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Wrestling With the Devil

Psychologically and socially, one of the major tasks of childhood is identity formation. A child's self-concept changes on the basis of his/her experiences. The development of self-worth includes a sense of academic, social and athletic competence. The physical self is part of every child's identity. If a child is made to feel that he/she must do something unhealthy and potentially self-destructive in order to be a competent athlete - what is the life lesson that he/she is learning?

Nearly everyone agrees that youth sports can be a valuable asset in helping to create a positive identity. Through sports participation, youngsters can learn to be good winners and good losers. They can develop self-pride and self-confidence. They can come to understand the importance of a healthy, strong body. It can be a wonderful place for character building. But what type of "character" are we talking about here?

This situation is what we refer to as a "toxic" one. It is dangerous, both physically and psychologically. Toxic coaches are those who emphasize winning over fun. They substitute insults for instruction. And they promote harmful training strategies to the young athletes who look up to them. This is abuse.

Coaches can have a very powerful influence over their young athletes. For some kids, the sports team becomes a second family. There are some young athletes who will do anything to please the coach, even if it means deceptive, aggressive or unhealthy behaviors. Often, this can lead young athletes to burnout, serious injuries, emotional damage, eating disorders and dishonesty.

You have every right to evaluate a coach's behavior and hold him/her up to the highest moral and ethical standards. You have every right to make certain that the youth sports' environment is promoting the value of health and fitness.

Every young athlete participating in sport has a "Bill Of Rights". Among those rights are:

  • The right to qualified leadership

  • The right to play as a child

  • The right to a safe & healthy environment



Doreen Greenberg, Ph. D., is a sport psychology consultant specializing in issues facing young female athletes. The first two of her series of books for girls, Anything You Can Do . . . New Sports Heroes for Girls (WISH Publishing), A Drive to Win: The Story of Nancy Lieberman-Cline and Sword of a Champion: The Story of Sharon Monplaisir, were published in September 2000. Volume Three, Fast Lane to Victory - The Story of Swimmer Jenny Thompson, was published in March 2001.  Have a question? You can email Dr. Greenberg at Doreen@MomsTeam.com.