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Let’s End Abusive Coaching

What coaches do and say to our kids in the name of winning games and earning scholarships sometimes borders on criminal. by Dr. Michael Giuliano, head coach of men’s soccer and adjunct professor of communication studies.

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As the head coach of Wheaton’s men’s soccer program and as a parent who cheers for my three kids, I’ve seen youth coaching at every level—from the American Youth Soccer Organization’s volunteer parent-coach to the professional coach making nearly six figures to run a nationally ranked club program.

At every level, I cannot believe what too often I see and hear—10-year-old boys being screamed at by red-faced volunteer coaches, or 18-year-old girls being called the vilest of things, simply because they are not playing up to the standards of their club coach.

At the high school level, coaches who might help a young person secure an athletic scholarship are often treated with reverence, regardless of conduct. Things are often worse at the college level, where the financial stakes are higher for the institution. And sadly, things are not much better at the youth level.

Scores of columnists and talk show hosts have lamented the sorry state of youth coaching, yet every week I see or hear about more atrocities. After placing video blogs on YouTube, I’ve heard from parents throughout the United States and in other countries, chronicling their own stories of abuse.

Why? Because I believe that youth sports competition should change our kids for the better. I also believe that many parents are unaware of what’s happening and what the repercussions can be. Scores of studies on childhood developments show that kids who been abused are more likely to develop serious self-esteem problems. These kids are more likely to marry abusive spouses. They are also more likely to abuse their own spouses, as they’ve learned that verbal abuse unleashed for a “good cause” seems justified.

We wouldn’t let classroom teachers talk to our kids this way. But our pragmatically driven approach pragmatically driven approach to youth sports can cause us to ignore such behavior when it is accompanied by on-field success.

The youth/collegiate sports community must embrace three truths:

  • Although fear and intimidation can motivate, the negative byproducts of such behavior far outweigh the advantages.
  • What our kids learn in the arena of sport, they will practice in society.
  • It doesn’t have to be this way. In every sport there are great examples of coaches who motivate and teach their athletes that when winning, learning, fun, respect, and dignity combine, the results are stunning.

If we can’t change youth sports culture overnight, we can at least change the future for our own children. Never let your child play for a coach who has forgotten that at the end of the day, it is still just a game. Never let your child be taught that verbal harassment has a useful purpose in society. If we just rescue one child at a time, perhaps eventually the abusive coach will end up with no kids left to abuse.

When he’s not training and mentoring young soccer players, Dr. Mike Giuliano teaches courses and leads conferences in conflict resolution and reconciliation studies. He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and has coached and taught for the last 26 years, including 13 years at Westmont College, where his teams won four national championships in five years. Mike and his wife, Barbara, have three grown children.

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