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Critical Coach or Bully?

Strategies for parents in helping their child deal with an overly critical coach

The junior varsity tennis coach of the Tigers, Coach Critic, is determined to win, in this her first season as coach.  She believes the best way to do that is to only give her players positive feedback if they win their match, and thinks she is helping  her players by constantly calling attention to their flaws and weaknesses. The atmosphere at her practices is serious, intense and full of pessimism.Teenage tennis player hitting ball

It's the day before the Tigers meet their arch-rivals, the Huskies.  Coach Critic screams to one of her players, "Adrianne, why aren't you moving your feet? Let's see some hustle. Stop standing flat-footed when you are at the net."  What she doesn't know is that Adrianne, her number three singles player, isn't moving at quickly as usual because she was up late the night before studying for an AP chemistry exam and is tired.  At 16-years-old, Adrianne has been playing tennis for more than 10 years.   "How many times are you going double-fault? If you plan on double-faulting during your match tomorrow, let me know now, and you can sit the bench," Coach Critic threatens.

Adrianne is an athlete who exemplifies hard-work, perseverance and sportsmanship, but Coach Critic's torrent of negative feedback is relentless and taking its toll.  At wit's end about what to do, her father contacts me for help.  He tells me of his daughter's lack of enthusiasm in playing for such an overly critical coach.  More and more, he says, she is focused on her weaknesses, and gets easily frustrated in a match when she makes a mistake.  "I can tell by her body language when she has given up on herself in the middle of a match," he says.

Adrianne is clearly suffering from a lack of confidence, and her coach's critical style is hurting, not helping.  The best thing to turn things around is to help her understand what is causing her self-doubt; if she doesn't, she may end up quitting.

Here are the three main concerns I had about Adrianne's situation, my advice for parents in addressing them, and intervention strategies:

1. Concern: Critical Leadership. The coach's highly critical leadership style doesn't work for Adrianne. In fact, it borders on outright bullying.

Advice to parents: Observe the coach in action. If your child tells you they are not comfortable with the coach's feedback, try to attend part of your child's practice by showing up early one day to pick them up, so you can watch the coach and listen to what they say to your child.

Intervention:  A sport psychology consultant can help the athlete develop a psychological profile by filling out an assessment form, either  in their office or online.  Armed with the results, an athlete can become more self-aware about their own style of communication, level of confidence, and possible attention issues.  The consultant can then build on the quantitative profile with a qualitative interview, and educate the athlete on different coaching styles, and strategies on how to differentiate between the "critical" coach and a "bullying" coach.


2. Concern: Criticism becomes personal. The coach takes the negative style of coaching too far, and personally attacks your child.

Advice for Parents: Blow the whistle.  If the coach criticizes your young athlete on a personal level, you have every right to demand that he stop, and, if he doesn't, to go over the coach's head.  Contact the school's athletic director, and tell your AD what was said, and in what context.

Intervention: Through counseling, education, and mental imagery exercises, a sports psychology consultant can help an athlete regain their mental toughness.


3. Concern: A crisis of confidence.  The athlete's self-confidence and overall performance has suffered.

Advice for Parents: Boost confidence by helping their child separate his or her performance from self-worth, and not internalize the feedback given by their critical coach, focusing on their strengths, and what is "right" about the game.

Intervention:  A sport psychology consultant can also help the athlete rebuild what is "right" about them as an athlete and regain  self-confidence, both as an athlete and as a person.  Through exercises which focus on their strengths, both in and outside of sport, the athlete will learn mental skills on how not to internalize negative feedback from the coach and think more positively.

Be careful not to over- or under-react

With the proper attention and action, parents and student athletes alike can help prevent a bullying or overly critical coach from doing long-lasting psychological damage.  It is always important for parents to accurately judge the severity of the situation, and take appropriate, measured steps to mediate the problem, whether it's a conversation with the coach or a discussion with the athletic director, and consider consulting with a sports psychology professional 

K.C. Wilder, Ph.D., is a former college cycling All-American, two-time national masters short track cycling champion and professional cyclist, certified sports trainer and sports psychologist. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her husband, two sons and yellow lab. For more information about Dr. Wilder, click here.