Abusive Coaching / by James Leath

Recently, I heard someone remark that all kids are abused in some way or another. I sat with that thought for a moment and before I could interject, I remembered a few coaches I had growing up that, in retrospect, treated myself and my teammates in a way that today would lead to an investigation and most likely firing of the coach.

Funny how I had not thought of those coaches in many, many years. My psyche had figured out a way to displace those memories as a way to let me move on. Perhaps it was those coaches that ultimately lead me to dedicate my life to educating and empowering coaches and athletes, so that kind of abusive behavior is no longer accepted as part of the youth sports experience.

It came to the forefront of my mind when I heard about a coach in Florida that verbally accosted a young man who no longer wanted to play with him. The audio is available, but be warned; it is full of profanity and verbal abuse.

Our voice as “Coach” stays with our athletes long after they hand in their jersey for the last time. Our words echo inside their brains, the good and the bad. For example, I remember when my high school volleyball coach spent over an hour with me after practice preparing me for a job interview and sharing tips on how to dress and what to say. I also remember when my eighth-grade baseball coach yelled at me from the dugout to “just throw fu$&%ing strikes” when I struggled to get the ball over the plate.

And now I am a coach, and I have the privilege of sharing my experience with other coaches through speaking, online courses, and even a coach book club.

I am reminded of one of my favorite moments as a coach. I have shared this before, but I thought you might enjoy it as a reminder of how much power our words can have on someone.

“Cameron, why don’t you shoot the ball during the game?”

With juice and a donut in hand, Cameron and I are sitting on a park bench outside the gym where we just finished playing our second basketball game of the season.

“Last year, my coach told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot.”

“Hmmm.” I pause. Take a bite of my blueberry donut. I fight the urge to ask who her coach was so I can have a few words with that coach, but I snap back to focusing on the magnitude of this moment in this 10-year-old’s life.

“Well, you are my center… and the tallest girl on the team. Let me ask you, what happens when you shoot?”

“I miss…a lot.” She looks down at her feet, embarrassed by her performance.

“So, what if I told you on this team, you are allowed to shoot, and miss?”

“Seriously?” Her face lights up.

“Cameron, do you want to get better?”


“Do you want to help your team be successful?”

She nods.

“Then from now on, you are allowed to shoot.”

She smiles, then looks away, contemplating her fate.

“And if I miss…”

“I don’t care if you miss, Cameron. I just want you to be brave. If you see the shot, take the shot. If someone is in your face, then pass to your teammate.”

Cameron looks out to the field. I can tell I have sparked something in her. There is a competitor in there and I need to draw it out.

“Are you brave?”

“Yes, coach, I am brave.” She straightens her back. I can feel her energy shift.

“I know you are. These girls look up to you. I want you to know you can be brave during the game and at practice. These girls look up to you, and I trust you.”

We clink our juice boxes, she leans over to give me a hug. The smile on her face in that moment is worth every minute I spent volunteering to coach that team that season.

The next week, Cameron takes her shot in the first 45-seconds of the game. It misses the rim completely and the other team gets the rebound.

The team sprints to the other side of the court to set up for defense. Before Cameron can turn around, I am already on my feet.

“Good job, Cameron. I see you. Do it again.”

She smiles, gives me a thumbs up, hustles to the other side of the court.

We won the game, 32-14.

Cameron had 12 points.

We didn’t win every game that year, but a child felt loved and gained confidence in herself. That is why we coach.

Be intentional about your voice and the long-term effects it will have on those whom call you Coach.