Is Your Kid’s Coach Too Mean?

Michele Willens talks to parents calling foul on their kids’ demanding coaches.

We already knew he was an abusive coach. Seeing the video makes it so much worse.

On Tuesday night, ESPN aired disturbing footage of Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice physically and emotionally abusing his players—throwing balls at them, manhandling them, calling them offensive names.

School officials saw the tapes in December, and they suspended Rice for three games and fined him $50,000. Now, of course, we’re all wondering why that’s all the punishment he got. (Update: now he's fired.) In February, Mike Montgomery, the basketball coach at University of California, Berkeley, shoved his star player in the heat of a game. He apologized but received no other apparent punishment.

We put a lot of trust in our kids’ coaches—along with teachers, they hold a huge responsibility in setting positive examples for our children and shaping their values. But lately I’ve been wondering if they’re responsible for a field of nightmares.

“I have so many patients—kids and their parents—who are suffering from experiences in school sports,” says New York-based psychologist Dr. Susan Davis. “Young self esteem is being seriously damaged. Frankly, I feel schools should be forced to train their coaches in child development and their own emotional management.”

My friends’ son plays at a Division III school in upstate New York, where he was lured with seductive recruiting techniques. But the experience has been nothing but a disappointment, his parents report. It wasn’t the lack of playing time for a freshman they were disappointed with, or the brutal practice hours. “It’s the lack of any positive or constructive feedback from the coaches,” says his mother. “It wasn’t long before we learned that there was only one senior on the team. All the other kids had left or quit.” Their son is now considering switching to lacrosse or simply focusing on academics.

Another father I know told me that his son is now suffering from depression, which he traces back to his high school baseball experience at the prestigious Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. “My biggest regret is leaving him in that program for four years,” he says.

I have no doubt that the great majority of coaches are doing a good job and deserve gratitude for their time in a job that doesn’t often pay a high salary. Coaches also have to deal with pushy parents and demanding superiors. No one expects them to have a cuddly sideline manner—even Coach Taylor didn’t exactly warm up our Friday Nights. But neither do we expect them to sap the passion out of our kids’ pastimes.

One can also argue that once kids are in college on an athletic team, they should be prepared for grueling schedules and tough love. If they can’t handle it, they can quit. Adolescents at that age are “developmentally more fully formed and able to make their own decisions,” says Dr. Davis. And data shows that the most talented athletes are better able to stick it out; Division I recruits who come in on scholarships are much less likely to quit their sport. (Though UCLA’s Ben Howland, just fired after 10 years as basketball coach, watched at least 11 of his players transfer over the last five years.)

But even middle and high schools are under increasing pressure to recruit athletes who may bring fame to the school and help them get into better colleges, and the stress is reflected in the coaches’ attitudes. My friend whose son went to Harvard Westlake is among a group of parents who complained about that school’s baseball coach Matt LaCour. “He denigrated the kids constantly and threw one off the team when he missed a non-league game because of an AP exam,” says the parent, who recently wrote a letter to the school registering his and other parents’ complaints. “He worked a pitcher so hard last year that he had to have Tommy John surgery. But when we reported these things, we were always told they stood by their coach.”

Coach LaCour disputes this account. “None of the things you have been told are true,” LaCour told me. “[The boy] did play for me and have Tommy John surgery, but he was not overworked.”

"He is under a lot of scrutiny there and I think they realize they have to make him a more all around person," one of LaCour's former assistants says. "Ultimately, parents of players have to ask themselves, what is your son's self worth worth?"

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At the Fieldston School in the Bronx—known for its core ethics curriculum—parents have worried for years its coaches behave above and beyond the call of victory. After one defeat, when the basketball team lost to its closest competitor, they were made to practice well into the night, even though one student was expected in the orchestra for a long-planned school concert.

A player on the girls’ volleyball team says she comes home crying most nights from a constant sense of threat. (In response to this, Fieldstone coach Steve Bluth said he couldn't recall the incident.)

“I believe that institutionalized bullying, which much of today’s coaching is, remains rampant and condoned at the highest level,” says one mother whose son played baseball at an Ivy League school, where his accusations of verbal abuse by one coach resulted in coach counseling.

No one diminishes the importance of using a sport to teach children habits that will benefit them in all fields: strong work ethic, being on time, supporting others. And a coach may become a necessary parental figure when authority figures at home are negligent or indulgent, or when youths are merely seeking independence from parents. When Dereck Whittenburg, in an ESPN documentary, reflects back on his legendary coach Jim Valvano, he says, “When he embraced me, it was almost like a dad.”

What concerns many are the experiences of our sons and daughters who enjoy a game, may want to pursue it further, but haven’t grown that thick skin yet. They almost all start out in youth leagues, where the coaches are usually dads who may have their own dashed dreams. “There is a delicate balance between a coach having high expectations for his players and knowing how to apply those to their age and expectations,” says psychologist and former Little League coach Dr. Vivian Diller.

My friend Valerie, a lifelong baseball nut, is the third member of the coaching staff of tween travel team—she worked her way up from bringing the snacks to pitching coach. She says she once watched one of her male colleagues break a bat in front of the kids, and both men—former professional wannabes—yelled so much that the kids would increasingly go to her for reassurance.

“Their own sons used to ask me to drive them home after we’d lost a game,” recalls the mom-coach. “They were so afraid of being screamed at. I had danced in professional companies, so I was used to harsh discipline. But these guys left us all with the feeling of potential violence.” She thinks about half those kids continued playing.

“I find that young athletes are confused as to what is expected and what is not,” says Paul Hobart, the women’s tennis coach at Bowdoin in Maine. “I do not allow lateness, swearing, bad behavior, bad sportsmanship of any kind. What they find confusing is that others allow it or what’s even worse, their parents allow it.”

In addition, kids are too often put in the uncomfortable and unfair position of choosing between a coach’s authority and the other figures in their lives. “I know one girl who sprained her ankle and was told by her doctor to lay off soccer for a week,” says Dr. Davis. “The coach told her to play through it. When she refused, she sat on the bench the whole next week.”

Coaches have a job to do, but it doesn’t mean they can’t do it with compassion. Watching the Rutgers video, one can’t help but wonder what a legend like Jim Valvano would think. “This guy wanted to get to know us,” said his former player Dereck Whittenburg. “He would say, let’s talk about anything. He cared about us.”