Emotional Abuse in Sports

Emotional abuse is considered the most common type of abuse, but the least reported. This article discusses how to address this topic for middle school aged children. In partnership with SafeSport’s initiative to end abuse in youth sports USSCI commits to dedicate resources to advance their mission.   


Emotional Abuse in Sports


Psychological abuse is defined as “a repeated pattern or [severe] incident(s) that thwart the child’s basic psychological needs and convey that a child is worthless, defective, or damaged goods [whose value is] primarily…meeting another’s needs ”* Victims of emotional abuse are left to feel expendable, which is the exact opposite of the message a child needs to develop healthy self-esteem.




Forms of emotional abuse may include verbal acts, non-contact physical acts, and acts that deny attention or support. The following list describes major categories of emotional abuse, and examples of how they might play out in youth sports:




  • Use of degrading or shaming nicknames
  • Repeatedly telling a child they are not good enough to be on theteam
  • Repeatedly mocking a child for poorperformance
  • Repeatedly calling out a child for their differences (race, ethnicity, disability)
  • Threats of frightening and inappropriate repercussions from a coach 
  • Acts that deny attention and support:
  • Consistently having the same child sit alone
  • Consistently giving a child a job or chore that removes them from the rest of the team
  • Acts or words that reject and degrade a child
  • Singling out a child to consistently have the least favorable position or assignment
  • Consistently excluding a child from playing time, even inpractice


One of the hallmarks of middle school youth is the onset of puberty, and the vast physical differences in kids of the same age who are at different stages of development. These sometimes dramatic differences can set the stage for bullying, harassment and potentially emotional abuse by a coach.


 The smallest child may experience rejection; the child who is still awkwardly learning to navigate their quickly growing body may experience shaming, and the only eleven-year-old to develop breasts may be susceptible to exploitation. Frank, honest discussions about their own development and differences in the development of others are crucial at this age; this will support your child in developing empathy and help them identify people lacking it. Young athletes, especially when they reach levels of elite competition, can be trained to ignore their own instincts. While most people respond to feelings like pain and hunger, athletes with a training regimen and weight requirements are trained to power through. We do not want our children powering through any feelings of any nature that make them uncomfortable around their coaches, trainers, or others who have a role in their success.





  • Help discourage cruel teasing. “In our family, we do not for any reason single out people to tease because they’re different from us.”
  • Help them to understand helping words and hurting words at a deeper level.
  • After observing a practice where a coach yells, follow-up with your child to see if that is the norm or not. If it happens to your child, explain to him/her that you want to calmly talk to the coach. You might say to the coach something like: “I appreciate all the time and effort you put into coaching and I recognize it can be stressful managing all these children, but when you yell at my son, it makes him lose confidence and focus. I know you want him to improve, and as his parent just wanted to let you know that he responds better with encouragement.”
  • After practice where a coach praises and supports the players, thank the coach and tell them how that seems helpful.
  •  Make sure your child understands that their teammates weight and body type is not for discussion, and neither coaches nor teammates should shame athletes. 



L I S T E N I N G  D O ’ S  A N D  D O N ’ T S


F O R  P A R E N T S  O F


M I D D L E   S C H O O L  Y O U T H



When your 8th grade daughter says, “swim practice was great. Coach told me my form has improved and he loves the way I look in the team bathing suit.”

  • Do tell her that you know she has been working so hard on her form and you are glad the coach has noticed an improvement.
  • Do tell her that coaches are supposed to notice changes in skills and compliment you on progress.
  • Do remind her that coaches are never supposed to make comments about your body or how you look in your uniform.
  • Do encourage her to tell you if the coach or any other adult involved with the program makes similar remarks to her or others in the future.
  • Do contact the coach and tell him this made you uncomfortable.
  • Don’t tell her that she is lucky she has a good body that people notice.


When your 7th grade son says, “the coach pulled me out of the game, swore at me in front of the whole team, and told me we lost because I didn’t block a goal.”

  • Do thank him for sharing his experience with you and ask him to describe what happened. Try and determine if this was a single outburst or a pattern of how the coach treats your son and/or other children.
  • Do find an opportunity to share with the coach that shaming your son immediately shuts him down.
  • Do ask the coach to consider giving your child another chance next time so that he can learn from his mistakes.
  • Don’t doubt your child or ask if he cost the team the game. Indeed, your child might have made a mistake and let in the winning goal. Mistakes are okay. Coaches swearing at children are not okay.


When your 8th grade son says, “Coach spiked a ball really hard into my arm today, and now I can barely move it. He said it was the only way I’d learn to stand in the right position.” Do take a close look at his arm to assess whether he needs medical attention.


  • Do talk about other ways the coach could have demonstrated proper positioning. Do ask if the coach has ever done anything like this before, to him or any other team member.
  • Do document the incident and consider reporting to league authorities, an watching subsequent games and practices for evidence of a pattern.
  • Don’t ignore his complaint and tell him, “You’re exaggerating; I am sure it does not hurt that much.”
  • Don’t model inappropriate behavior by going to the next practice and screaming at the coach in front of your son and the other players.



When your 7th grade daughter says, “There’s a sleepover at the team captain’s house this weekend and I’m the only one on the team she didn’t invite.”


  • Do thank her for sharing this with you.
  • Do acknowledge that this must feel bad.
  • Do ask if she’s sure that the entire team was invited except her – it could be that the captain just invited her close friends.
  • Do ask if the other girls on the team do anything else that make her feel left out and how often these things happen.
  • Do check her social media account(s) to see if anyone is posting negative comments about her.
  • Do brainstorm ways she might be more accepted on the team.
  • Don’t ignore her feelings and tell her ‘you don’t need those girls as friends anyway.’ If they are her teammates, she does want to be their friend.
  • Don’t rush and call the parent of the team captain; often insensitive children have insensitive parents.