A coach might be one of the first relationships a young person has outside of their immediate family. And sometimes we know very little about their qualifications or skills, or even what to look for if we sense something is wrong. Understanding warning signs in these relationships can be very helpful in terms of stopping abuse before it starts. We culled research, and polled the knowledgeable women internally at Oiselle, and here are some of our top warning signs. Please add yours to the discussion as we navigate all the ways we can improve sports for all athletes.
1. Seeks Control of Life Outside Athletics
When a coach wants a high level of control over the athlete's life beyond athletics, it can be an early red flag. While it's expected for good coaches to have a training plan, and even ask for a high level of adherence to that plan, it is inappropriate for those demands to spill into the rest of the athlete's life, including family, social activities, or dating. When that happens, the coach may be putting themselves in a position where they cut off those natural, healthy relationships, and can abuse the athlete more easily.
2. Frequent Comments or Critiques of Physical Appearance
Appearance does not define performance. Per our 7 Myths of Women's Distance Running, different athlete's bodies look different from each other. A good coach should be focused on quality training, race strategies, and encouragement. Even though a compliment on appearance might seem like a good thing, it can become a false marker for the athlete, where they may seek appearance over other factors like strength, sleep, fuel, etc. For girls and women, comments about looks can also reinforce harmful cultural messages, such as our appearance equals our value.
3. Fear-Based Coaching
The stereotype of the angry coach, yelling at athletes, is as old as time. But athletes who are simply motivated by pleasing are less effective. Rather than focusing on building their own confidence and value as an individual and teammate, they focus on serving an authority figure. Fear is a cheap motivator, trading a short-term burst for long-term gain. It's been shown that negativity doesn’t work as well as messages and behaviors that are positive, and that provide a sense of expanding possibility.
4. Withholds Encouragement During Difficulty
When praise is conditional on performance, or doing exactly what the coach has asked, the message to the athlete is that they are only valuable when they're winning or pleasing. All athlete journeys have highs and lows. Showing unconditional support for the whole person, and the whole journey, sets the athlete up for success on all fronts.
5. Uses Training as Punishment
No matter the level of athlete, the body's training is meant to be constructive, a phase of physical and mental building up. Using difficult, long, or arduous physical efforts as punishment also makes the idea of effort a punishment. Training should be met with a mindset of joy, strength, excitement, and the idea that the body is an incredible machine.
6. Focuses on Their Own Coaching Track Record
By design, coaches are guides; co-pilots whose job it is to lift and help. When it's clear that a coach is prioritizing their own reputation or career over athletes, it's time to take a step back. In some instances, the athlete will need to choose themselves over their guide, making sure that they're getting what they need, and that they feel supported on the path to a goal, and not merely a number for a stat sheet.
7. Exploits Athlete Weaknesses
Manipulation is intentional, and it's often aimed at those who can least identify it, or defend themselves. A manipulative coach will look for emotional buttons - such as a desire to please, loneliness, fear of confrontation, lack of assertiveness, blurry sense of identity, or others - and then exploit those to keep the athlete under their control.
8. Inappropriate Physical Touch or Lack of Boundaries
With the exception of a non-intrusive pat on the back or handshake, or responding if the athlete is hurt or needs help, there are few reasons why a coach would need to touch an athlete. Touching without consent, in private areas (groin, butt, breasts, etc), or in a way that causes athlete embarrassment or distress, should never be tolerated or brushed off. Athletes who have experienced abuse often recall a moment when the action felt wrong, but didn't want to "make a big deal out of it." Teaching all athletes to set non-negotiable boundaries, and speak up if they are uncomfortable, is a crucial lesson, for sport and life.
9. Isolates or Betrays Confidences
The athlete-coach relationship should be one of trust, including an emphasis on the athlete trusting the coach to have integrity and act in the athlete's best interest. Coaches that try to isolate athletes in a group from each other, or tell an athlete private details about another athlete they coach, are concerning signs. On confidences, it is important to note that a good coach should never ask an athlete to keep secrets, or not share coaching information with friends or family members.
10. Specific Warning Signs for Coaches of Minors:
- Coach tries to isolate athlete from parents, or drive a wedge in parent relationship
- Coach spends more time/attention on one athlete on the team
- Coach offers one on one transportation
Previously, on the Oiselle Blog, In the Shadow of a Male Coach, a great post by a high school runner, written anonymously:
"By my junior year, I was getting fast enough to run in college and quickly became his favorite; he was my friend, my ally, the one who I called when I had a bad day. Looking back, it seems like the relationship we had 'naturally' progressed to a higher level of intimacy that no high school coach should have with his or her athlete. However, there was nothing natural about our relationship — not in hindsight. Every step in our relationship — each inside joke, private look, text message, phone call — was calculated by him, and became increasingly inappropriate as the years went on."
"Special attention that is wanted or unwanted from a coach to an athlete can be the early signs of an abuse of power waiting to happen. Inappropriate jokes, sexual references, private texts and calls, and one-on-one meet ups are never okay, under any circumstance."
Unfortunately, there is a universe of stories and truths and learnings. Please share yours. The more we know and stay informed, the better for us all -- especially our girls and young women in sports. Let's keep this conversatoon going and stay committed to #FixGirlsSports.
U.S. Center for Safe Sport
The U.S. Center for SafeSport is an independent 501c(3) non-profit organization focused on ending all forms of abuse in sport. We endeavor to make athlete well-being the centerpiece of the nation’s sports culture through abuse prevention, education, and accountability.
Report a Concern to Safe Sport:
By Phone: 720-531-0340 Mon-Fri 9am - 5pm MT
USATF Safe Sport Handbook:
Youth Sports Safety Resources:
More helpful research (Canada):
Research, with mission of eliminating misconceptions and tolerance towards sexual assault.
“An analysis of 159 cases of sexual abuse in sport revealed that the perpetrators of the abuse were coaches, teachers and instructors in 98% of the cases.”