6 ways to protect your tween athlete from abusive coaches

6 ways to protect your tween athlete from abusive coaches
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Video of Rutger's basketball coach Mike Rice abusing players has made the media rounds, shocking many. In the video, the coach can be seen shoving players, throwing balls at them and yelling slurs at them. Rice's abuse of his players is making headlines, but it certainly isn't the first time that coaches have behaved badly. Cal basketball coach Mike Montgomery shoved his star player, Allen Crabbe, during a game in February. Montgomery apologized and was reprimanded.

Intense coaches taking things too far doesn't just happen on the college basketball court. It is happening on the junior high courts and fields, too. But where are the boundaries when it comes to coaching tweens, and when do you know if your child's coach's behavior crosses the line of what is acceptable?

We've all seen the little league coach who has taken it too far, and the intensity only ramps up as kids get older, as this news story about the brawl that happened at a middle school basketball tournament clearly illustrates. It says that the intensity has ramped up in recent years due in part to national websites ranking tween players, and that high school coaches are now, in effect, recruiting from the junior high level.

Parents want their kids to succeed, but some are finding that success at one level can have a negative impact in the future. In a Daily Beast article, one parent said that his son's baseball experience led to depression. There are also countless stories of athletes being overworked and suffering from serious injuries. A high school baseball player should not need Tommy John surgery due to overwork. Or there can be traumatic events that stay with an young athlete, like when a coach reacts to a loss by biting off a part of the winning coach's ear - this honestly happened after a middle school game last month in Springfield, Mass.

Sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg details what constitutes abusive behavior by coaches in the article "Coaching ABUSE: The dirty, not-so-little secret in sports.” He says, "One of the distinguishing characteristics of the abusive coach is that deep down, he/she genuinely doesn't care about his/her athletes as individuals. This kind of coach only values his/her players in direct proportion to that athlete's abilities and what he/she can do for the coach." Coach abuse can take different forms,

What can parents do to ensure that their tweens are in a non-abusive sports environment?

  1. Be aware of what goes on in both games and in practices. You can't protect your child if you are unaware. Do the coaches criticize in a constructive manner? Do they humiliate, or help? Do you hear the coaches making positive comments?
  2. Make sure the coach puts your child's safety first. It's okay to push them to be better, but there are limits. (Also, throwing balls at players' heads does not seem to be prioritizing their safety, just in case Mike Rice wasn't clear on that.) As a parent, you need to be your child's first and best safety advocate. Researching this story I found a lot of coaches encouraging players to ignore doctor's orders for resting injuries. That's just wrong.
  3. After safety first, know what the coaches' priorities are: is it winning? Does that come at all costs?  Where is having fun on that priority list? Does the coach care about your child?
  4. Know your child. What works for one kid may not work for another, and there are different levels of sensitivity. Some kids have a tougher skin than others, and take that into consideration when picking the athletic environment best suited to him/her. It's also wise to take time to ensure that what you want for your child matches what your child wants and is capable of achieving. Please don't be afraid to remove your child from an abusive environment. If you're not sure if it is abusive, the fact that you have to ask or even wonder means that it is probably not a good place for your kid to be. Keeping your kid safe is more important than sticking it out or what the other parents might think, or anything else.
  5. Talk about the role of a coach with your child. This is an important conversation to have in regards to multiple kinds of abuse, both the verbal and physical abuse as demonstrated by coaches like Mike Rice, but also in terms of other abuse. A coach can and should be kind and compassionate, but that can also be taken too far and there are boundaries. Savvy Parents Safe Kids suggests having a discussion about the roles of adults and caregivers in your tweens' lives, including coaches.
  6. Make sure your kids know they can talk to you. Savvy Parents Safe Kids also reminds parents to not use scare tactics but to make sure that kids know they can talk to you if something is wrong in terms of safety, which is huge. It can help prevent abuse, or future abuse. Also, keeping the lines of communication open can lead to great dialogue. Sometimes coaches are just using appropriate levels of tough love to get the best from their players and team. While a coach is not crossing a line, it may upset your athlete, or your child may just not understand the different motivational techniques. This is a chance to explain it to them, and that the coach has a job to do. It is also an opportunity to learn to work with different kinds of personalities and viewpoints.

There are many, many wonderful life lessons to be learned from sports and often some of the most meaningful moments come from interacting with coaches.  Most coaches in kids' sports are amazing, giving of their time and talent to benefit young players. Parents need to ensure that their children are in a safe environment to learn those lessons from coaches who have their child(ren)'s best interests at heart.

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