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Eliminating Verbal Abuse in Sport: Changing the Way We Talk to our Athletes

Dr. Hillary Cauthen and Mariah Harper (TOPPS

5 min read

Apr 15, 2017



Have you ever really listened to the words coaches, teammates, parents of teammates, or even you, as a parent, speak/yell at your child when they participate in sport? What does the sideline chatter sound like in your performance world? Does it include motivating, encouraging statements rooted in love, support and guidance? We would hope so, and the intent may in fact be this, BUT reality shows words spoken are often harsh, demeaning, degrading, and shameful. The negative statements existing on the field, sidelines, twitter feeds, and during car rides home all shape your athlete and their self-worth.

Self-worth is based on self-evaluation of our abilities. We evaluate ourselves in many ways; assessing our academics, relationships, appearance, and sport performances. Sport is especially powerful in shaping self-worth and character development. Sports are so frequently lauded for the important roles they play in society: entertainment, stress-relief, outlet for competitive drive, and culture. They may also help cultivate those characteristics necessary for life success: dedication, camaraderie, communication, time management, problem solving, goal setting, coping, and leadership. These traits develop a well-rounded individual; lessons learned from sport trickle into everyday life and create foundations necessary to succeed and overcome challenges. What better time, then, to start this development during childhood? Youth are the most malleable, open to influence and cultivation.

Youth sport is certainly an ideal venue to utilize a coach figure, an individual able to assist in developing life skills and improving emotional well-being. A coach is placed in a significant power role and absolutely impacts an athlete’s psyche. This power is derived from athletes, parents, administrators, etc. and, as a result, many athletes seek trust, guidance, support and approval from their coach. The relationship, therefore, is key in developing an athlete’s secure sense of self (athletes base identity on their athletic performance and validation from the approval of their coach). In most cases, this bond may be significant in shaping successful, well-rounded individuals.

However, what happens when coaches, those we expect to support, strengthen, and challenge our youth, end up achieving the exact opposite? What happens when coaches overstep emotional and physical boundaries, fulfill improper roles, stifle rather than catalyze self-esteem, or prioritize self-gain over players’ best interest? Particularly in youth sports, coaches have the unique ability to damage a child’s foundational psyche and color the way in which they see themselves. This could impact their esteem well beyond childhood. The extent of damage to a youth athlete can range from minimal to significant. At TOPPS, we feel it is important to address these issues, and call this negative side of sport what it is – abuse.

Verbal abuse, essentially ‘bullying’ for all intents and purposes, is typically more common in sports than physical/sexual abuse and stems from the fact that individuals coach in the same way they were coached as kids. If someone was degraded or embarrassed as a youth during their sport experience, it is likely they will also employ degradation and embarrassment to motivate others as an adult. Although abusive coaching may be deemed ‘necessary’ or simply ‘part of the territory,’ debasement tells children they are “worthless, despised, inadequate, or valued only as a result of his or her athletic performance,” and is accomplished through “tone of voice, body language, facial expression and withdrawal of physical or emotional support” (Schinnerer, 2016). It is, therefore, difficult to pin down; difficult to define.

Unlike sexual and physical abuse, verbal abuse has no specific regulations until it reaches an extreme level (and even then, ‘extreme’ is hard to illustrate). Athletes are scared to come forward without specific ‘proof’ and coaches brush accusations away with simple explanation: ‘Oh, you took it the wrong way’. The fact is, though, verbal abuse targets a child’s very character. When you are called a ‘moron’/ ‘useless’/ ‘waste of playing time’ / ‘not good enough,’ how can you not help but internalize such statements? How can you not carry these labels into the non-sport world? How can you not believe you are, indeed, a ‘moron,’ ‘useless,’ ‘not good enough’ (Hartnett, 2015).

Words have power and, more importantly, how we perceive these messages shapes our behavior. At TOPPS, we hope to better educate others on why, collectively as a society, we have allowed abuse to occur in sport. Due to individuals’ ‘bracketed morality,’ the ability to suspend our ethics or morality during athletic competition, we excuse certain behavior in sport (i.e. degrading statements). For example, if a teacher were to tell your son/daughter they were a ‘moron,’ ‘useless,’ ‘not good enough,’ we would be more likely to take action and step up. Considering these facts, as well as the desire to protect youthful vulnerability, how might we go about recognizing abusive coaching? Look at the points below; are any of them recognizable?

  • A coach who prioritizes personal needs above those of their athletes’

  • A coach who does not tolerate mistakes or losses

  • A coach who believes screaming and belittling develops mental toughness.

  • A coach who thinks winning is more important than learning processes

  • A coach who pays attention only to ‘better’ or ‘more-skilled’ players/athletes (Goldberg, 2015)

This is by no means an extensive list and provides only some examples. However, should any of it ring a bell, it may be time to act by addressing the situation and becoming aware of your athlete’s behavior. Look for warning signs:

  • Is your athlete becoming withdrawn, isolated?

  • Insecure?

  • Apathetic?

  • Nervous around or fearful of authority figures?

  • Not finding interest in sport or other activities?

If so, further investigation is necessary. For further insight, you might chat with other parents, pay closer attention at your child’s practice sessions, observe how you are speaking to your child pre/post athletic performance, and, most importantly, talk with your child. If you do, in fact, validate the existence of “bullying” or verbal abuse, it is imperative to address the situation. If the athlete is an adult (college or elite level player), you may counsel them: is this form of coaching beneficial? Inspirational? Prompting the player to get better? If, at any time, the answer to any of these questions is “no,” decisions must be made. Does the athlete need a different coach? Does the athlete wish to cease their sport altogether (Roberts, 2014)?

Here at TOPPS we want nothing but the safest environment for our youth athletes. Sports should be fun: teaching valuable lessons, building foundational skills, and providing lifelong friends. There is no place for “bullying” or abuse in sports. We do a disservice to children by permitting the abusive coaching style; we do a disservice to abusive coaches by not calling them out, by not informing them their actions are wrong and intolerable. We need to provide a better educational framework for our coaches and parents and ensure we are creating the best developmental environment for our youth.

*Please contact TOPPS ( for support, resources or to learn more about our educational workshops for coaches and parents.*


Goldberg, Alan. (16 May, 2015). Competitive Sports are The a Good or Bad Thing? Retrieved from

Hartnett, Josh. (15 April, 2015). The Mental Abuse of Young Athletes. Retrieved from

Roberts, Kate. (19 March, 2014). 7 Actions Parents Can Take When Sports Coaches Act Like Bullies. Retrieved from

Schinnerer, J. (2016). The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Athletic Coaches. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 11, 2017, from

#athletes #success #grit #TOPPSTip #balancedbody #socialsupport #balancedmind #fitness #performance #sportpsychology #together

Dr. Hillary Cauthen and Mariah Harper (TOPPS

5 min read

Apr 15, 2017



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