Sport enables abusive coaching

June 25, 2022  |  By Dr. Jennifer Fraser

sport enables abusive coaching

By its very nature, sport enables coaches who are abusive to have far too much power. A teacher can’t block a student from learning skills or participating in contests, but a coach can block an athlete from practising, from participating in gameplay, from having the required exposure to earn awards and be seen for recruitment, as well as block him or her from receiving an accurate letter of recommendation.

Sport enables abusive coaching.

Frequently, there are a number of individuals teaching an academic subject. Those who are identified as incompetent, let alone abusive, can be avoided. Students can drop their class and move to a better one. But in most high-schools, there is only one coach or one pair of coaches for a sport. Sport by its nature enables abusive coaching.

One of the greatest power imbalances is that of coach to competitive athlete. A coach can penalize an athlete for reporting abuse in ways that an academic teacher cannot. While most coaches are supportive and committed to athlete wellbeing and success, the few who are abusive have far too much power. They have far too little oversight that is transparent and holds those who abuse to account.

Sport by its nature enables abusive coaching.

A teenager on our son’s basketball team told his mother that at a tournament, the coaches’ hotel room was full of beer. The mother reported her concerns to school administrators. Next thing you know, that boy was benched. He had been singled out by a local group that watches athletes with talent, along with our son, but he barely saw playing time after his mother spoke up.

Our son also spent long stretches on the bench, especially if he shone too bright. One time he scored two three pointers in a row and got hauled off the court. At halftime, the coach told the team it was “his fault” that they were losing. Many other talented players reported similar treatment on both the boys and girls senior teams. The injustice and cognitive dissonance was soul-destroying to many.

Abusive coaches don’t want to win necessarily. Some just want to abuse.

Even worse where we live in British Columbia, Canada there is a rule established by BC School Sports that if an athlete leaves their school to get away from an abusive coach, they have to sit out a year of play. If they’re a competitive athlete and seeking to play college level, this can ruin their chances.

When I contacted the then-director of BC School Sports about this obvious injustice in 2012, she told me not to speak to anyone about it. It was an effective threat and a clear message she wasn’t going to do anything about the abuse, nor was she going to do anything to protect athletes.

Abusive coaches are known to retaliate if athletes speak up. They weaponize the sport against the athlete.

As our son and other athletes at his school discovered, not only would the abusive coaches require silence, so would the BC School Sports system. There was no solution except to endure more abuse if they wanted to play in their final year and try out for college teams. This is yet another example, a glaring example, of the way in which coaches are given far too much power to make or break an athlete.

Amazing that if an athlete in a BC high-school wants to play their sport, but not be abused, they have to submit to the abuse and also keep quiet about it.

Ten years later, athletes across Canada, including BC, are now speaking up by the hundreds demanding the abuse stops. They’re sick of being told to keep quiet and endure coach abuse. And they have been vocal about the way in which coaches are empowered by the broken system to retaliate against athletes who speak up.

Ten years ago, our son was one of the first to sacrifice his sport to avoid being abused.

He gave up his dream of playing in grade 12 and of going on to play college level. He is one of the first vocal athletes speaking up against abuse in sport, striving to protect other athletes, exposing the broken system. Ten years later, athletes are still trying to get the Canadian government to step in and halt rampant, enabled, empowered abuse in sports.

If there’s only one coach or coaching pair of a sport, then this power imbalance must be under a microscope.

Athletes need to do anonymous surveys monthly to identify abusive behaviors. It must be anonymous to avoid retaliation from abusive coaches. The surveys need to be shared with administrators and parents. There’s been far too long a history of covering up abuse done by “armies of enablers.”

If coaches have created an environment of fear, favouritism, and humiliation, they need to step down. No athlete should be exposed to these abusive conditions. Research is clear, such a toxic environment does not produce athletic performance. It creates conditions for worsening abuse. It damages brains.

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