Coach bullying: Why it happens, and why it’s not okay

sport_coach_yelling_smallerI planned to write about coach bullying over a month ago. The fact that just yesterday a prominent NCAA women’s basketball coach was accused by former players of bullying and emotional abuse, is nothing more than a timely coincidence. Accusations against Boston University’s Kelly Greenberg arose after four players quit over the course of the last year – that’s 30% of the team. Two of those players gave up $60,000-a-year scholarships. I’ll let you interpret the severity of the situation based off of those numbers.

But this isn’t about Greenberg or Boston University, or even last year’s headlining bully coach, Mike Rice at Rutgers. This is about the fact that coach bullying isn’t specific to collegiate or professional athletics – it’s present in youth, club, middle, and high school athletics too. Although there isn’t a lot of research on the subject, according to one study, “45% of the children surveyed said adults had called them names, yelled at them, and insulted them while they played sports. Even more disturbing, more than 17% reported that an adult had hit, kicked, and slapped them while participating in sports.”

Bullying in general is far more recognized and discussed between peers – children and teens bullying other children and teens. But the fact is, anyone who feels they have power over someone else, and exerts that power, is a bully, regardless of the age of the victim.

Some find bullying coach behavior normal or acceptable because athletes need to be tough. Athletes do need to be tough to play a competitive sport; they should not be required to withstand aggressive behavior from the person who is supposed to be their team leader and motivator, and someone who they should be able to trust. Furthermore, according to research at Clemson University, players do not respond well to verbally aggressive coaching styles.

So, it’s wrong, AND it’s unproductive. So why does it happen?

Dr. Nancy Swigonski discusses coach bullying in a Pediatrics article, which she details in “Coach bullying: More frequent than you might think” on CNN. According to Swigonski, coaches and schools often respond one of four ways when parents approach them with coach bullying concerns.These responses indicate to us why coach bullying is underacknowledged, and more socially accepted than peer to peer bullying. Below is a summary of the four responses Swignoski discusses.

Moral justification

In this situation, the bully makes their actions seem like the norm, and thus, socially acceptable behavior. They’ll say things like, “every coach reacts that way sometimes” or “this is the way we do things, and it’s why we win games.” With these types of statements, the coach shows that they’re not the only coach displaying this sort of behavior, and because it is common, it’s okay. When that attitude is accepted at a team, and then school level, it does become the norm, and athletes either have to “toughen up” or quit because the bullying is likely overlooked.

Backhand apology

This is when a coach apologizes, but not really. For example, “I’m sorry for getting a little upset, but you have to focus or you’ll never ever make that shot.” So, the coach is sorry (sort-of), but it’s the player’s fault that he or she erupted in the first place. And it’s also the player’s fault that the team lost. In this case, the athlete is bullied under the guise of an apology, which is nothing more than a shell of an excuse to cover the coach’s back.

Advantageous comparisons

This is ideal for the verbally abusive coach, because he or she can claim they never physically harmed the players. And that’s okay, right? Wrong. By saying physical violence wasn’t used, the coach is minimizing the harm of what they did, thereby implying their behavior is acceptable.


Much as the name suggests, the coach escalates the consequences of complaints. By exerting their power here, the coach bullies the victim until they simply give up. For example, the coach could suggest the player quit if they don’t like the way things are handled. In this example, the player has the option to give up a sport, or remain quiet – neither of which are acceptable options. Particularly in middle and high school, giving up a spot on a team is a huge decision, and one youths and teens might not make, or be strong enough to make alone. This is especially true if quitting means entirely giving up a sport they love, or the social aspects that come with athletics.

As with all bullying, the key is to spread awareness of coach bullying, and not accept it as the status quo. If we all accept it as normal, then normal it will remain. Schools must make it clear to coaches that bullying of any kind will not be tolerated. Even if the coach is winning championships, even if their season ended 20-0, even then, when it’s all said and done, it means nothing if the athletes are harmed. Athletes should be the number one priority – their safety, well-being, maturation, skills, health, confidence – these are the important things, and they’re all harmed when a coach bullies, berates, and belittles his or her players.

For coaching advice on tactics that work, and have the athlete’s best interest in mind, read Coaching an athlete on the importance of physical and mental health, by Chad Onken. As a veteran coach with NCAA titles and Olympic athlete development under his belt, Onken also plays an instrumental role in the strength and conditioning, team building, mental training, nutritional education and academic development of swimmers, and is ranked in the top 2-5 percent of swim coaches in the profession. So he knows a thing or two.