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No Excuse for Abuse In Name of Winning

Is Abuse Result of Youth Sports Culture?

4. Neglect: Neglect is a chronic inattention to the basic necessities of life and the failure to provide for a child's physical and emotional needs. An adult, including parents, coaches, and administrators, whose neglect (i.e. failure to act) results in or unnecessarily or unreasonably exposes a child to physical, emotional or sexual abuse is just as guilty of child abuse as those who directly participate in such abuse.  Neglect can take any of the following forms in a youth sports context:  

  • Abandonment (Examples: parents who fail to adequately supervise their child's sports activities, to obtain medical treatment when they are injured, or postponing needed surgery so they can continue to play).
  • Unreasonably exposing an athlete to the risk of physical abuse (Examples: Adults who, by their inattention, allow players, coaches or spectators to continue participating or attending youth sport contests despite a documented history of violent behavior).
  • Unreasonably exposing an athlete to the risk of emotional abuse (Example: A parent who fails to intervene on behalf of his child in the face of a coach's persistent criticism of her child's ability, weight or lack of heart in front of her friends or teammates).
  • Unreasonably exposing an athlete to the risk of sexual abuse (Example: A parent who fails to take reasonable steps to protect his child against a sexual predator, such as by allowing closed or private coaching sessions, or failing to ensure that overnight trips to tournaments are properly chaperoned).
  • Failing to protect an athlete against unreasonable risk of injury (Examples: Adults who permit youth athletes to play on poorly maintained or dangerous fields or use obviously unsafe equipment, neglect to ensure that coaches receive adequate safety and first-aid training, or to ensure that appropriate safety equipment (first aid kit, AED etc.) is present at all practices and games).
  • Failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that an athlete does not play hurt (Examples: Parents, coaches, and other adults who fail to institute or follow appropriate return-to-play guidelines - such as when a player may return to practice and games after suffering a concussion - or who allow a child to play injured).
  • Failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that the child has proper rest, nutrition, hydration, and is properly protected against the elements (Examples: Parents who do not see that their teenage children to get the nine hours a night of sleep experts say teenagers need).
  • Failng to take reasonable steps to prevent or eliminate hazing (Example: Parents, coaches, and administrators who fail to take affirmative steps to prevent hazing rituals.

Abuse: Pure and Simple 

When the actions of Courtney's coach are tested against this definition of child abuse, it is clear that he was engaging in at least three forms of child abuse:

  • Using exercise as punishment. He punished Courtney for being five minutes late to practice by making her run bleacher stairs until she became physically ill. Requiring players who failed to make at least seven out of ten free throws in practice to run one "up and back" for each free throw missed short of the required seven, and that, for every free throw missed in a game, a girl had to run one up and back also constitute child abuse.
  • Yelling and screaming. The coach committed emotional abuse when he screamed at Courtney "You're not finished running. Get back up there! Fast," in the voice of a Marine drill sergeant.
  • Insulting. The coach insulted Courtney when he instructed her to "Stop your crying, and wipe your face! You are a selfish player by showing up late and I'm going to get rid of selfish players."

Negative effects of emotional abuse 

Perhaps because the damage caused by emotional abuse is not obvious, like sexual abuse, or immediately apparent, like a physical injury, its effect is often overlooked and minimized. But, says the late San Francisco sports and child psychiatrist, Dr. Maria Pease, the damage is no less real, and, in fact, may be much more damaging and long lasting:

  • Children are deeply affected by negative comments from parents, coaches, and other adults whom they look up to and respect. One comment can turn a child off to sports forever.
  • Children are much more sensitive to criticism than adults: being yelled at, put down, or embarrassed is much more likely to have negative psychological consequences and to cause the child to feel humiliated, shamed, and degraded, and to damage her feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. In a 2004 study of emotional abuse of elite child athletes in the United Kingdom, for instance, the athletes reported that abuse by their coaches created a climate of fear and made them feel stupid, worthless, or upset, lacking in self-confidence, angry, depressed, humiliated, fearful and hurt, and left long-lasting emotional scars.
  • If the abuse becomes chronic, the pattern of negative comments can destroy a child's spirit, motivation, and self-esteem. Over time, the young athlete will begin to believe what adults say about him. Abusive comments, even if intended to improve athletic performance, are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.
  • Children who experience screaming on a regular basis will react in certain ways to protect or defend themselves. This may constrict their ability to be psychologically healthy over time.
  • A more sensitive child may be intolerant of screaming very early on, and remove him or herself from the sport. However, he or she is also more likely to endure the screaming without telling a parent or responding to the coach directly, out of fear of reprisal. A child who stays in this situation may be more affected physiologically with overall heightened arousal levels.
  • A more secure child will likely have the same physiological responses but be less vulnerable to them. He or she may find a way to tune out the yelling or relative comments, but this may come at the cost of emotional sensitivity. As the child becomes less sensitive to his own fearful feeling, he or she can become less sensitive to the feelings of others, leading to loss of empathy. He or she will also become less sensitive to emotions in general, and have a los of sensitivity to positive emotions as well. He or she is also likely to resent the coach for putting him in such a psychologically vulnerable position.