Sports is more than just competition; it is about unity and bringing communities and nations together. The culture around sports allows athletes and individuals to express themselves and then be praised by the public for their remarkable performance. However, the ethos of sport is not always bright and positive, the public and media ignore the dark and horrendous aspect of the sport, which is abuse by coaches. Abuse in sports is rarely given any attention and diminishes the value and ethics that sports are based on. The coach-athlete relationship is essential for building good teamwork skills and being successful, but due to abuse in sports, this relationship is demoralized. Coaches consistently abuse their athletes and to bring justice to the victims requires understanding what abusive coaching is and why coaches use forms of abuse to train athletes, the psychological and physical effects of abusive coaching and evaluating safeguards that can effectively prevent this type of abuse.
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One of the main principles that establish the dynamic of sports is the relationship that an athlete has with their coach. An effective coach-athlete relationship would allow the athlete to achieve optimal performance, shape the athlete’s experience of the sport, as well as improving as a person beyond the scope of sport (Stirling, 2013). However, many of these influences from the coach-athlete relationship are not positive and, in many cases, inappropriate coaching and conduct do occur (Stirling, 2013). The underlying analysis as to why coaches use the behaviour of abuse when training their athletes is often seen as a method for achieving prosperous athletic performance (Stirling, 2013). Some coaches believe that using aggression and anger to sway power over their athletes will improve the team’s overall performance and thus add to a coach’s reputation, unfortunately, this myth has become normalized in the world of sports. Aggressive coaching methods do not enhance athletic performance, instead, these coaching methods demotivate and potentially drive the athlete to quit the sport (Stirling, 2013). There are many types of abuse that both male and female athletes encounter daily, some of which include sexual, verbal/emotional and physical abuse. The main idea of sexual abuse in sports is centred around the abuse of power and trust, which is reflected by the victim to be unwanted (Marks, Mountjoy & Marcus, 2011). Sexual abuse can occur in many forms, such as hazing, homophobia, sexual harassment and even rape, all of which involve manipulating the athlete (Marks et al., 2011). One could say that athletes look up to their coaches as mentors and would like to build a positive, trustful relationship with their coach. However, coaches will see this as vulnerability and take advantage of the athlete into acquiring their trust through inappropriate conduct. Vulnerability is a key factor that contributes to why coaches sexually harass their athletes. Research indicates that 13.9 percent of athletes and 1 in 7 of all national-team athletes feel vulnerable to some form of sexual violence/abuse (Kirby, Hankivsky & Greaves, 2000). Another form of abuse that coaches’ practice when training their teams is verbal abuse. Coaches use behaviours of verbal and emotional abuse as a way to depict fear and to intimidate their athletes (Stirling, 2013). Some ways in which athletes encounter verbal abuse by coaches include, name-calling, mockery, etc. (Stirling, 2013). Verbal abuse also involves behaviours, such as purposely ignoring the athlete or providing insincere feedback when asked (Stirling, 2013), which decreases athletic performance. It would seem that placing fear and intimidation would increase the power and authority that a coach has over their athletes in hopes of the team strictly obeying coaches’ orders. Quite frankly, this misconception causes the athletes to lose respect for their coach and diminishes the coach-athlete relationship. One of the last encounters of abuse that athletes may face is physical abuse. Physical abuse is often used as a method of “punishment” for athletes. Behaviours of physical abuse that coaches revert to incorporate, throwing or kicking objects (i.e. a Gatorade Jug), pulling or dragging athletes, physical force, etc. (Stirling, 2013). When coaches lose their temper while coaching or during practices, using measures of physical abuse is often seen as a system of discipline (Stirling, 2013). Coaches will try to achieve ideal results from a team by exploiting their athletes (i.e. having long practices) and will use training methods and techniques that will harm, stress, and even injure the athletes (Stirling, 2013). There are policies and consequences put in place for the types of abuse discussed above, for instance, the victim may sue the abuser in an appropriate courthouse (Feinstein & Dianne, 2017), but this does not diminish the fact that the institute of sport is impaired due to abusive coaches (Kirby et al., 2000).
A successful and positive coach-athlete relationship is one where both parties have mutual respect and usually the coach is responsible for creating a friendly and respectful environment (Stirling, 2013). Unfortunately, due to the culture of abuse in sports, this ideal coach-athlete relationship rarely exists and in reality, some coaches use this relationship to illustrate their dominance over the inferior athlete. When coaches resort to abusive practices to train athletes it leaves negative effects on the athlete, which is harmful to their health and well-being. Any type of abuse in sport, whether it be sexual, verbal/emotional or physical, it negatively impacts all facets of the athlete’s life, particularly on the physical and psychological consequences (Marks et al., 2011). The physical and psychological consequences can adversely impact an athlete’s developmental and growth stages (Marks et al., 2011). For instance, this may take away from an athlete’s academic, social and occupation opportunities (Mark et al., 2011). The physical effects of abusive coaching are more prominent than the psychological effects of abuse as they are more noticeable and visible (Marks et al., 2011). An athlete who has been affected by abuse may experience physical symptoms of headaches, disturbances in sleep, weight loss and depending on the situation and severity of abuse, victims may lead themselves to actions of self-harm (Marks et al., 2011). In sexual abuse cases regarding hazing- any activity often involves sexual factors, that humiliates and degrades another person- can have extreme physical consequences, for example, death or poisoning due to intoxication (Marks et al., 2011). The psychological impacts of abusive coaching on the athlete are less visible and a keen seen of awareness is required to notice a change in a victim’s behaviour (Marks et al., 2011). Victims of abuse may experience a variety of symptoms, such as increased anxiety levels, lowered self-esteem and confidence, anger, etc. (Denison, Gilbert & Potrac, 2013). Examination of past cases with abusive coaches illustrates that the victims who suffer from these cases of abuse are more prone to develop mental illnesses, higher suicide rates (Marks et al., 2011), and social isolation (Denison et al., 2013). Other psychological effects of abuse include a decrease in an athlete’s performance, which could be due to a reduction of concentration during practices as the victim’s perpetrator, the coach, is present (Marks et al., 2011). Coaches who religiously use abusive methods of coaching are destroying the potential that their athletes carry, and victims must be brought to justice.
Understanding what abusive coaching is and the effects it has on the athlete is significant in evaluating and analyzing current safeguards and methods to prevent abuse in sports. When it comes to dealing with situations regarding abuse, both the coach and victim should be taken into account. Preventative tactics regarding abuse in sport should comprise of athlete safeguarding mechanisms and policies (Marks et al., 2011). These policies and codes of conduct incorporate educational programmes, compliant and evaluation systems as well as support mechanisms (Marks et al., 2011). Protective measures must commit to creating a safe environment that fosters the well-being and rights of the athlete (Marks et al., 2011). Implementing preventative measures of abuse allow sports organizations to take appropriate legal actions when necessary (Marks et al., 2011). However, to ensure the safety of the athletes, codes of conduct has been developed for those who have power and authority, such as coaches (Marks et al., 2011). In the coach-athlete relationship, there need to be boundaries and one may say that implementing policies for standard behaviour can prevent abusive interactions and the vulnerability an athlete may feel. Sports organizations have adopted such policies for people with positions of power that clearly state what is adequate and inadequate based on physical interaction and communication with an athlete (Marks et al., 2011). Many sports organizations, such as the U.S. Olympic Committee and the National Association of Sports Official, have developed athlete fortification policies and codes of conduct that were mentioned above (Marks et al., 2011). If any of the policies that have been set by various sporting organizations, such as the U.S. Olympic Committee, are violated, then by law there will be an investigation and judgement of the asserted abusive behaviour and the perpetrator will be penalized accordingly (Thune & John, 2017). The International Olympic Committee created an online tool for young athletes to spread awareness about sexual abuse in sports (Marks et al., 2011). This educational tool’s goal is to make people and athletes knowledgeable of safety in sports as well as to how to respond to such situations (Marks et al., 2011). Even though there are policies put in place to protect an athlete from abusive coaches and boundaries of the coach-athlete relationship have been set, this does not completely diminish abuse as even with these mechanisms, abuse still occurs in sports. Another initiative that sports organizations can implement is coaching workshops (Stirling, 2013). Coaching workshops will allow the coach to develop abilities that implement positive athlete improvement strategies, will encourage self-reflection and awareness so that the coach can gain insight into positive coaching methods (Stirling, 2013). In rare cases, abuse by coaches is unintentional but that does not make the abusive situation any less important. Sports organizations should educate coaches on coping mechanisms that allow them to control and manage their frustration instead of acting impulsively (Stirling, 2013). Developing these coping mechanisms may decrease the risk of abuse in the coach-athlete relationship (Stirling, 2013). Athletes that have experienced abuse need to be able to share their stories and experiences to heal. Support systems help athletes cope with their symptoms after an abusive situation and maybe even encourage the athlete to continue participating in the sport. These systems create a safe place for athletes to communicate their emotions and enable them to share their experiences without being judged and rather understood. Also, support groups spread awareness about the issue of abuse in sports to the public and craft unity between the victim and the community.
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In conclusion, it is essential that the culture of abuse in sports is brought to the public’s attention and retribution is brought to abusive coaches appropriately. Abuse in sports includes sexual, verbal/emotional and physical abuse that coaches use as methods to improve athletic performance. Abusive methods, such as physically hurting the athlete, name-calling or sexual harassment does not improve athletic performance, rather it creates negative physical and psychological consequences. Athletes who have had experiences with abusive coaches will tend to turn towards self-harm, depression, social isolation, weight loss, an increase in anxiety, etc. This will decrease athletic performance and the individual might drop out of the sport. Many sporting organizations, such as the U.S. Olympic Committee, have put policies and codes of conduct into place to prevent abuse in sports and how to reflectively respond to abusive situations. These policies not only protect the athlete but also redefine the coach-athlete relationship. The culture of abuse in sports belittles the positive ideals that sport is based upon, such as unity, and creates hesitancy in young athletes from pursuing the sport in fear of abusive coaches.
- Kirby, S. L., Hankivsky, O., & Greaves, L. (2000). The dome of silence: sexual harassment and abuse in sport. Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood.
- Feinstein, & Dianne. (2017). Text – S.534 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (Report No. 115-126). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office.
- Marks, S., Mountjoy, M., & Marcus, M. (2011). Sexual harassment and abuse in sport: The role of the team doctor. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(13), 905-908.
- Potrac, P., Gilbert, W., & Denison, J. (2015). Routledge handbook of sports coaching. London: Routledge.
- Stirling, A. E. (2013). Understanding the use of emotionally abusive coaching practices. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 8(4), 625-640.
- Thune, & John. (2017). All Info – S.1426 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): United States Center for Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (Report No. 115-443). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office.
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