As a mom of an athlete, news that professional runner Mary Cain was emotionally and physically abused by famous coach Alberto Salazar didn’t surprise me. What shocks me though is that we continue to encourage this type of “coaching” even from parents.
Mary Cain reacts after finishing in second place in the senior women's 1500-meter run at the U.S. Championships athletics meet, in Des Moines, Iowa, June 22, 2013.
Mary Cain reacts after finishing in second place in the senior women's 1500-meter run at the U.S. Championships athletics meet, in Des Moines, Iowa, June 22, 2013.
| Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Shutterstock

At 17, Mary Cain had become a track prodigy. Nike Oregon Project, the best track team in the world, signed her in 2013. While this initially was a dream come true for Cain, she quickly was run into darkness, not by her natural speed, but by the esteemed coach, Alberto Salazar. She was his prey.

As the parent of a 7-year-old son who plays travel soccer, I was not surprised by the professional runner's video op-ed in the New York Times alleging the abuse. Salazar forced the idea that she had to become thinner to get better, and of course, to win. Cain began to struggle and her body began to break down. Her world turned so bleak that she began having suicidal thoughts and cutting herself—even in front of others, she says in the video. No one acted. No one tried to save her, until that is, she saved herself and decided to courageously speak out against a broken system to help the generation behind her.

While Cain’s experience is indeed harrowing, I see this intense lack of empathy pressed down upon youth beginning at a very young age. Yes, on the surface, Cain’s disturbing experience seems like a story that strictly affects girls and young women, and as a mother of a daughter, I get that. But the roots stretch much deeper—and sometimes the issues start much younger than the teen years. And it's not only coming from coaches, which is what concerns me most.

I have witnessed parents in youth soccer raging on the sidelines, referees being berated, and coaches having to remind them, "They’re only 7." It comes down to this: As sports parents, we’re sometimes missing the mark.

We need to stop, immediately, putting too much pressure on our children making them believe they need to be the best. These children that we’re yelling at will one day grow up. And when they do, they will want to win, they will want to be part of the elite athletes, and they won’t care how they got there. This will happen because of the adults in charge—the adults who drove a “Be the best” mentality into their young, impressionable minds.

The idea that our children must win at all costs needs to stop—because the costs are only getting higher. Don’t we want our children to grow up being ones who think of others and practice empathy daily? How can that happen when the people in the world they live in only applaud goals scored and trophies won? We are forgetting the fact that instilling compassion into our little ones will last them a lifetime—being an athlete will not.

In a tweet, Cain said about Salazar, “He didn’t care about me as a person; only as the product, the performer, the athlete.” As a mother on the sidelines, often I think we’re putting too much focus on the “performer” part of our little athletes. Instead, we should be teaching them compassion.

As Haley Sztykiel, LMSW, SSW, a licensed clinical social worker puts it, “Determining a winner is often perceived to be the only outcome by parent and coaches. Yet with that focus, a number of other possibilities are being dismissed. Sports teach empathy by proving opportunities to support others during times of failure, stress, or struggles.”

So, we must show children how to congratulate the other team if they win, or heck, even if they score. Tell them that if their teammate has a bad play or a bad game, encourage them that there’s always tomorrow and that you’re there for them. Teach them that, yes, the physicality of many sports is part of the game, but checking on a player on the other team doesn’t make you weak—it makes you a leader. We should even teach our children to stand up to players on their own team if they’re behaving unsportsmanlike. And we should encourage them to come to us if they are facing any type of abuse from a coach.

“Sports build a sense of community and compassion as you work together to achieve a common goal. Or, how to overcome a setback if the goal is missed," says Sztykiel. "Positive involvement in sports can have a lasting impact on friendships, personal self-confidence, and achievement of future goals—if we, as adults, show them how.”

The value in instilling a strong sense of empathy in our young players is a superpower and it will take them miles further in life compared to being competitive alone. The stakes are high, my friends—our world is only becoming more narcissistic. But it's time that we focus more on "we"—especially, in youth sports.

Angela Anagnost-Repke is a writer and writing instructor dedicated to raising two empathetic children. Angela is currently at work on the cross-generational memoir, Mothers Lie.