** This article originally appeared on Soccernation.com in December 2016**
I wanted to open this article with another story. One of those attention-grabbing, tell all, the stuff of nightmares stories that I’ve told before.
One about the coach who called a 10-year-old boy stupid. Or the one about the coach who screamed at a high school player in front of a sideline full of college scouts to get her head out of her [you know what] or she could spend the game on the bench. Oh, how about the one where a coach stood over a group of nine-year-old girls as they sat on the ground crying and called them donkeys. When a parent intervened, he said: “bullying builds character”.
That was a good one. So is the story about the coach who kept calling a team of fourteen-year-old girls by female body parts all season. All. Season. Relentlessly.
I could have started with any one of those stories to show the kind of verbal bullying that goes on in youth soccer. I could have provided all the gory details, in a flowery description, to really drive home the pain. To get your eyes to well up, to have your heart pound a bit, and your ire start to rise. I could have pulled those heartstrings so you would finally believe me. So you would realize how bad it is out there.
Sadly, I can’t. Not because I am afraid. Trust me, I’m not afraid of someone who gets his or her power from picking on children. No one is afraid of a coward like that.
No. I can’t because you know the stories. I can’t because you see them every weekend, on every field, across every city.
I can’t because you have worse stories. The last time I posted an article about the dangers of bully coaches, I heard more stories than I can recall. Stories that made my skin crawl. Stories that made me cry. Stories that made my stories sound like fairy tales. There are some bad coaches out there.
I can’t because you know these coaches. They still coach. No matter how many TEDx talks are given about these coaches, or radio show appearances, or articles are written, or speeches delivered at conferences pleading for the youth sports world to stop these coaches, the coaches still coach.
I can’t because we will all show our shock and outrage at this epidemic and then write our check to the large soccer machines that turn out coaches like that with the snake oil promise of scholarships, national teams, and pro contracts. Those machines Defend coaches like that. Promote coaches like that so they can work with more of our children.
I can’t because the bully story hangover will wear off after a few days and we will all return to allowing it to continue by the weekend.
Don’t believe me? I challenge you. I challenge you to go to a large tournament and spend the day. Walk around from game to game. See as many games, at all ages that you can. I bet you can’t go one day at a tournament without finding one of these coaches.
But…it’s okay. He gets results. He is making our kids mentally tough. He is only doing what his coach did and what his coach’s coach did. It’s just words.
By Tuesday our outrage will subside but the damage to our children is done. I am not talking about a crying child who needs a shoulder. Or a softening youth who need “safe spaces”. I am not talking about hurt feelings or wounded egos.
That’s what the knee-jerk reaction is to articles like this. First outrage. Then outpouring of similar stories. When someone defends the actions. Then the rationalization that it builds character, the justification that it was done to us by our coaches, the assumption it is making our children weak and non-competitive if we are too soft…and the cycle starts anew.
STOP. Stop making this about challenging a status quo, or arguing about results and think for a moment about the one group that is always forgotten in our adult debates. I call out a bully coach, he gets his hackles up and fights back, more adults jump on either side of the debate and we all start slinging dirt until we get tired, bored, or distracted and move on but the one group who lives with this – the group who actually incur damages – are forgotten. Children.
Your child suffers when we allow this to happen. Real suffering. Research-backed, medically-proven, scientifically-relevant damage. Research was done by experts in their field that proves actual damage happens. Damage beyond hurt feelings. Your child suffers potentially long-term, possibly irreversible damage when coaches verbally bully them.
The kind of damage that is as bad as physical damage. Research shows verbal abuse is no different from physical abuse in certain areas of the brain. Research shows what we call the status quo, makes ‘em tougher, gets results, just a coach being a coach is harming your child. You would NEVER allow someone to hurt your child in any other arena of our life. You should NOT allow someone to harm your child in sports.
I want to remind you that while the bully coach may have played soccer. May know the game. May have even played at the highest levels, he or she did not go to school to study the craft. Did not take a class to learn how to speak to a child or understand development cycles in youth sports. They may tell you to ignore guys like me because they know soccer and how to pay it better. Do they know children and how to educate them better?
It makes sense to use former players. I am one of those former players turned coaches. We played it a long time. We know nuances, we have a level of understanding of what it takes to learn the game and play it. We have “institutional memory” as players.
That does not make us experts at working with your child. That’s like going to a heart attack patient to get your cardiac advice. He experienced it, so he must know how to help me. Who cares about the doctor with the degree and decades of research.
So check out the research and remember while the bully coaches were playing sports, these academics were doing the actual research. They know the extent of the damage. You can decide for yourself if this is just another “bleeding heart”, “soft”, “child coddling” article.
What kind of damage does it dos verbal bullying do? (This is just a sampling. The research is still pouring in on the topic).
Brain Scarring – Mark Waldman has done research on MRIs of children’s brains. A side by side comparison of the brains of chronic verbal abuse shows physical scarring similar to the brains of children living in chronic physical abuse homes.
Corpus Callosum damage – Martin Teicher’s research has shown damage to Corpus Callosum in the brains of verbally abused children. This leads to memory issues, lapses in concentration and attention, and a reduction in creativity. Let me get this straight: we are pushing for more creative children but the bully coaching is counterproductive to that? Maybe us “have more fun” coaches have the puzzle solved.
Weaker new brain cells – Daniel Petersen (Chicago Medical School)has found that though brain cells continue to regenerate at a normal rate in verbally abused brain those new cells are often weaker and die more easily. Words kill brain cells. Sticks and stones seem far less powerful than words now.
Thinner Myelin Sheaths – Research done by Tracy Vaillancourt showed the myelin sheaths around the neurons of verbally abused brains are thinner. The myelin sheath insulates the connection, like electrical insulation allowing neurons to fire faster and more efficiently. Imagine a frayed wire versus a well-insulated wire. Which one do you want transmitting the electric in your house? Also, if you subscribe to Daniel Coyle’s work (I do) this is how talent is built. Coaches like John Wooden and Itzhak Perlman knew to create skill they needed specific, focused, mastery-based practice to build thick myelin sheaths. The thicker the sheath the better a neuron fired, and the better it transmitted, the more skillful a person was. Oh. The. Irony. We yell at our children during skill-building sessions to be more skilled and all we are doing is destroying the very mechanism that “builds” the skill.
Reduced Gray Matter – Research by Radua has shown verbal abuse causes reduced gray matter. This alters brain structure and reduces information processing capabilities in the brain. Do you want problem-solvers? Stop yelling at them while they are trying to solve the problems. It reduces their ability to solve the problem.
Introduction of toxins – Here is a picture…imagine the brain is bathed in toxins. Research from many sources shows bullying elicits a response in the amygdala where the stress reaction occurs. A stress reaction will cause an increase in stress hormones. Stress hormones serve a purpose but in large, and frequent doses on a developing brain, they can be dangerous to growth. Yelling bathes the brain in toxins. I’ll just leave that here to sink in for a bit. Bathed. In. Toxins.
Drug risk factors – Rockefeller University released neurological research that indicated chronic verbal abuse causes a deep enough stress reaction it can be a risk factor for drug abuse. There are deleterious effects on the hippocampus from exposed chronic verbal abuse that can reduce its ability to regulate chemical dependency. Sifting through the research, the basic finding was verbally abused children have a higher susceptibility to drug abuse because of a weakened drug regulation system.
Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and even psychosis – Let’s stay with Rockefeller for a bit and discuss the rest of their findings, Their research on the effects of verbal abuse of the brain also revealed that adults who were subjected to chronic verbal abuse were at risk for these psychiatric issues, at a much earlier age, and were less likely to respond well to treatment. Have a read for yourself on whether “words can really hurt you”
Learned helplessness and reduced self-esteem – We all know the research on dogs and electric shock. Shock the bottom cage the first few times and the dog jumps to avoid it. After continued exposure to the shock, the dog gives up and lies down anyway, taking the full brunt of the shock. The phenomenon is called “learned helplessness”. Scream at our kids enough and they may just lie down and take it for the rest of their lives. This is the opposite of persistence. Not to mention the reduction in self-esteem? Who could possibly believe in herself when her coach keeps calling her a failure, a donkey, an idiot? Way to go coach. Way to pass that on to the next generation. But, hey, you won the game, so collect your bonus.
Competitiveness – Increased stress reactions reduce learning behaviors, increase fear responses which in turn reduce a child’s desire to “try new things”, destroy growth mindsets, and reduce the competitive nature of children. I once had a bully coach accuse me of being the reason our children are weak competitors because I “make them soft with your coddling words”. Well, the research shows bully behavior is really what “makes our kids weak”.
The above-mentioned research indicated stress reactions. Stress reactions, especially frequent and powerful ones, cause psychological damage. Children who are verbally abused tend to be more prone to depression, anxiety, apathy, and panic attacks. No wonder our current generation of children is more stressed out than ever. We have them playing 12 hours a day, 300 days a year in a potentially verbally abusive environment. I’d be depressed if I had to listen to someone scream at me and call me names 5 days a week all year long.
Systemic Physical Damage
Weakened immune system – Research shows higher and longer lasting levels of cortisol in the body, which is released during high-stress reactions to verbal abuse, can lower the immune system’s effectiveness. My son used to always complain he was sick and didn’t want to go to practice and games (a clear sign something may be awry). Maybe he wasn’t always making it up and the coach he had that season was actually making him sick. (That particular coach no longer works in youth soccer for a reason).
Damage to connective tissue – Higher Cortisol also damages connective matter in the body (tissue, joints, cartilage), thereby increasing the risk of injury. So words can also “break bones”?
Obesity – Guess who also showed chronic verbal abuse in children leads to more prevalence of childhood and adult obesity. Yes, Rockefeller University. This current generation of children is at risk of dying 5 years younger than we will die. For the first time in history, a generation has a lifespan shorter than the previous generation! Obesity plays a big role in this and many are working to reverse this. What good is it to make our children more active if the people controlling the activity are also causing potential obesity via stress and abuse?
I get it. I am sounding a big alarm here. I am rocking the boat and making you feel a bit uncomfortable. I am also going extreme on you. Shock and awe. Shock, awe, and outrage. I am at a loss for ways to get people to take notice. To stop defending it, celebrating it, or ignoring it. I am at a loss for getting people to say “enough is enough”.
I don’t care what you say about us to other clubs or if this prevents my child from having a right to his 1% chance of getting a college scholarship. Long-term health and happiness is far more important.
Not all children will suffer the above damages but they are possible. Not all coaches are verbally abusive, but they are out there, every weekend, doing their thing and we seem to stand by and say nothing. Is it worth the risk to keep your kid with a verbally abusive coach for that scholarship, that competitive advantage, that spot on the elite team?
Is it really worth the wins and resume building and ladder climbing to know you got to the top of the ladder by being the verbally abusive coach? You are a big dog now, but you laid waste to an entire generation of youth athletes. Hollow win, my friend. Hollow win.
Maybe your kid will turn out just fine. Our parents smoked all the time around our generation. Many of them smoked in the car, with the windows up, because none of us knew the damage it could cause. Did it affect us all? Maybe. I am “so far, so good”. Would I take the same risk with my kids? Not. A. Chance. Now we know the risk and I don’t feel like gambling with my child.
So, you know the risk of verbal abuse…ready to gamble or ready to take a stand for a better way of coaching?