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Emotional Abuse: Youth Hockey's Dirty Little Secret

Does failure of USA Hockey to lead on issue put kids at risk?

A part of the culture?

If the story of the Fogliettas' battle against Lynn Youth Hockey is a cautionary tale, what it does it tell us, not just about the local hockey program in a Boston suburb, but the sport as it is played on rinks all across the country? How can all the stakeholders in youth sports - parents, coaches, administrators, national governing bodies, learn from the mistakes made here (and the list is so long it will have to be left to another article)? What are the changes that need to be made, not just at the local level, but from top to bottom, to give emotional abuse the same attention it deserves as sexual abuse appears to being given, at least in the immediate aftermath of the Penn State and Syracuse scandals?

Clearly, the Foglietta saga is, in so many ways, a sad commentary on the state of youth hockey, not just in one town and one program, but into a culture that, too often, pays lip service to being for the kids but which is often more about adults, their egos, and intramural politics and power; a sport in which the message to parents and players is not to rock the boat, not to criticize coaches, not to complain about what they view as emotional abuse, because, if they do, they risk being ostracized, seeing their kids' playing time dwindle to next to nothing, or worse, drummed out of the program altogether; where disciplinary rules, coaching certification requirements, and codes of ethic and conduct are a virtual dead letter, except, of course, when they can be used as a weapon to cow an out-of-line parent into silence and send a message to other parents not to even think about challenging the authority of the powers that be; where youth hockey clubs are run by and for the benefit of the coaches and their cronies, perhaps so they can "bask in the reflected glory" of their players, and not for the kids and their emotional well-being; where yelling at kids, criticizing them in front of their teammates, dressing them down for what they consider a poor performance - even when the team wins - is routine, viewed as the norm (they are hockey coaches, after all), where such conduct is considered acceptable by most parents and, if it isn't, well, too bad, that's just the way it is.

The really sad thing is that, instead of being about whether a coach emotionally abused a player, about whether he violated USA Hockey's Code of Ethics and/or Code of Conduct, or about the way Lynn Youth Hockey handled Holly Foglietta's complaint, or about how to provide parents and their children a way in which raise questions about a coach's conduct in a way that does not expose them to retaliation, and how to make sure that coaches abide by codes of conduct supposedly intended to protect the kids they coach, the tables were turned on the Foglietta family, with the coach, the rest of the coaching fraternity, the LYH board, and their supporters circling the wagons, getting everyone - or almost everyone - to toe the party line, and engaging in a well-orchestrated and coordinated campaign to make Holly the victim, ignore or minimize the very real and serious problem of emotional abuse, drum the family out of the program, and, when it found out that it couldn't simply impose that punishment by fiat but to hold a hearing, conduct a kangaroo court/show trial to cover its tracks, a process in which the Board and its allies acted as judge, jury and executioner, and, without a basis in its rules for the punishment it was hell bent on meting out, came up with a trumped up violation of a Zero Tolerance Policy, designed to prevent parents from acting out at games, as justification for banning the family from the program.

Change, change, change

But simply dragging everyone through the mud accomplishes little. What is really needed is change. While I will have more to say about particular aspects of the Foglietta story in future articles, for now, at least two major changes cry out for immediate implementation:

First, procedures needs to be put in place in every youth sports program to

  • give children a way to safely and anonymously (at least in the initial instance) report emotional, physical or sexual abuse by a coach to a responsible adult, whether their parent or a league official,
  • provide parents a mechanism for reporting alleged abuse to club and league officials for further investigation without fear of retaliation; and
  • require collection of data on and evaluation of coaches, not just by the club and league, but game officials (as is done in the JustPlay program in Canada), parents and players, on an anonymous basis, which will help to identify problem coaches; and

Second, child-centered policies need to be implemented by national governing bodies to safeguard children, not just sexual and physical abuse, but from emotional abuse as well. Unless and until USA Hockey and the national governing bodies of other sports give the problem of emotional abuse the same prominence, the same attention, the same approbation, as sexual and physical abuse, a culture of abuse will continue to thrive.

Some countries are now beginning to employ protection policies in the context of sports to safeguard children from abuse.
As Michael Hartill of Edge Hill University in England, points out, in the UK, for example, state funding for sports governing bodies is now linked to a set of 11 national standards for safeguarding children, with a Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) responsible for supporting and monitoring the implementation of these standards as they are ‘rolled out' across sports in the UK.

Principally this has resulted in the production and implementation of child protection policies within sports governing bodies largely dealing with adult responsibility for best practices when working with children and dealing with child protection issues. The CPSU's ultimate aim is to safeguard children through encouraging cultural change.

Like Hartill, I believe such policies to protect/safeguard children in sport are essential, although like him, I fear that, given the forces of patriarchy and commercialism, not to mention adult egos, stacked up against those who believe in a different version of physical activity than the current model of youth sports in this country, our ability to deliver change that will truly transform childhood physical activity seems somewhat limited.

While we seem ready to accept child protection policies to weed out the truly deviant few (as long as they are not too inconvenient), if we are really serious about tackling childhood abuse, policy development is, as Hartill notes, "only the first step in a long process of radical change - a process that many forces dominant within sport might perceive that they have a vested interest in resisting."

Having worked tirelessly for the better part of two decades to put the word "youth" back in youth sports, to make youth sports child-centered, to put their interests first, to make youth sports about play, games, and fun, to expose the dirty little secret of the emotional abuse of our children, pulling off the scab, is just the first step in what has and will no doubt continue to be a struggle to fundamentally transform the culture of youth sports.

Has your child been emotionally abused? MomsTeam wants to hear your story.  Send it an e-mail to delench@MomsTeam.com. 

Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTeam.com and the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins)

Posted March 11, 2012