Blog Post: Recovering from Abusive Coaching: From Surviving to Thriving

Recently, the Coaching Association of Canada was tasked with creating an updated Coaching Code of Conduct in order to address BAHD behaviours in sport (bullying, abuse, harassment, discrimination). Sport Canada and Kristy Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science and Sport, introduced several steps to eliminating abuse of all kinds in sport including expecting NSO’s to create policy and third party reporting procedures, creating an investigative unit, establishing an athlete helpline, and funding preventative measures such as Safe Sport promotion and education. These steps toward prevention, recognition and investigation, are laudable.

One aspect of abuse that requires attention is how to support an athlete’s recovery from abusive coaching once the damage is done.

“A bullying, abusive coach negatively impacts an athlete’s ability to focus and perform, their sense of self worth, their self efficacy and motivation, as well as the team’s cohesion”

Gearity and Thompson, 2011, p. 218.

We know that the ill effects of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, harassment and bullying are significant: There are several ways athletes perceive a poor coach to be inhibiting their mental skills. “In the heat of the action, usually during a game, poor coaches were perceived to be distracting and to cause athletes to lose focus. Athletes also talked about how poor coaches inhibited them by engendering self-doubt through the harmful things they did. Further, by not encouraging them, they perceived poor coaches to be demotivating. Lastly, poor coaches were seen as not only inhibiting individual athlete‚Äôs mental skills, but as dividing the team” (Gearity and Thompson, 2011, p. 215).

“Rather than caring about the athletes, poor coaches were described as concerned only with winning and making themselves look good” (p. 215). Athletes report: belittling, humiliating, shouting, scapegoating, rejecting, isolating and threatening behaviours as well as being ignored, or denied attention and support.24 ,26 ,38 ,42 ,43. Yet, the central tenets of effective coaching are widely considered to be the 4 C’s: the development of the athletes’ competence, confidence, connection and character. An ego-centric, winning only coaching focus is destructive to each of the 4 C’s of athlete development above.

How does an athlete recover from the damage they have sustained from a bully coach? While we are devoting increasing attention and resources to sexual abuse survivors and their paths to recovery, and though we are much more informed on how to prevent bullying and abuse by learning to recognize abusive tendencies and signs, there is little research on how to recover from psychological and emotional abuse in sport.

Athletes who have experienced BAHD coaching behaviours will need to be reminded of their unique worth, provided with opportunities to connect to others and rebuild their sense of belonging, offered opportunities to develop and grow, celebrated for their strength of character and personal leadership in challenging or rejecting bullying, and given feedback that helps them regain confidence in their competence – captured within the 4 C framework for coaching the whole athlete. In much the same way, thriving differs from merely coping or surviving BAHD coaching. To thrive is to grow, learn, self actualize. Thriving differs from surviving in that a thriver is learning, whole and connected (Walinga & Rowe, 2013).

Many athletes do not recognize when they have been psychologically abused or bullied misinterpreting the bullying, abuse or harassment as passion, intensity, or challenge, or mistaking the violence, hostility and intimidation for a high performance environment. These athletes learn to accept and expect violence as part of coaching which only perpetuates the issue. Many athletes learn to ignore BAHD behaviours in order to avoid the wrath of the coach or protect their position. Some athletes develop a dependency on the coach due to a reduced sense of self concept and a misguided belief that the coach cares for their well-being or that they need the coach. These responses fall along a spectrum of typical victim responses and mirror that of any victim of abuse or bullying. Victims of bullying and abuse can come to believe the bully is indeed in complete control and therefore believe themselves wholly dependent.

Based on Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, we also know that we learn and often replicate behaviours we see modeled. Often, athletes subjected to hostile coaching practices embody these same practices when they develop as a coach. I myself began my teaching career resorting to yelling or showing my anger to my students because it was what I had seen teachers in the 70’s do. Luckily, I also encountered excellent role models and mentors who guided me to a more enduring, productive, healthy and humane pedagogical and coaching path.

It is imperative that we help our athletes recover from abuse and bullying for their own health and safety, but also in order to end the cycle of coaching abuse. Unless we provide tools to help coaches learn effective leadership and coaching practices, they may default to the old school tendencies they have experienced as athletes.

  1. Providing a help line and independent third party supporter like Rowing Canada Aviron and other national sport organizations have chosen to do offers safe avenues for athletes, parents, and coaches to report BAHD behaviours and find support.
  2. Creating and implementing policy that demands ethical and responsible coach training to be completed by all coaches communicates an expectation that all coaches are also leaders and educators.
  3. Conducting and sharing research on the benefits of safe and good sport practices to both athlete well being AND performance will encourage coaches to embrace good sport practice rather than assume it will compromise performance.
  4. Building mentorship programs and structures into our sport organizations can foster a shift in culture through ‘modelling the way’.
  5. Shifting the discourse to include phrases like ‘good sport’, ‘values based sport‘, ‘safe sport’ and ‘true sport’ awakens sport participants to the concepts of ‘winning with integrity’ and reminds us that ‘sport is about striving for excellence in all ways’.

We all have mouths and access to media. We all have the power to speak the values of sport more often and more confidently. We can all challenge ourselves, our coaches and our athletes to rise to new standards of leadership and recover from abusive practice.

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