5 ways coaches can ruin the development of self-esteem


“In the world of sports, winning excuses a multitude of sins,” writes Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., as he sums up the prevailing negative social stigma of coaching on youth’s psyche.

Conversely, the consensus in the clinical community is that the foundations of self-esteem are laid between ages of 6 and 11; the same time when children are widely introduced to sports.

There are at least five ways coaches can psychologically damage youth during these impressionable years; and the effects can shape youths future well beyond the final buzzer.

1. Narrow-mindedness

Most childhood and secondary school coaches are volunteers. Many of these men and women are the closest proxy to a child’s own parents. They can be a role model or a nightmare the young athlete never forgets.

If a coach is too focused on the “season” or the “win,” he or she can miss the opportunity to teach valuable life skills.

2. Transference: Living through the athletes to re-do the past

It’s been played out in movies time and again. The coach failed in his glory days, and now he’s using the kid to relive his dream, so he pushes too far and transfers his angst to the kid.

The National Institutes of Health conducted research confirming a tandem correlation between a coaches’ anxiety level and an athlete’s anxiety and negative performance.

Good coaches have a tempered investment in the sport, mindful to have a sport/life balance that they can exemplify for the players. Bad coaches overemphasize losing and foster fear-based performance.

Fundamental differences in teaching a young athlete mental fortitude include teaching personal excellence instead of perfection and using failure as a tool rather than a label.

3. Passive aggression

Imagine a high school basketball player purposefully benched by his coach on the day state university scouts come to see him. The coach is upset the player didn’t carry out his mock-up play the game before. As the coach walks by during the game, he whispers, “Payback.”

Passive aggression is petty, personal and teaches nothing to the recipient. Playing favorites is a bonafide way to fuel distrust of authority and mental distress.

Coaches may not even recognize they’re being passive-aggressive; repeated episodes can interrupt development and plant seeds of paranoia.

4. Poor teaching habits

Many coaches run the sport “the only way I know how,” without consideration of different learning styles.

According to Sports Psychology Today, bad coaches aren’t good teachers, and their immutable style may frustrate and hamper kids’ development when the athlete can’t execute skills correctly.

Coaches should be observant of each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses, motivating athletes based on these traits. Good coaching addresses mistakes without discouragement.

5. Bullying

Bullying from an authority figure can be exponentially worse because a youth cannot typically stand up to an adult the way he can his equals. According to an article in Psychology Today, coaches’ bullying can include:

  • Intimidation: yelling, threats
  • Insulting player’s appearance, worth or toughness
  • Ridicule
  • Humiliation for public embarrassment or blame
  • Benching: refusing to let a student play for reasons not related to performance

Bullying can spur:

  • Performance anxiety
  • Indecisiveness
  • Self-loathing
  • Apathy

What parents can do

Assess negative coaching versus the discomfort of being challenged appropriately.  Ask open-ended questions of the child and coach to determine how much of the adolescent’s adverse experience is coaching compared to the student-athlete’s personal response.

If no understanding can be met, a youth doesn’t have to suffer in silence. Teaching a child to value his or her self-worth enough to leave a toxic relationship is just as valuable as teaching them to persevere. There is a season for both.

White River Academy utilizes mindful cognitive therapies and alternative treatment modalities to cultivate boys 12-17 with mental disorders and addictions. Call our helpline to learn more.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. 

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