Bullying as an acceptable method to motivate athletes is apparently on the wane. Like their male counterparts, female athletes are speaking up about the women who bully them under the guise of coaching a sport. It is frustrating to see talented, hard-working female coaches, under pressure to hold their own in a male dominated field, succumb to bullying strategies. Coaching is a career that occurs in a pressure-cooker environment where one must succeed or fail in a very public arena; however, it is rare to non-existent for coaches to be trained about athlete mental health, let alone their own. Far too often it appears that a bullying cycle is at work and athletes are losing otherwise amazing female coaches.
On the playground, the child bully has power, followers, and bystanders. She targets another child or a small group with taunting clearly meant to humiliate and harm. However, on the playground, in a locker lined high school, or in cyberspace, the victim is not expected to endure this treatment and is not expected to believe that the humiliating taunts are in fact meant to assist in her development. This is very different from how we treat athletes who are bullied by a coach. In that scenario, the bullying is normalized and the victim is meant to think it’s not harmful, but motivational. Hence, in a July 2012 article carried in the IndyStar, the reporter acknowledges that “interviews with players revealed respect for Hart’s basketball knowledge but also a pattern of fear, favoritism and humiliation,” but then asks the question: “But might this just be a case of players unable to play for a demanding coach?” This question is not posed to children who humiliate and harm their peers, but athletes are required to defend their right to respect, emotional safety, and fairness. Here is how one athlete defends herself against the insinuation that she’s not tough enough to withstand apparently condoned abuse: “‘If that was the case, all these players wouldn’t have left,’ said one player who quit. ‘We were tough enough. . . . But the way she treated people was way over the line.’” Notably, the athlete says “people”, not the team again this suggests there are some people on the team that are targets while the others are favored or bystanders.
As a teacher at a high school, I was asked to take testimonies given by student athletes as the Headmaster was investigating reports of abusive conduct on both the boys and the girls basketball teams. The girls reported conduct that sounds similar, if not identical, to college level coaches who have been in the news as they lose their positions. The student testimonies describe a bullying culture of fear, favoritism and humiliation. As one player on the girls’ team described the culture:
…there’s blatant favoritism. I don’t want to be sour grapes, but I was the one who mostly heard “f— that” or “f—ing get it together” or “holy f— Marissa” over and over again “What the f— are you doing Marissa.” She would never give you concrete criticism. It wasn’t helpful [. . . ] It was never positive. There’s tons of communication with Julie, Michelle and Andrea and the rest of us were left out. There wasn’t consistency so you didn’t know what to do. In a pre-game talk, they would talk to Julie, Michelle and Andrea. People were scared to shoot. We were down by ten and I was put in. I scored two three pointers and [the coach] said that was good and all I could think was, I could do that all the time if you’d let me. Mostly they yelled at me for doing stuff like that. We weren’t allowed to play like that (names have been changed to preserve confidentiality).
Neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen, in her book The Teenage Brain, notes that now in 2015 suicide has moved from the third to the second leading cause of death in teenage populations; the statistics on college student suicides are comparable. She advises us that “because adolescence is already a time of mood swings and behavioral irregularities, it is even more important for parents, guardians, and teachers to be aware of the emotional needs of adolescents, especially in times of crisis and stress, when adolescents’ vulnerability to mental disorders is at its highest.” Jensen wants parents and teachers to be aware that “even minor, and definitely major, psychiatric problems need to be addressed early since they put the person at higher risk for mental illness later in life.” I think it is crucial for coaches to also receive this information. They are arguably more important for, and influential on, student-athletes than either parents or teachers.
According to Dr. Jensen, girls are at greater risk than boys for anxiety disorders. Female athletes suffer their own kind of bullying from coaches and respond in distinct ways. Internationally recognized sport psychology expert, Dr. Alan Goldberg paints a disturbing picture of what emotional abuse does to young women:
Abusive coaches use threats, FEAR and intimidation to scare athletes into submission. They BULLY their athletes into keeping silent OR ELSE, (incurring my wrath, loss of playing time or athletic scholarship, etc!) They destroy an individual’s self-esteem and seriously undermine their confidence. They teach their athletes to be passive and tolerate abusive behavior in relationships. This is a particularly insidious and disturbing lesson to teach anyone, especially young women! And I have an even harder time when you have a female coach, reinforcing these ‘lessons’ in young female athletes.
Perhaps female coaches also feel they must toughen up their athletes, ensure that the girls aren’t “soft.” However, Goldberg argues that these kinds of abusive practices have the opposite effect: “A coach doesn’t EVER need to be abusive and demeaning to prepare athletes to perform at the highest level! Instead, this behavior undermines mental toughness and makes athletes vulnerable to poor performance and repetitive performance problems.”
According to the athletes, denying attention and support is used by the coach as a form of punishment that compromises the closeness of the coach-athlete relationship and tells the athlete that she is not worthy of attention. This has the result of degrading the athlete’s sense of self-worth and reducing her ability to cope with the emotional abuse.
A suicide risk linked back to the actions of basketball coach Kelly Greenberg at Boston University led to the coach being fired. In April 2014, four students quit the Boston University women’s basketball team due to emotional abuse by Coach Greenberg. One student quoted in The Boston Globe said, “‘Giving up a $60,000-a-year scholarship is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I hate that I’m not in school, but it had to be done. My spirit was broken.’” This student subsequently became suicidal. Thirty players rallied to Coach Greenberg’s defense against the claims by the four players; however, Greenberg and Boston University “parted ways” in late April following the Review Panel’s findings. Todd Klipp, senior counsel at the University, was quoted by BU Today as saying that many of the complaints could not be substantiated, but that “a compelling case was made, based on interviews with the team as a whole, that the manner in which Coach Greenberg interacted with many of her players was incompatible with the expectations and standards for university employees, including our coaches.”
While there was significant support for Coach Greenberg, it did not mean the four students were somehow overly sensitive and therefore not tough enough. Breaking the spirits of targeted athletes to the point where they were suicidal is not coaching basketball, it is bullying just like on the playground, the hallway or cyberspace.
Female coaches have the opportunity to be leaders in this field. The first step is to become educated and aware of the pressure they are under and to learn strategies to avoid defaulting to a bullying model which may have been how they were coached. The second step is to be informed about the research by sport psychologists and neuroscientists that reveal bullying doesn’t win games; all it does is harm student-athletes. Just like we don’t want female athletes quitting their hard-earned sport, we also do not want to see talented, committed female coaches fired for bullying players.
Mick McCabe and Mark Synder, “Players’ Shocking Allegations against Former NCAA Women’s Basketball Coach,” USA Today July 2013: http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaw/2013/07/21/oakland-university-fired-coach-beckie-francis-special-report/2573613/
Alan Petersime, “Ex-players say IUPUI women’s coach Shann Hart ‘did it again’,” Indianapolis Star, August 2010: http://indianabasketballdigest.com/index.php/topic/7676-usa-today-ex-players-say-iupui-womens-coach-shann-hart-did-it-again/
Mark Alesia, Heather Gillers and Tim Evans, “‘Emotional Abuse’: 28 have left women’s basketball program,” IndyStar.com, July 2010: http://archive.indystar.com/article/20100727/NEWS14/307270003/-Emotional-abuse-IUPUI-
Bob Hohler, “Bully Accusations Continue Against BU coach,” The Boston Globe, April 2014: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/03/08/women-basketball-coach-accused-bullying/TtKz57Gs9qXbvk1SBtIpuM/story.html
Frances E. Jensen with Amy Ellis Nutt, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, Toronto: Harper Collins, 2015 (183).
Ashley E. Stirling and Gretchen A. Kerr, “Defining and categorizing emotional abuse in sport,” European Journal of Sport Science, July 2008: 8 (4): 173-181.
Dr. Alan Goldberg: “What abusive coaches teach female athletes,” January 3, 2014: https://www.facebook.com/DrGsportspsych/posts/585669734834454
About the Author
Jennifer Fraser, PhD, author of Teaching Bullies, is herself a teacher. Teaching Bullies is her third book and it tells the story of fourteen courageous teenagers who spoke up about coaches who were bullying them. When these teens were re-victimized by school administrators, lawyers and educational authorities, Fraser knew she had to tell their story. Bullying is poisonous from peers, and even more deadly from adults in care-giver positions. It’s time adults were held accountable.