7 Actions Parents Can Take When Sports Coaches Act Like Bullies

As a society and culture, we are undecided as to whether coaches need to be bullies in order to motivate athletes.
03/19/2014 10:28 am ET Updated May 19, 2014

On the front page of the March 8th Boston Globe is an article entitled "BU women's basketball coach accused of bullying." The article refers to Coach Kelly Greenberg, who is in her final year of a contract extension. Four players quit the team this past season and at least one is reported to have felt suicidal as a result of the alleged bullying by Coach Greenberg.

As a society and culture, we are undecided as to whether coaches need to be bullies in order to motivate athletes. A recent example of this is the success of the Esquire channel reality television show "Friday Night Tykes." The program is highly successful with viewers, as it showcases the tough coaching of child football players who appear conditioned to relish in the humiliation tactics as a way to gain approval of their parents and coaches.

Recently, two coaches have been suspended from the league, but the show goes on. This, despite a request from Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to pull the show down because of concern that it's glorifying violence among young athletes at the time there's growing concerns about concussions in youth sports.

In contrast to the Senator's concerns, Brian Morgan, the Texas Youth Football Association League President, emphasized recently that local parents are not protesting the show, and in fact, many other football teams are reaching out and trying to have leagues that are similar to the Texas Youth Football League.

Whether or not the coach at Boston University has actually bullied the four resigned players is not something that can be settled today. What can be addressed is how parents can respond to warning signs that their children have been bullied by their coaches.

Here are seven steps parents can take to address perceived bullying by sports coaches:

1. Parents need to look for the following warning signs in their children: Withdrawal, lack of communication, apathy, disinterest in a sport once loved, fear and avoidance of authority and overall disinterest and apathy.

2. If these behaviors are present in a child, parents need to communicate and observe to get to find out what's causing the behavior changes. To gain more information, parents can attend sports practices, ask their child direct questions and talk with other parents or people that are involved.

3. When addressing concerns with kids, parents should be sensitive to kids' denial and reluctance to address these types of issues head-on. Parents can adopt a "Colombo approach" and avoid using leading questions or putting a child "on the spot." For example: "Does Coach Bob seem tense during practice and if so, how?"

4. Parents need to probe and not leave any stone unturned when they are concerned that their child is at risk for being bullied by an authority figure, If parents cannot access the information by asking directly, then they need to talk to a professional who can help.

5. When the child is not an adult, parents need to confront the coach and authorities. Parents should provide those adults with the parameters of acceptable behavior towards their child. And if the adults can't comply with the guidelines of acceptable behavior, then parents need to limit the contact between those adults and their child.

6. When a parent is concerned that an adult child -- for example, a college student -- is being bullied by a coach, parents need to support their child in making a decision about how to proceed. Coaches who use an intimidation style with adult athletes often report they are doing it in the interest of winning the game. They report that they are trying to instill motivation in their players. It doesn't work for every player and parents can help their child make a decision about whether they want to continue to play or not, given the situation.

7. If players decide to stay, parents can remind children they should do so only if the coaching tactics work for them. Players need to ask themselves, Is the coach inspiring me to play better or not? If the answer is "no" and the child decides to leave the team, parent support behind this decision will have a monumental positive impact on a child.

Intimidation tactics are sometimes necessary -- for example, when preparing military troops for life and death situations. They are not required in youth sports.

The media attention around the alleged bullying at BU is an opportunity to raise awareness around coaching practices and may even motivate coaches to find new approaches to bring winning attitudes to their sports teams -- without unnecessary bullying and intimidation tactics.