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Article on abuse by coaches has me thinking

A friend of mine recently forwarded me a link to an article originally published in the Toronto Star. The article is entitled, “Out-of-control amateur coaches mentally abuse players: Direct or indirect abuse occurs in about 40 per cent of youth hockey, baseball and football games, researchers say.” (Toronto Star, July 8, 2010).

Of course, the article grabbed my attention and made me think. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the “out of control coach” phenomenon in hockey (I’ve seen coaches from the opposing team “lose their minds” as young as the Novice level, it was awful) but I was certainly surprised to learn that:

1)       The problem seems to be so rampant, both in hockey, and in other sports…(seriously, abuse occurs in 40% of games?)

2)       There is an organization that tracks reports of abusive incidents on behalf of sporting organizations (check out JustPlay)

3)       I am not completely sure what type of behaviour by coaches would be classified as “abusive” towards children.

Of those three “surprises”, the most troubling to me is the third. I consider myself pretty astute when it comes to social justice, equality, and human rights, and I can easily identify obvious cases of abuse (consider Graham James, nothing could be clearer than that example). But it seems to me that when it comes to sports, the line between what constitutes abuse and what doesn’t gets just a tiny bit fuzzy for a lot of people. According to the Toronto Star article , direct abuses include coaches berating or threatening players, inciting violent play and demoralizing young players, while indirect abuses include coaches harassing officials, opposing players and spectators. Are we allowing certain types of abuse occur right in front of us without saying a word?

When we as parents enrol our children in sports, we are handing them over to the coaches for several hours a week and trust that they have our child’s best interests at heart. However, just like everyone has different parenting styles, there are lots of different coaching styles as well. Some coaches use positive reinforcement as motivators. Some use punishment to a degree (ever seen a team bag-skated after a bad game?) And yes, some use yelling, tantrums, belittling players, and some probably use a lot worse.

I am hesitant to ask the question, “at what point does this become abuse and at what point is the “tough love” just used for motivation” because I suspect that I would get a lot of responses saying “it’s always abuse and unacceptable”.I guess what I do want to point out, though, is that if abuse is happening in 40% of our children’s hockey games, that means that a lot of kids are experiencing abuse at the hands of the coach. My question is therefore, “why are we not saying or doing anything about it?” I’m pretty sure that parents of kids in that 40% of games are not lodging complaints, or even talking to the coach about it, so why do we stay silent?

I don’t have an answer to this question, but perhaps you do. If so, I’d love to hear your feedback at  In the meantime, I’m going to track down the original researchers to get some more answers to my questions (e.g. what are some concrete examples of both direct and indirect abuse? What were the methods used to capture the incidence of abuse in games? Do the researchers measure abuse by parents during hockey games as well?), as well as some information on what we can do as parents to ensure our kids are having positive sporting experiences, minus the abuse. Robert Cribb, the author of the article, did his job. He got me thinking about this issue, and now this Hockey Mom in Canada wants to know more. Stay tuned!

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