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Emotional abuse of young athletes

It was painful watching the emotional abuse of young athletes by their parents in the HBO special “State of Play: Trophy Kids.” The program documents the interactions among parents and four young athletes as they compete in golf, basketball, football, and tennis.

I felt sorry for 10-year-old Amari as she was sobbing after being humiliated by her father’s swearing for missing a golf putt, and for a high school basketball player whose father screamed uncontrollably at officials and his son at a game.

The dad of a 15 year-old football player justified his verbal barrage by proclaiming that it was the best way to instill “work habits” in his son. As this football player cried in the back seat of the car, his father continued his demeaning criticism in spite of his son’s pleas to stop.

Let’s not confuse this parental cruelty with coaching. This is the emotional abuse of children masquerading as teaching.

I’m a big advocate of kids of all ages participating in sports. The physical and psychological benefits are substantial. Youngsters learn real life lessons from coaches and teammates that serve them well throughout their lives. When children are in programs with competent and caring coaches and reasonable parents, good things happen.

Unfortunately the situations captured in this HBO special are not anomalies. Youth sports attract some inept coaches and cruel parents who actions are more likely to result in permanent emotional scars rather than the acquisition of life-long skills.

What can be done?

  1. Do research before enrolling your child in a sports league. Talk with other parents and observe the coaches’ style of interacting with players. Speak with other kids or parents who had previously worked with that coach.
  2. Enroll your kids in programs that have and enforce specific expectations for parents, kids, and coaches. Many programs now require specialized training for anyone who works with children.
  3. Look for coaches take the lead in confronting disturbed and disturbing parents.  

I coached youth sports for many years, so let me caution you about dealing with abusive parents. It’s not easy. It is most effective when there is a culture within the sport’s organization that supports and enforces high standards of behavior, including policies that prohibit fans from abusing referees.

When I instructed a parent of a youngster I was coaching to stop screaming at his son, he said it was his right to talk to his child in any way he wanted. The dad was given a choice of either controlling his behavior or taking his child out of the program. The youngster was removed from the team by his dad, but a clear message was received by other parents.

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We have created this blog as a way to communicate key childrens' health and safety issues to parents and other child advocates. It is managed by Dayton Children's department of marketing communications. Comments can be sent to rodneyg@childrensdayton.org.