardless of age. Non-contact behaviors include:

a. Verbal acts

b. Physical acts

c. Acts that deny attention or support

(2) Any act or conduct described as emotional abuse or misconduct under federal or state law (e.g., child abuse, child neglect).


Emotional misconduct does not include professionally-accepted coaching methods of skill enhancement, physical conditioning, team building, discipline or improving athletic performance.

 Examples of emotional misconduct prohibited by this policy include, without limitation:

(1) Verbal Acts. A pattern of verbal behaviors that

(a) repeatedly attack an athlete personally (e.g., calling them worthless, fat or disgusting) or

(b) repeatedly and excessively yelling at a particular participant or participants in a manner that serves no productive training or motivational purpose.

(2) Physical Acts. A pattern of physical aggressive behaviors such as

(a) throwing sport equipment, water bottles, or chairs at, or in the presence of participants, or (b) punching walls, windows or other objects.

(3) Acts that Deny Attention and Support. A pattern of

(a) ignoring an athlete for extended periods of time or

(b) routinely or arbitrarily excluding participants from practice.

Note: Bullying, harassment, and hazing, defined above, often involve some form of emotional misconduct.

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Donna Meyer