Emotional Abuse in Youth Sports

Youth sportsIdeally, well organized youth sports programs provide a safe and wholesome environment where young people can have fun, make friends, and develop character, self-esteem, confidence, trust, and the accomplishment of goals. Young people who take part in organized sports programs are more likely to experience a sense of well-being and achieve success. And participating in sports promotes resilience and self-sufficiency. 

But the way they experience sports is shaped by the adults who determine the content, rules, and expectations. Certain behaviors and philosophies of parents and coaches can create either positive experiences or traumatizing experiences for youth athletes.

Emotional Abuse in Youth Sports

Negative emotions include anger, anxiety, fright, sadness, guilt, shame, envy, jealousy, and disgust. Positive emotions we include relief, hope, happiness, joy, pride, love, gratitude, and compassion. – Richard S. Lazarus, author of Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions

Youth sports - player on benchEmotional abuse is behavior that attacks a child’s emotional development and occurs when an individual treats a child in a negative manner that impairs the child’s sense of self-worth. This may be a parent, guardian, caregiver, coach, teacher, brother, sister, or a friend. Emotional abuse is the most common form of injury in youth sports.

Examples of emotional abuse include: rejecting, ignoring, isolating, terrorizing, name-calling, making fun of someone, putting someone down, saying things that hurt feelings, and yelling.

Emotional abuse in youth sports is also:

  • Forcing a child to participate in sports
  • Not speaking to a child after he/she plays poorly in a game or practice
  • Asking why he/she played poorly when it meant so much to you
  • Hitting a child when his/her play disapoints you
  • Yelling for not playing well or for losing
  • Punishing a child for not playing well or for losing
  • Criticizing and/or ridiculing a child for his/her sports performance
  • Providing no love, comfort, guidance, or support

Saying such things as You’re stupid, You’re an embarrassment, You’re not worth the uniform you play in are damaging and hurt young athletes’ self-esteem and their value as a person. If said long enough or strong enough, a child may come to believe such statements and carry them into his/her adult life.

Philosophical Abuse in Youth Sports

Youth sports - SportsmanshipHaving a philosophy of sportsmanship fosters emotionally healthy children. It is the belief that that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with fair play, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s teammates and competitors. It nurtures the idea that the well-being of a young person is more important than his/her performance or winning.

A destructive philosophy in youth sports is the opposite of a sportsmanship philosophy, such as:

  • Win at all cost philosophy ― Winning is the only thing
  • Making a child believe his/her self-worth relies on wins and losses. This belief is established when the first thing you ask is Did you win? What was the score?

Adult Misconduct at Youth Sports Events

Parental rage in youth sports is becoming a commonplace occurrence. A survey of 2,000 youth sports parents and coaches conducted by Liberty Mutual Insurance’s Play Positive Program revealed that 55 percent of coaches have experienced parents yelling negatively at officials or their own kids, and two in five have experienced parents yelling negatively at other kids. Also, in the survey 16 percent of parents say they witnessed a confrontation between parents, and 26 percent of parents say they have witnessed a verbally abusive coach.

Witnessing aggressive and abusive behavior, and being abused, has been linked to adverse health outcomes in adulthood. These include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical disease.  It also increases the likelihood that the young person will engage in risky behaviors, such as delinquency, aggression, and suicidal ideation. Read The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences >>>

Preventing Emotional Abuse in Youth Sports

Young people may not recognize what’s happening to them is abusive, it is up to the adults ― parents and coaches ― to be clear what behaviors are sportsmanlike and what behaviors constitute emotional abuse and to protect youth from all forms of violence, injury, abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

It is the responsibility of parents to know how the coach treats their children. Does the coach exhibit sportsmanlike and emotionally healthy behavior? Parents should especially be aware of coaches who only measure their success according to the won-loss record.

Liberty Mutual Insurance’s Play Positive Program looks to renew the spirit of sportsmanship and remind youth sports coaches and parents of the importance of this life lesson. Parents and coaches are asked to take the Play Positive Pledge to promote good sportsmanship.

Parents should remember that the most important role they play for their children who are athletes is not that of a fan or coach or manager but that of a loving and supportive father or mother.

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