[On "Friday Night Tykes,"] one weeping child is told by his coach: "I don't care how much pain you're in! You don't quit." Another coach chides a player, "Don't give me that soft crap," while smacking him on the head. Two coaches featured on the show, where all of the athletes are 8- or 9-years-old, were suspended last week.
Such conduct by an adult can have serious ramifications for a child. "It can impair social and emotional development and cause substantial harm to mental health," Nancy Swigonski, a professor at Indiana University's School of Medicine, wrote last month in a piece in the journal Pediatrics. "When the bullying occurs in an athletic setting, those harmful effects are augmented by the stress kids often feel as a result of athletic competition."
Swigonski's article opens with the scene of a parent walking into basketball practice at her daughter's high school, only to find "the head coach screaming at the team that they lacked intelligence and were lazy because they had not executed a play properly."
This kind of behavior is hardly uncommon. Swigonski cited one study of more than 800 American children in which 45% said their coaches called them names, insulted them or verbally abused them during play. In another study from the United Kingdom, 6,000 young adults were asked about their experiences in youth sports, and 75% said they suffered "emotional harm" at least once, and one-third of that group said their coach was to blame.
But what often gets lost in these stories is the flip side of the equation: A "true coach"—to use the term favored by Morgan Wootten, the first high school coach to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—can also make a lifelong difference for a young person, only in a deeply positive way.
This isn't to say that coaches should be soft or easy. But there's a clear line between expecting a lot from kids and being abusive. "It's good to be tough," Swigonski said. "It's just not OK to be a bully."
Image: Coach's whistle, via Shutterstock