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The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Athletic Coaches

So What? A Little Yelling Never Hurt Anyone

The old school of thought was along the lines of the nursery school rhyme “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The old school of thought was that a little yelling at players will “toughen them up and prepare them for real life.” Fortunately, we now know better.

A 2003 study by Dr. Stephen Joseph at University of Warwick found that “verbal abuse can have more impact upon victims’ self-worth than physical attacks, such as punching…stealing or the destruction of belongings.” Verbal attacks such as name-calling and humiliation can negatively affect self-worth to a dramatic degree. Rather than helping them to “toughen up,” 33 percent of verbally abused children suffer from significant levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the same disorder that haunts many war veterans and victims of violent assault.

A 2005 UCLA study demonstrated that there is no such thing as “harmless name-calling.” The study, by Jaana Juvonen, Ph.D. found that those 6th graders who had been victimized felt humiliated, anxious, angry and disliked school more. What’s more, the students who merely observed another student being bullied reported more anxiety and disliked school to a greater degree than those who did not witness any bullying.

The major lesson here is that the more a child is bullied, or observes bullying, in a particular environment, the more they dislike being in that environment. So any bullying done by coaches will virtually guarantee a victim’s hasty exit from the sport.

A 2007 Penn State study found that the trauma endured by bullied children results in physical changes. The study, performed by JoLynn Carney, found that levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were elevated in the saliva both of children who had been bullied recently and in those children who were anticipating being bullied in the near future. Ironically, when cortisol levels spike, our ability to think clearly, learn or remember goes right out the window. So those coaches who rely on fear and intimidation ensure their athletes won’t recall any of what they said while they are ranting and raving.

Repeated exposure to such stressful events has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, greater chance of injury, chronic pelvic pain, and PTSD.

Anxiety appears to be the most dangerous aspect of bullying for the victim. The anxiety stays with the victim and fuels deep internal beliefs such as “the world is a dangerous place in which to live” and “other people cannot be trusted.” As demonstrated in Martin Seligman’s work, such core beliefs lay at the heart of depression. Thus, bullying is directly linked to trauma and anxiety and indirectly linked to depression and higher cortisol levels.

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What Can I Do about Bullying Coaches?

If you are a parent, if possible, make the coach aware of his or her behavior. Ensure your and your children’s safety first. It’s difficult to predict when you’ll be met with an uncooperative, and potentially hostile, attitude. However, it’s important that you be courageous and stand up to the bullying behavior. To the extent that you sit by, complain in the background, but do nothing to prevent bullying behaviors, you allow it to continue.

If, after bringing it to the coach’s attention, you don’t see a change in the coach’s behavior, report his or her bullying behaviors to any supervisor or league authorities. Be as specific as possible to help others identify and change the behaviors in question.

In extreme cases, you may find the people in charge of the organization support bullying coaches. In that case, you must weigh the financial, physical and psychological costs of moving your child to a different team or coach. Staying with the same coach is likely to lead to increased anxiety and decreased athletic performance at a minimum. Moving to a different coach may mean increased financial expenses, driving time and leaving behind the friendship of other parents and children.

If you are a coach, be aware of your tone of voice, body language, and other nonverbal messages. The majority of communication is nonverbal. Tone of voice provides the greatest insight into how a coach is feeling when he or she speaks to an athlete. Tone of voice alone can convey disgust, delight, disappointment, anger, contentment and much more. It’s not as much what you say as how you say it.

Keep in mind that most of the athletes you coach are not going to become rich and famous. The best you can do is encourage your athletes’ love of the game. So keep it fun. Keep it low key. Turn down the volume on your competitiveness. Remind yourself that it’s just a game. It’s not a matter of life or death. Don’t get overly attached to winning. Focus on helping your athletes perform at their peak level.

If you are an athlete, realize that your physical and psychological health is of the greatest importance. It is the primary reason that you are involved in athletics. So, listen to the feeling in your gut. If you feel angry, ashamed, guilty, anxious or sad every time you come near your coach, you may want to look for a new coach. You have a right to be treated with respect and dignity. Exercise that right.

Depending on your coach’s volatility, and how strong a bond you have with him or her, you may want to try talking with your coach first to see if he or she is able to change his or her behavior. If your coach is explosive, talk to your parents first and ask for their support. Ask them to intervene on your behalf. Tell them how you feel. If you go to your parents and tell them you feel anxious, scared, angry or ashamed every time you approach your coach, hopefully, they will recognize the need for a face-to-face with the coach.

As far as my family goes, we’re moving to a different swim team. My wife and I spoke to the people in charge of the current swim team and found that their driving value was to win which, in their minds, justifies the use of old school negative motivators such as group punishment for individual mistakes. That’s their choice. It’s their team. My choice is to take my children and swim somewhere else — somewhere where they are treated with respect and dignity.

The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Athletic Coaches

John L. Schinnerer, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Schinnerer, J. (2020). The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Athletic Coaches. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.