The scene is a summer soccer tournament on a sunny day in Washington state. Its halftime and the boys are heading back to their benches. They are 12 and 13 years old. One of the teams is from one of the largest youth soccer clubs in the Puget Sound area, and they are down by quite a few goals. The coach angrily motions for the boys to sit on the bench.
"Are we going to sit here like a bunch of ass _ _ _ _ s or are we going to get a piece of these m _ _ _ _ _ _ _f _ _ _ _ _ s?!"
Silence. The coach kicks the bench hard, startling the boys. "Well?", he shouts loudly.
"You're a bunch of idiots! You might as well go play kickball. I might as well leave for the second half. You guys go ahead and figure out yourselves who is going to play. I don't want to be a part of this."
The coach walks away, leaving the boys on the bench. They're confused. After a few minutes, the coach returns, barks out names and sends the boys back onto the field for the second half. They lose and fail to score a goal.
Back on the bench, the coach lays into the boys again. "You guys should just quit [Big Premier Club] and play kick ball. You're just basically rolling out the ball and kicking it randomly. " Then, pointing at three of the boys, he shouts, "You, you and you! You guys played especially terrible. Go home! I'm out of here!"
Shocked yet? You should be. Most of us would say such behavior is unacceptable.
What's more shocking, though, is how many parents think this kind of demeaning and insulting behavior is what kids need to be winners. They accept it because that's what that's part of belonging to this big, well-known "premier" club that wins leagues and tournaments. It comes with the territory, they say.
What you need to know is that the story I just described is true. It happened in the summer of 2016 in Washington state. (And no, that's not the coach in the photo above.)
Are you putting up with this kind of behavior from your kids' coach? Do you think that kind of toughness is what your kid needs to be a great player? Well, you're wrong.
What happened in this case is nothing more than emotional abuse perpetrated upon children by an adult. It is the result of a youth soccer club system that unashamedly places the needs of adults over the needs of the children in their care.
At this point, if you're one of those hard-core club coaches who yells at your players and insults them, you're probably thinking its all the softies who are ruining youth soccer. You think its important to be tough on the kids. Its good for their mentality and makes them strong. You're doing them a favor, right? I mean, if you praise them too much its just "Camp Cupcake" and that's not what this [insert your favorite big, fat premiere youth soccer club] is all about. We are about winning and making players tougher. After all, when they get out into the great big world they'll get their egos smashed so its good that they are experiencing it now. And of course, you're just being honest with them and kids need that kind of honesty, right?.
Ridiculous! Emotional abuse is, at the very least, a form of bullying. Bullying is defined as “a systematic abuse of power, in which a stronger individual exhibits a pattern of intimidating behavior against someone weaker or less powerful.”The emotionally abusive coach is a direct result of the broken youth soccer club model that prioritizes the accomplishments of the coach and the club over the education of children. It's what happens when winning is the yardstick by which coaches and clubs measure success.
Obviously, the majority of coaches at traditional American youth clubs are not emotionally abusive to children. Nevertheless, its the environment these clubs create that allows abusive coaches to exist and have access to children, and the environment is the direct result of of flawed club structure, organization and the misalignment of incentives. And if the abusive coach manages to win a lot of games and tournaments, they become known as a tough coach who gets results and the clubs simply put up with them because a winning club attracts more families and kids.
In 2014, the New York Times published a great story about abusive coaches, making the point that its a form of bullying. A fundamental point of the piece is the notion that although bullying is often seen as a peer-to-peer issue, at root its about an imbalance of power. For example, the big kid picking on the little kid. The strong kid picking on the weak kid. That's the lens through which we perceive bullying. But at root its about an imbalance of power, and as the article's author points out, '[a]thletic coaches in particular wield enormous power, and traditionally their toughness has been upheld as a virtue."
IT'S ABOUT THE JOURNEY AND CULTURE!
Player development does not depend on having more wins than losses. What matters is the JOURNEY of development. By that I mean the quality of the coaches, the training and, most importantly, the culture. And of these, the CULTURE is perhaps the most important. We work hard at Eagleclaw Football Academy to create a learning culture that teaches and motivates kids to become learners. A culture of education honors the journey of player development and requires patience and commitment to teach children how to play this beautiful game and how to play it well. And we also work hard to educate parents about the development journey and that a weekend win or loss is meaningless. What matters is how each player tried to play, their effort, that they tried to solve soccer problems and tried to implement the lessons taught in training. A culture of education ensures that kids keep loving this amazing game and keep growing as players and human beings.
A culture of "win at all costs" sees the journey of development as the problem. Kids who do not develop overnight into soccer beasts are obstacles to the coach's ambitions. After all, how can we win today if the players are not yet perfect? Let's take another look at the insults the coach heaped on his players. It seems he was criticizing them for the way they handled the ball. He said they were playing "kickball". Maybe he was upset with their passing. Or was it their technique? I can't tell, and you probably can't either. And if we don't understand the critique, I'm sure the kids didn't either. They were probably too scared to even try to understand what the coach was upset about. What we do know for certain is that what's going in this coach's team is not a reflection of an education culture. He's not a very effective teacher. There was nothing educational in his loud, abusive statements. There is probably little of educational value going on in his training sessions. He's probably upset he wasn't given the "A" team so he could go out and win things. He's not terribly interested in taking the time and putting in the had work to develop his player. And he probably doesn't like the kids very much, either.
Emotional abuse of young kids is serious stuff. It can leave long lasting psychological scarring. Anxiety and loss of self-esteem can lead to more serious issues later in life, such as depression. For sure, emotionally abused soccer players will more than likely leave the sport.
WHAT'S GOING ON AT YOUR CLUB?
At this point, I'm reminded of that credit card commercial where Samuel L. Jackson asks, "What's in your wallet?" But I'll ask the question differently. "What's going on at your club?" Do you even know? Are there any emotionally abusive coaches working there?
Can you spot them? Look for the yellers. Maybe they kick benches goalposts or cones. Do they stress winning over everything else? Do they act as if they don't like the kids. Do they use profanity? Maybe the kids don't view the coach as a teacher or say they don't like him or her. Maybe the kids are scared and reluctant to go to training.
I assure you, winning is not more important than your child's psychological health. If your child has an emotionally abusive coach, remove your child from that environment immediately. If you suspect emotional abuse, bring it up with the club president and make sure action is taken.
At Eagleclaw, we've been working hard to change the culture of youth soccer. We've written extensively about it. As many as possible, for as long as possible and in the best environment possible, we've urged. But the safety and protection of the kids placed in our charge is the most important aspect of an ideal soccer culture. Emotional abuse of young soccer players must never be tolerated. Ever.
Note: For more tips and suggestions about ways to handle abusive coaches, click here for a helpful article published in Pediatrics Perspectives .