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Bullying by Youth-Sports Coaches Is 'Under-Acknowledged,' Say Experts

Bullying isn't just a problem limited to students, suggests a perspective piece published online in the journal Pediatrics on Monday. Youth-sports coaches often fall into the same trap.

The authors define bullying as "a systematic abuse of power, in which a stronger individual exhibits a pattern of intimidating behavior against someone weaker or less powerful." As they note, "the coach-athlete relationship involves an inherent imbalance of power; that is, a coach holds authority over his players by nature of his role."

They lead their piece by describing a scene in which a mother of a high school basketball player witnessed her child's coach "screaming at the team that they lacked intelligence and were lazy because they had not executed a play properly." (Sound familiar?) This isn't an isolated incident, as evidenced by a handful of studies from the past decade.

In an Oct. 2011 study of more than 6,000 former youth-athletes from the U.K., 75 percent of the respondents reported at least one incident of "emotional harm" during their time playing sports. Roughly one-third of those student-athletes identified their coaches as the main perpetrator of said emotional harm. According to a 2005 study of U.S. youth-athletes, 45 percent reported having coaches either "angrily yell at a player for making a mistake" or "make fun of a member of the team."

The subjective definition of bullying makes it difficult to determine exactly when a coach has "crossed the line," the authors suggest. However, "pervasive demeaning, name-calling, and insulting by a teacher/coach is inexcusable," they write. "Such outdated patterns of behavior are no longer acceptable."

The authors highlight four defensive techniques that some coaches use to "rationalize and minimize others' negative perceptions" of bullying behavior:

  • Moral justification, in which the coach attempts to portray the bullying as socially acceptable;
  • "Backhand apologies," which minimize harm and place the blame on the victims;
  • Comparing bullying behavior to more severe acts; and
  • Escalation, or raising the stakes "until the person who has the grievance gives up."

When a parent, student, or community member notices a coach bullying a youth-athlete, the authors suggest reporting it to school officials or to Child Protective Services immediately.

No clear guidelines dictate what to do when coaches direct derogatory remarks toward an entire team, but regardless, "such behavior is unacceptable and coaches should face consequences for verbal misconduct including demeaning, name-calling, and insulting young athletes," they write.

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