He yelled profanities at our kids. He called them names. He became a serious challenge to the development of their self-esteem. He was spiteful toward them. He was downright mean to them. And we paid him many thousands of dollars to do all of this to our sons and daughters.
I know, scores of columnists and talk-show hosts have lamented the sorry state of youth coaching in our society. They scare us with stories of abuse, both physical and mental, all in the name of winning. And yet, every week, I hear and see scores and scores of atrocities that don't make it on the talk-show circuit.
As a Division I collegiate soccer coach, much of my time is spent patrolling the sidelines in search of the next Mia Hamm. Add to that many more hours I spend cheering on my three kids as they play their various sports of choice. I see lots of youth coaching, from the AYSO volunteer parent-coach to the club coach making nearly six figures to run a nationally ranked program. And at all of those levels, I still cannot believe what I see and hear: 10-year-old boys being screamed at by red-faced volunteer coaches, and 18-year-old girls being called the vilest of things, simply because they are not playing up to the standards of their coach.
Last summer I attended a high-powered club tournament in the East. I had the unfortunate opportunity to witness a coach in the middle of a halftime meltdown. With sweat streaming down his face, he proceeded to direct a profanity-laced assault at almost every player on the team. To win this tournament meant scholarships for all of them to major colleges, he screamed, adding that their uninspired play was sure to sicken the recruiters, just as it sickened him. On and on he went, and yet the parents of the players sat nearby through it all, straining to hear with one ear while exchanging chatter about the latest community gossip with the other.
One of those parents was in my office a few weeks later, explaining to me why his daughter was truly Mia II. The subject of his daughter's club coach came up."Yeah, the guy is certifiably insane," he began. "But, hey, he makes them into winners. Before he came, they hadn't won the league title in over five years!"
The father didn't scream at his child (at least not that I knew of). The father didn't belittle her ability or her weight or her lack of heart in front of her friends. The father didn't find the most sarcastic ways possible to tell her how she was ruining it all for her teammates. But he paid another man handsomely to do it instead.
It is not getting better, and, in my view, in many circles it is getting worse.
At the high school level, there is so much concern over the price of college that any coach who may increase our children's chances of securing an athletic scholarship is treated with reverence, regardless of his or her demeanor. It is often worse at the college level, for the financial stakes are even higher for the institution. And, sadly, it is often just as bad at the youth level.
The outcome of all of this has been well-documented in scores of studies of childhood development. These kids are more likely to develop serious self-esteem problems. These kids are more likely to marry abusive spouses. These kids are more likely to abuse their own spouses, for they have learned that verbal abuse unleashed for a "good cause" is justified.
We wouldn't let classroom teachers talk to our kids this way. We may not even let parents publicly treat their own kids this way. And yet, our pragmatically driven approach to youth sports causes us to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye when such behavior is accompanied with on-field success.
The youth/collegiate sports community must come to embrace three truths:
But if we can't change youth sports culture overnight, we can at least change the future of our own children. Never, ever let your child play for a coach who has forgotten that at the end of the day, it is still just a game. Never, ever let your child be taught that verbal harassment has a useful purpose in society. If we just rescue one child at a time, perhaps one day the abusive coach will end up with no kids left to abuse.
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