Emotional abuse is the most common form of injury in children’s sport. It largely goes unseen but can have profound and long-term effects, not just on the sports field.
Don’t be fooled that the term ‘emotional abuse’ represents only the extreme end of the spectrum where children are obviously distressed by screaming, aggressive spectators. Emotional abuse can be more insidious, perhaps inadvertent and unintentional, but no less damaging.
Consider the parent who makes the ride home miserable by offering ‘observations’ about players, coaches, officials and even their child’s capabilities. Consider the coach who shuns or ignores a child, plays ‘favourites’ within the sport or maintains the status quo on positioning.
Emotional abuse has been defined as behaviour that attacks a child’s emotional development and occurs when an individual [often, but not always an adult] treats a child in a negative manner that impairs the child’s sense of self-worth. It can include rejection, verbal assaults that create a climate of fear or frighten a child, or deliberately encouraging anti-social, deviant and destructive behaviour.
If you’ve ever suspected a child is feeling anger, anxiety, fright, sadness, guilt, shame, envy, jealousy or disgust, while playing sport, then look around at the adults involved. Adults have the power to make sport a fun experience where children make friends, build self-esteem and confidence, and achieve goals. Equally, adults have the power to create traumatising experiences that rob children of those positive opportunities.
And research suggests it’s not just those who are directly subjected to that behaviour, but that regular exposure to background anger is equally distressing for children who witness it. A New Zealand study—‘The Effects of Adult Involvement on Children Participating in Organised Team Sports’1—recorded children’s observations of the adults around their sporting events, noting that angry shouting from the sideline frightened and de-motivated them.
The finding supported earlier research that background anger at children’s sports events can be uniquely distressing for children because of its ‘public’ nature, and that children experiencing sustained background anger can become increasingly sensitised rather than desensitised.
Previous research has also found that anger expressed between adults in the sports context, is especially more distressing for children than anger expressed between an adult and a child.
This is borne out by anecdotal evidence in Australia from Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou. In backing the Play by the Rules’ recent ‘Let Kids be Kids’ campaign which raises awareness of the impact of poor sideline behaviour, Postecoglou says that he had first-hand experience of background anger as a young player.
As a 10 or 11-year-old playing soccer, Postecoglou recalls one match where parents on the sideline started arguing and fighting, leaving him and other children from both teams on the field, huddling together for support. He said it had a profound impact on his awareness that the parents had forgotten that they were there to give their kids a fun experience, but the reality was the opposite.
Postecoglou is one of a number of high-profile sports people who share similar stories as part of the ‘Let Kids be Kids’ campaign. While they have risen above those challenges, many children don’t. The campaign offers resources that can help adults on the sideline better understand sideline behaviour.
It also offers practical, real-life case studies of organisations’ efforts to address poor sideline behaviour including the New South Wales SHOOSH for Kids campaign.
But poor sideline behaviour is not the only thing that can emotionally affect a young sports participant. Among the most confronting findings of the New Zealand research were those recorded from examining coaches’ behaviour at 72 rugby union, netball, soccer, and touch rugby competitions for 6–11 year olds in the Greater Auckland area.
Children in this age group have been referred to as being in the sports ‘sampling’ years, when they are experiencing new sports and it is a formative time that can strongly influence their ongoing experience in sport.
The study looked at comments made by the coaches under observation and the target of the coach’s comments (e.g. player, referee, team etc) and categorised those comments as positive, negative or neutral. Among the findings:
- over one in every five comments made by coaches in all sports was negative
- in ALL of the 72 games observed, at least one child was scolded for not following instructions correctly or for making a mistake. In the majority of games observed (60%), at least one individual player was on the receiving end of only negative comments.
- coaches across all sports made significantly less positive comments if their team was losing
- rugby union coaches made more negative comments than coaches from other teams, which the researchers observed suggested that the culture within the sport drove the rate of coaches’ comments.
The researchers also documented the actions of a soccer coach of a nine-year-old boys’ team who had just conceded a goal.
Coach (to other parent): God – let’s get him off - did you see that - he wasn't marking. That was Bob's fault. Let’s get him off.
Coach (to player): Bob, Bob come off. (Player comes off the field).
Coach: Bob, come here, you see you've got to mark up - you can't leave a man unmarked.
Bob: Am I going back on? Coach: We'll see, we'll see. We've got a bit of time yet.
A couple of minutes later the coach called Bob over again to explain to him why he had been taken off:
Coach: You see that goal, that was because you weren't marking. It's not your fault - you are still learning. But it was your fault for the goal. The thing is Bob, you are good going forward. But in a game like this, you've got to watch your man. You are still learning, you are still improving. You'll get more time in other games, but I can't put you back on in a game like this. You might cost us a goal. Is that ok? Do you understand? Good lad.
The coach continued watching the game, seemingly happy that he had done the right thing by explaining to his player the reasons he had taken him off. The young boy wandered over to his mother with tears in his eyes.
Play by the Rules’ free online child protection training helps people understand where a scenario like this fits on the spectrum of behaviours towards children. The online module describes the spectrum as having healthy and positive behaviours within a child-safe environment at one end, and sexual abuse at the other, and describes the inappropriate, unacceptable and neglectful behaviours in between.
Not only does it use interactive scenarios to help people identify how to categorise the behaviour—an important distinction when it comes to legal and moral obligations—it offers strategies to achieve child safe environments and manage risks, and includes case studies for discussion.