Across the world, millions of youth participate in organized sports throughout their adolescence. In Canada alone, 77% of all children aged 5-19 participate annually in organized sport. Organized sport environments are often conducive to aiding in the healthy development of youth. As such, many parents do what they can to ensure their child can participate. But there is one dimension of sport that is often overlooked: abuse.
The discussion surrounding abuse in sport has only started to emerge in mainstream media and literature in the past few years. Following the allegations of sexual abuse brought against the USA Women’s Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nasser, the public became acutely aware of the pervasiveness of abuse in sport. Abuse is often inflicted onto youth by their coaches. In order to be able to better identify and, ultimately, mitigate instances of abuse in sport, a better understanding of emotional and sexual abuse is imperative.
Sports is a culture that has thrived on authoritarian regimes of leadership. This results in a very clear power dynamic between coach and athlete. Authority and power paired with the autonomy of coaches leads to a climate that is ripe for the emotional and sexual abuse of young athletes. Moreover, our society generally values performance over personal wellbeing in sport. Many parents approach their child’s sport with a “win-at-all-costs” attitude. This leads to unchecked power held by coaches, as their methods and approaches are left unquestioned and unaltered. If abuses are occurring, parents may be unwilling, whether consciously or not, to recognize it as long as their child is thriving on the field. Also, abuse by coaches is perpetuated in sport because the actions of coaches that lead to winning athletes/teams are unconditionally supported by stakeholders. Having widespread institutional and financial support for the winningest coaches, who may themselves be abusers, can lead to abusers remaining in power, and can also silence the victims and diminish their experiences.
"Authority and power paired with the autonomy of coaches leads to a climate that is ripe for the emotional and sexual abuse of young athletes."
Sexual abuse is seldom discussed outside of the context of the home, yet extrafamilial instances of sexual abuse are much more common. Sports are no exception to this rule: coaches can often victimize their athletes. Coaches get a lot of individual time with their athletes, and often develop a very close bond. Athletes sometimes view their coaches as parent-like figures and trust them as such. This can enable an abuser to groom the victim and ultimately lead to instances of sexual assault wherein the victim is not aware that the actions of their coach are illegal and wrong.
Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to:
Indecent or sexualized exposure
Signs that a child is being sexually abused (not exhaustive):
Signs of trauma to the genital area:
Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics
Not talking as much as usual
Not wanting to be left alone with certain people
Regressive behaviours or resuming behaviours they had grown out of
Overly compliant behaviour
Sexual behaviour that is inappropriate for the child’s age
Spending an unusual amount of time alone
Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe
Change in eating habits
Change in mood or personality, such as increased aggression
Decrease in confidence or self-image
Excessive worry or fearfulness
Increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches
Loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends
Nightmares or fear of being alone at night
Emotional abuse commonly occurs in sports, although often goes unlabeled and undiscussed. Emotional abuse is defined as “a sustained and repeated pattern of deliberate noncontact behaviours by a person in a critical relationship role that has the potential to be harmful to an individual’s affective, behavioural, cognitive, or physical well-being”. Emotional abuse is understood to have a significant negative impact on athletes’ well-being and is correlated with many long-term consequences such as depression, maladaptive eating behaviour, anxiety, and social withdrawal.
There are three primary ways in which coaches emotionally abuse athletes: physical emotionally abusive behaviours, verbally abusive behaviours, and the denial of attention and support. Physical emotionally abusive behaviour occurs in sport when a coach displays an act of aggression in the presence of an athlete such as throwing/breaking equipment. Verbally abusive behaviours include yelling and shouting at athletes, belittling, name calling, and making degrading comments. Finally, the denial of attention and support for the athlete by the coach is a form of emotional abuse. This occurs when a coach ignores an athlete, and/or kicks them out from training environments for extended periods of time despite not breaking any rules.
Many of these behaviours are common amongst coaches for all age groups and levels of competitiveness. The effects this abuse has on youth differs from individual to individual but being aware of what is right and wrong of coaches to be doing is a first step in empowering children to speak out against such abuses.
Signs that a child is being emotionally abused (not exhaustive):
Delayed or inappropriate emotional development
Loss of self-confidence or self-esteem
Social withdrawal or a loss of interest or enthusiasm
Avoidance of certain situations, such as refusing to go to school or ride the bus
Desperately seeks affection
A decrease in school performance or loss of interest in school
Loss of previously acquired developmental skills
Experts encourage the creation of federal policy mandating that all sports organizations have specific training and policies regarding abuse. Moreover, parents are encouraged to voice their concerns regarding coaching approaches with the proper governing bodies. Silence is not an option in order to protect our kids.
Written By: Sarah Fobert
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