Coaches bully young athletes more often than you think, experts warn

College basketball coach Bobby Knight lost his job at Indiana University after he grabbed a player by the neck during practice. A new report in Pediatrics says bullying of young athletes by coaches is more common than you might think.
(Pat Sullivan / Associated Press)

What do pediatricians call a coach who screams at his players, blames kids for prompting his outbursts and says his methods are justified because the team wins games? A bully.

A more typical picture of a bully is a big kid intimidating a smaller one on a playground. But it’s not age that defines a bully; it’s power.

“Nothing in the definition requires a peer-to-peer relationship, only one individual with perceived power over another,” experts write in an article published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. “The coach-athlete relationship involves an inherent imbalance of power.”


Bullying is more than an annoyance. When it happens to a child, it can do lasting damage to mental health and hamper his or her social development. And when it happens in the context of a sport, the stress of competition can make things even worse, the experts write.

It’s not that unusual for athletes to be bullied by their coaches. Among 6,000 young adults in the U.K. asked about their experiences in youth sports, 75% said they suffered “emotional harm” at least once, and one-third of them said their coach was the culprit. In a 2005 study of American children, 45% said their coaches called them names, insulted them or verbally abused them another way during play.

It may seem normal for coaches to act this way, but that doesn’t make it OK, according to the authors of the Pediatrics report.

“Pervasive demeaning, name-calling, and insulting by a teacher/coach is inexcusable,” they write. “Such outdated patterns of behavior are no longer acceptable.”

For things to change, parents and doctors must work together, the experts argue. Pediatricians should advise parents to “observe practices, obtain reports of locker room behavior, and pay attention to a coach’s behavior at games” to look for signs of bullying.

When they do, they should be on the lookout for four types of behavior:

  • A coach who justifies his behavior by saying he has always talked to players this way and it has helped the team win. Just because it is bullying is common doesn’t mean it’s good.
  • A coach who blames his victims by implying his athletes forced him to be harsh because they weren’t up to snuff.
  • A coach who, when accused of one type of bullying behavior, shifts the focus to something much worse that he didn’t do.
  • A coach who escalates the situation by daring the athlete to quit if he or she (or his or her parents) doesn’t like the way the coach runs things.

If parents see something, they should say something, the experts write.

“When a coach bullies a child individually, it should be reported immediately to school officials,” the report says. “Reporting the behavior to Child Protective Services may also be warranted.”


When verbal abuse is aimed at the entire team, it’s more difficult to make the case that the coach has violated the law. “Nevertheless, such behavior is unacceptable and coaches should face consequences for verbal misconduct including demeaning, name-calling and insulting young athletes,” the experts write.

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Coaches bully young athletes more often than you think, experts warn