Under-Acknowledged, Yet Common: Preventing Emotional Abuse in Sport

January 31, 2019

Sports are highly valued in our society because of the positive impact that we see sport have on so many athletes’ lives. Though we often like to focus on the more positive outcomes of sport, it is also important to acknowledge the potential for negative experiences. One such negative experience, emotional abuse, is an under-acknowledged, yet common form of child abuse in sports (at the youth, college, and professional levels). Emotional abuse can lead to many negative consequences, both short-term and long-term. It is critical that coaches, parents, and administrators recognize and prevent behaviors that can lead to emotional abuse.

So, What is Emotional Abuse?

The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) has defined emotional abuse as “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or of value only in meeting another’s needs.” The APSAC also provide six forms of psychological abuse, including: spurning, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting/corrupting, denying emotional responsiveness, and mental, health, medical, and educational neglect. Other researchers have added such behaviors as belittling, humiliating, shouting, scapegoating, rejecting, isolating, threatening, or ignoring as forms of emotional abuse. Within the sport science research, Stirling and Kerr (2008) have defined emotional abuse in sport as “a pattern of deliberate non-contact behaviors by a person within a critical relationship role that has the potential to be harmful. Acts of emotional abuse include physical behaviors, verbal behaviors, and acts of denying attention and support.” 

How Prevalent is Emotional Abuse?

 Surprisingly (or perhaps not), emotional abuse has been widely prevalent in youth, interscholastic, and collegiate athletics for the past several decades. An estimated 25%-75% of competitive young athletes have experienced emotionally abusive coaching practices, with an increase as athletes advance into higher levels of competition. Emotional abuse, although widespread, has received relatively little attention in modern sports culture due to the emphasis of studying more obvious (and equally important) cases of sexual, physical, and neglect abuses. These abuses are tragic and appalling, yet easier to spot than emotional abuse. Therefore, emotional abuse has received the least amount of clinical and research attention due to the difficulty of defining, identifying, preventing, and intervening with these behaviors. Despite the challenges of recognizing emotional abuse, awareness and action regarding emotionally abusive behaviors in sport are a critical consideration for coaches, athletic departments, or any adults involved in sport. 

“An estimated 25%-75% of competitive young athletes have experienced emotionally abusive coaching practices”

For behaviors to be considered emotional abusive, they must meet the following criteria (Kerr & Stirling, 2012):

  1. harmful behaviors have occurred
  2. a pattern of harmful behaviors is present
  3. the harmful behaviors transpire within a significant relationship (coach-athlete)
  4. the relationship is like that of a parent-child
  5. the harmful behaviors are deliberate
  6. the harmful behaviors are non-contact in nature

What Causes Emotional Abuse to Occur in Sport?

There are several reasons for why emotional abuse occurs in sport with such prevalence. Beyond just the popularity of sport in society and the wish of individuals to stay involved regardless of some negative elements, there are also reasons such as the trust that exists of coaches, power dynamics, coach-centered philosophies and other factors.

A Regime of Truth

An overemphasis on winning and performance creates a culture that allows for yelling, body-shaming, name-calling, and screaming. Unfortunately, sport program directors, and other relevant adults, have done little to stop these emotionally abusive behaviors if no obvious sexual or physical abuse has occurred leading to little questioning or challenging of successful sport and athletic programs. This is known as a “regime of truth”, or the creation of a trusted bond between athletic directors and coaches, especially when performance is emphasized and rewarded over positive development and sportsmanship. Winning is emphasized and rewarded, despite conveying messages of positive development and sportsmanship as key aspects of a department’s success.


An imbalanced power dynamic can lead to controlling behaviors and actions that resemble emotional abuse.  Coaches and athletes spend a great deal of time together, including during traveling to away contests. The legitimate authority of the coach, or feelings of admiration and respect based on his or her position in society, can create vulnerabilities for the potential of emotional abuse in youth sports.

Coach-Centered Philosophy

Similarly, the coach-centered philosophy in sport culture has become more pervasive. For coaches to be considered “successful”, or advance their own careers, they must rely on the successes and performances of their athletes. This unhealthy paternalism exacerbates the power dynamic and increases opportunities for emotionally abusive situations. By focusing on and promoting an athlete-centered philosophy (that is the purpose after all!), athletic directors and coaches can accentuate a healthy training environment and enjoyable sport experience for all student-athletes.

Other Factors

Other environmental sources of emotional abuse for coaches, parents, and athletic directors to consider include: a lack of regulation, over-involvement of parents, misconceptions of positive youth development, the physical environment (e.g. “closed-door practices”), emotional affect, intention of coaches, and reporting procedures. Regrettably, emotional abuse is common place in youth, high school, and intercollegiate sports. All stakeholders are responsible for upholding the culture and ethos that are promised in mission, vision, and value statements of youth sport programs.

What Can You Do to Prevent Emotional Abuse in Sport?

Athletic Directors

  • Focusing on and rewarding coaches for positive behaviors and cultures of holistic development can significantly reduce emotionally abusive situations.  Highlight the importance of balance in the coach-athlete relationship and attain regular feedback from student-athletes.
  • Promoting an athlete-centered philosophy to accentuate a healthy training environment and enjoyable sport experience for all student-athletes.
  • Take responsibility and be proactive in identifying, preventing, and eliminating emotionally abusive behaviors from their sport programs. Just as student-athletes are expected to display respect, sportsmanship, and work ethic, administrators should be held accountable for creating a positive, athlete-centered sport environment.
  • Regularly observe and evaluate athletic coaches on pre-determined expectations, and provide student-athletes with opportunities to provide feedback through anonymous surveys or interviews.
  • Provide opportunities for coach education and create a department-wide culture based on established mission statement, vision, and core values.
  • Create and inform student-athletes of reporting procedures related to suspected abuse.


  • Emphasize fun, team work, sportsmanship, and skill improvement rather than winning and outcomes.
  • Conduct practices in an “open” physical training environment.
  • Provide praise and recognition for effort, improvement, and being a great teammate.
  • Include “bench” and lower level student-athletes (JV, Freshmen) in your program, rather than ignoring, neglecting, or denying attention to some student-athletes.
  • Develop a code of conduct that addresses bullying, hazing, and verbal abuse for both coaches and players.
  • Never use guilt, shame, or neglect as methods for motivating or punishing athletes.
  • Show empathy and respect athletes characteristics and differences.
  • Be the coach you would want to play for!

Michael Mignano

Michael Mignano is a doctoral student in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sport (ISYS) at Michigan State University. Along with 10 years of collegiate coaching experience, he has also coached at the high school, community non-profit, and recreational levels. Michael’s research interests include: positive youth development through sport, coach burnout, youth sport program evaluation, coaching Generation Z athletes, and optimal parental involvement in youth sports. Please feel free to reach out to Michael at mignano1@msu.edu or on Twitter @SportPsychMic.