The psychology and effects of bad coaching | May 14, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 14, 2010

The psychology and effects of bad coaching

Uncontrolled emotions combined with old-school coaching habits can leave lifelong scars

by Terri Lobdell

A coach's ability to manage anger and frustration is the key to avoiding abusive coaching, along with redefining a longstanding coaching culture that condones drill-sergeant treatment of players, according to specialists in the field, locally and nationally.

There is increasing recognition nationally of the long-lasting damage such coaching behavior and language can cause to individuals who become targets.

Verbal abuse is the most common type, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King. Such emotional abuse includes name-calling, hurtful comments regarding performance, swearing at players and comments meant to demean a person's integrity.

It "impairs the child's concept of self," according to the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation.

"Emotional abuse is, perhaps, the most difficult abuse to identify and the most common form of maltreatment in youth sports," the foundation concludes. Its website lists examples as rejecting, ignoring, isolating, terrorizing, name-calling, making fun of someone, putting someone down, saying things that hurt feelings and yelling.

The coach's ability to manage anger in the face of feeling frustrated and powerless is key to avoiding abusive situations, according to Michael Loughran, a Palo Alto adolescent psychoanalyst and Stanford University adjunct clinical professor.

"Intense feeling states are brought on by anxiety about performance, the heat of competition and all the pressure that brings," Loughran said an interview with the Weekly. "Coaches need to learn to tolerate their own intense emotions under stress and pressure without offloading onto the kids their frustration and anger.

"Coaches who can't do this make the kids the problem."

Loughran said angry coaches without appropriate self-control seek out more emotionally sensitive people as targets. If the anger is ignored or deflected by an intended target, the coach will seek a more vulnerable mark — because the anger needs to be absorbed by another in order to be alleviated, Loughran said.

"Kids with tough exteriors, who can shake off a coach's negative remark, will be dominant in this culture," Loughran said. This dynamic raises gender issues, as boys are more likely to be trained from an early age not to take attacks personally. Girls are more likely to absorb criticism or demeaning treatment.

Coaches may be caught in a vicious cycle, Loughran said.

"Coaches were often raised in the same system, which then gets perpetuated. They were brilliant in their sport, they make this their career, and then realize they can't control the performance of these kids. That only serves to make them tougher, resorting to more yelling, more outbursts, more riding of the kids."

Gunn High School's Athletic Director Chris Horpel agrees that anger management is important.

"The basic problem is that if your personality is such, that you get angry easily or were coached by an angry coach and you haven't learned another way, you're going to have problems," Horpel said.

At the same time, Loughran and other experts say, coaches can be immensely important to the development of a teen's self-esteem. The mirror coaches hold up during these formative years is crucial to their development.

"If an important adult treats them badly, that has a profound impact on their emerging identities," Loughran said.

Shame and humiliation tend to silence athletes who are emotionally attacked and create painful feelings of isolation, Loughran said.

"You're not entitled to how you feel, that is the message."

The Women's Sports Foundation cites "debilitating consequences" from any type of abuse.

Paly sports parent and physician Barb Peters agrees, citing her own observations of coaches who engage in shaming behavior when they pick on kids.

"The results are profound and long-lasting."

Palo Alto psychologist Jeffrey Miller, who also works extensively with adolescents, emphasizes the importance of coaches modeling acceptable adult behavior.

"Adolescents respond best to positive discipline and feedback, to being supported and validated as human beings while being guided and encouraged and challenged to do their best," Miller said in an e-mail to the Weekly.

"Isn't this what coaching is all about?"

Loughran advises that when athletes are confronted with an angry coach, they should try not to take the anger personally. This technique will provide some defense from continuing to be a target for the anger, he said.

Loughran also has suggestions for adults working to resolve problems with a coach, whether school officials or parents. One-on-one interviews can make kids anxious, he said. Even when there are problems, most kids do not want the power to get their coach fired, Loughran said.

He suggests framing the inquiry positively, considering small-group interviews to capture the complexities of the interactions, and providing a good role model for constructive problem-solving in relationships. He suggests approaching kids with statements such as: "I'm collecting descriptions of interactions. Let's not blame or judge anyone. Tell me what's happening on the team. What are your observations when there is coach frustration? What interactions seem to cause problems? We're trying to improve things. How could we improve?"

He suggests working to collect the facts about the positives and negatives and then work on solutions that make sense, including helping the coach learn to express frustrations in different ways.

In cases where kids are targets of alleged abusive behavior, Miller believes it is "unrealistic, perhaps even destructive" to expect the student to approach the coach directly as a first step in resolving conflict. (Loughran agrees.)

"Because of the inherent power differential and the fact that the adolescent already feels unsupported and unfairly dealt with, this is a formula for further distress and disempowerment," Miller said. He suggests instead a neutral ombudsman to help teens find safe support in working through issues. This creates an added bonus of the teen seeing that "healthy adults have rational, realistic ways of dealing with the kind of conflicts that come up in human relationships," he said.

(Both Palo Alto and Gunn officials, however, said they expect athletes to approach their coaches first with their concerns.)

The Women's Sports Foundation similarly recommends opportunities for neutral direction and assistance for athletes outside the athletic department. The foundation also proposes that coach conduct guidelines be distributed to all involved in sports programs and include descriptions of potential violations and sanctions. It recommends educational and training sessions for all coaches about how power and dependence can influence relationships and result in abusive behavior. And it promotes the use of investigatory guidelines to make sure officials follow proper procedures for fair investigation and effective resolution of problems.

These measures would counteract two barriers to emotional-abuse prevention identified by the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation: that people may not be clear what behaviors constitute maltreatment or abuse; and that young athletes may not recognize that what's happening to them is abusive.


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