Signs That Your Child's Coach Is a Jerk

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One of the more difficult situations you may face as a parent is dealing with a coach who is a bully. Unlike the typical "schoolyard bullies," this type of bully is more dangerous and is harder to recognize.

Consequently, many parents don't even realize that the coach is bullying their child. Instead, they trust in the coach's position, and falsely believe that the coach excels at being tough and pushing kids to succeed. Considering this scenario, it stands to reason that bullying in youth sports can have significant consequences.

Why It's Important

Imagine a child who is not only being bullied, but the adult figures in their life unknowingly support that bullying. Next, imagine how devastating that can be. Repetitive verbal abuse, exploitation, name-calling, physical bullying, and other mean behaviors that repeatedly demean players are not only discourteous and wrong but also will eventually take a heavy toll on them.

Many kids quit playing the sport they once loved simply because the coach was a jerk or a bully.

Or, they might experience one of the many negative effects of bullying including developing insecurities and self-esteem issues. Some even develop health problems like sleep issues, gastrointestinal issues, and even eating disorders.

If your child is experiencing any of these issues and abuses, it’s important to recognize that this type of bullying, while common, is not a normal part of youth sports. So, it's critical that you take action. You are your child's advocate. But without your help and intervention, they are left alone to defend themselves in a world where they have little stature.

Signs of a Bullying Coach

It can be far too easy to dismiss bullying behavior on the part of a coach. In fact, many parents overlook what is actually severely abusive behavior toward their child rather than ask the necessary questions. They just assume the coach is tough and that they should not intervene.

While it may sound difficult to tell the difference between the two, there are clear signs that can distinguish between a "tough" coach and a bullying coach. Here are some clues to look for.

Verbal Abuse

Verbal put-downs from a coach, in front of others, are a clear form of verbal abuse. For instance, a bullying coach may humiliate your child in front of others. The coach may also shout, swear, or yell on a consistent basis as well as make offensive jokes at your child's expense. Some coaches even engage in gaslighting.

Verbally abusive coaches also make snide remarks or offer unfair criticism about your child's abilities or performance in a game.

Meanwhile, a tough coach will offer constructive criticism and direction. They might do it with a stern voice, but the words are never hurtful or shaming. And, as often as possible, they will do it in a private setting which does not shame your child.

Intimidation

If a coach intimidates your child (or other players) on a regular basis, this is a sign of abuse. Intimidating behavior may include threatening kids with severe consequences as a way to maintain power and control over them. It may also include threatening gestures, screaming, or making threats to harm them physically when they make a mistake.

Sometimes the abuse may not be as obvious but can be just as damaging or worse. Intimidating comments and relational aggression done in private can be every bit as controlling as those on the field.

Seeding Doubts

A bullying coach may exhibit control by questioning your son or daughter's ability or commitment to the team. They may make fun of them or belittle them both in private and in front of others.

A bullying coach may also blame others for losses or mistakes in a game while boasting that their skills as a coach are responsible for good outcomes. If you see a lot of blame-shifting, that's a telltale sign of a bullying coach. A tough coach, on the other hand, will take responsibility for their actions and the game's outcome especially if they made a mistake.

Meanwhile, a bully may also question your child's commitment if they miss practices due to school or family obligations. While you may empathize with a coach who wants to put the team first and requires the utmost commitment, keep in mind that even if your child puts in long hours and sacrifices personal time, it still may not be enough for this type of coach.

With a bullying coach, the circumstances don't necessarily matter, only that the coach remains in a "one-up" position of control.

Undermining Success

Bullying coaches also may undermine or impede the success of a child. This is especially common among coaches who set unrealistic goals or guidelines for their teams. Doing so, increases the player's chance of failure.

What’s more, this type of coach may bench your child if they know a scout is coming to watch or if you have a lot of family at the game. It's not that your child did anything wrong, it's simply a way for them to establish their control and instill fear.

These coaches punish players for mistakes that are not theirs or bring up past mistakes in order to shift blame for reducing playing time. They may even make it impossible for your child to make a higher level team within the organization.

Trash-Talk or Gossip

If your child's coach trash-talks your child to other coaches or spreads rumors, open your eyes. Bullies often go to great lengths to make others look bad. As a result, they may gossip with others or spread rumors about your child’s performance, abilities, and future in the sport, as well as your parenting.

Their goal is to undermine your child's success and to maintain control in the situation, especially if you have reported the coach or talked with them about their behavior.

Don't expect a coach like this to change when confronted. In fact, a complaint may only escalate their behavior and result in a smear campaign. So be prepared for things to get worse before they get better.

Isolation

Bullying coaches also might engage in social exclusion. For instance, they may leave you off party lists and refuse to include you in team outings, dinners, or meetings and then claim it was just an oversight.

They also may schedule practices or other events when they know you have a conflict in your schedule. And they may go so far as refusing to allow your child to attend games or events.

How to Respond

If your child has been bullied by a coach, you may hesitate to do anything and worry that taking action will make life harder for your child. Yet, your child is depending on you to stand up for what is right.

If you are concerned about taking action, try to find others who are likewise concerned. Finding other families with similar concerns makes addressing the issue easier. Yet, even if you are the only family experiencing this behavior, you still have to do something.

Standing up for your child will not only let them know that you will go to bat for them, but also may spare other children from being similarly abused.

Consider filing a complaint with the sport's organizers or directors. And even if your child has left the sport, keep in mind that filing a complaint may prevent another child from being bullied by this coach. Additionally, keep the situation in perspective but take steps to protect your child's self-esteem and health.

Also help your child learn to recognize bullying for what it is so that they do not blame themselves for the coach's behavior. Remind them that bullying does not mean there is something wrong with them or that they will never be a good player. Instead, bullying is a choice that is made by the bully.

When to Get Help

If your child has been bullied, you may need to tell them over and over that what they experienced isn't right. A child who has been taught to respect authority may have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that an adult in their life didn't have their best interest at heart.

It also can be emotionally devastating for kids to realize that the world is not always a safe place—even among those who are respected authorities. Take the time to teach your child the difference between bullying and normal conflict.

And remember that psychological and emotional abuse is just as bad as physical abuse, and in many ways more difficult to cope with. Bruises and broken bones heal, but a child's psyche can take years or decades to heal from bullying.

So, if your child is still struggling with what they experienced from this coach, consider talking to a professional. This is especially important if your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide.

In fact, according to one study that looked at the role of general practitioners in assessing bullying activity, many young people would welcome having their pediatricians become involved as their advocate in bullying.

Meanwhile, if your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If they are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

It's important that parents keep their eyes open for bullying. In some cases, it can be hard to differentiate between a tough coach—one who has your child's best interests in mind—and a bullying coach. Sadly, bullying coaches are far too common, and yet can be easily missed.

Make sure you are familiar with the signs of bullying and teach your child to recognize these as well. Most importantly, listen to your child if they complain about a coach, even if you think they are overreacting. It's actually very difficult for children to talk about bullying, and if your child has, it is something to look into closely.

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