Out of Bounds

Out of Bounds

In a culture where winning is paramount, are some youth coaches doing more harm than good?

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On an October afternoon in 2012, two freshman football teams faced off at a local private school. It was the third game of the season for the visiting team, which had many players who were new to the sport. The players looked fresh and handsome in their clean uniforms. The only blemish came from the sidelines.

“Two of the visiting coaches were screaming and cursing and ranting and raving,” recalls a father who attended the game. “It was kind of surreal.”   

The team had been billed as having an all-inclusive spirit. Freshmen were allowed to walk on without having to try out, whether they had played football in the past or not. But what happened during the game that day wasn’t a fluke. “They prioritized winning over all else,” recalls one player who rarely got onto the field. During practices, many of the newer players were told to sit on the sidelines and watch the A-team play.

Two of the four coaches routinely yelled, cursed and insulted the weaker players to try to motivate them. “One of the coaches would physically grab kids and yell in their faces,” a mother from Chevy Chase recalls. “He would tell them how much they sucked. It got to the point where my son would come home from practice in the worst mood and say, ‘I hate this sport!’ ” Her son quit halfway through the season.

“The head coach was verbally abusive,” says another mother, who lives in Upper Northwest D.C. “My son has learning issues, and I have worked my entire life to help him develop good self-esteem. Then I had to worry about a coach calling him a ‘f—ing retard’ or ‘a goddamn moron.’ It was all so demoralizing.”  

Because the players feared retribution, they begged their parents not to complain to the head coach, the athletic director or the principal of the school. Instead, many of the new players chose to tough out the season, but few of them returned to football after that. One of the former players, now a junior in high school, says, “To be honest, I was pretty turned off to organized sports after that season.”

Cutthroat coaches running up and down the sidelines screaming at their players are nothing new.  

We live in one of the wealthiest and most competitive communities in the country. The Bethesda area is rife with hard-driving, powerful people whose intensity can find a misplaced home in youth sports. Talk to any Bethesda-area parent with kids who play team sports and you’re likely to hear stories about coaches lambasting players during games, making unrealistic demands on kids’ time, and even getting into fights with referees, parents and other coaches.  

But the problem has become more pronounced in recent years thanks largely to the professionalization of youth sports, where kids with athletic talent are encouraged to start specializing in a particular sport at a young age. Colleges now regularly recruit kids before they get to high school—this spring, two Landon eighth-graders verbally committed to play lacrosse for University of Virginia, an NCAA powerhouse. It’s a trend that has fueled a fear among young athletes that they’ll fall behind if they don’t start playing seriously early on.

“This is an area where there’s more pressure regarding status and prestige, and that extends to kids’ sports,” says Dr. Antonia Baum, a sports psychiatrist in Chevy Chase and vice president of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry. “Sports can seem like the golden ticket to getting into a good college.”

Generally, kids can start playing in local leagues at age 5. Each year, about 23,000 teens participate in team sports through Montgomery County public high schools, and about 15,000 kids participate in MSI soccer. The Montgomery Youth Hockey Association (MYHA) currently has about 1,200 players between the ages of 5 and 18—nearly double the participation level from when Rob Keegan, director of hockey operations for MYHA, began coaching in 1997.

As the pressure to specialize in a particular sport at a young age has grown, a new model for coaching has emerged. A generation ago, coaches of youth teams often were volunteer parents who had other day jobs and coached on the side because they loved the sport and relished the opportunity to teach kids. It was a labor of love. That’s still true in many recreational leagues, but with the rise of club teams—particularly in soccer and lacrosse—professional coaches have entered the picture. For them, coaching kids can be a way to make a good living.

“Coaches’ success is now measured by their win-loss records and what types of players they have and keep,” says Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist based in Potomac and author of Games Girls Play (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001). And with that comes a lot of pressure on kids to play year-round.

“I see coaches being inflexible, rigid or intense in their expectations of kids, often asking for a yearlong commitment even as young as 11 or 12,” says Keith Kaufman, a clinical psychologist based in Friendship Heights who specializes in sports psychology. “They aren’t very forgiving if a child makes a choice other than what the coach wants. It’s really hard for kids to hear that they’re not dedicated enough.”  

Three-sport athletes have become rare; instead, kids crowd baseball diamonds, lacrosse fields or basketball courts year-round. School-age athletes battle on turf fields, train in state-of-the-art weight rooms and pay thousands of dollars a year to join elite travel teams. The message: Sports are serious business.

Rob Kurtz, coach of the girls’ varsity soccer team at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, says he has noticed a significant change in the level of play and style of coaching since he started coaching in private leagues in 1999. “Since then, new leagues and new teams have come up that someone has devised to try to make money,” Kurtz says. “With some of the private coaches, their attitude is: They don’t work with parents. I don’t get that. These parents are paying you. The idea that we’re creating separation and not coming together for the sake of the players makes me ill.”

Michael Witt, coach of the Walt Whitman High School girls’ JV basketball team and a father of two in Bethesda, says this new model could trigger questions about a coach’s motives. “There are people making money doing this stuff with the club teams,” Witt says. “It’s important for coaches to ask themselves: Why do I coach? Is it for a love of sports and competition? A way to challenge kids on a physical, emotional and mental level? Because you enjoy being with the kids or you like being a part of the community?”

There are many good coaches in private leagues, of course, and for every bad or abusive coaching story, there are an equal (if not greater) number of examples of coaches who inspire their players and instill time-honored values such as teamwork, discipline and self-confidence. But the intensity and negativity of some coaches raise a few worthwhile questions: Is bad coaching turning kids off to sports? Is it affecting their development in other ways? And when you step back and look at the whole picture, are some coaches doing more harm than good?

Whether we like it or not, coaches are role models for kids, and they can have a profound effect on a child’s personal development. “Sports are a major way that youths in our culture develop a self-concept, and coaches are integral to that,” Kaufman says.

Erik Devereux’s 16-year-old daughter, Mildred, has played on six travel softball teams since she was 10. “She has had very mixed coaching experiences,” says her father, a nonprofit management consultant in Silver Spring. “If she feels the coach has faith in her abilities, she thrives. If she feels the coach has doubts about her abilities, she wilts.”

Being the target of shaming behavior puts a kid in the spotlight, and not in a good way. “It creates a bit of a scarlet letter effect—it’s like wearing an invisible L, for loser, on your head,” says Joel Adler, a Bethesda-based clinical psychologist who regularly works with athletes and has coached kids’ baseball and basketball.

It also produces a physical response in the body. “When someone important yells at you, it triggers the fight-or-flight response, which triggers levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, to soar in the brain,” Silby says.  

Two years ago, a Bethesda girl who’s now in eighth grade was placed on a travel basketball team with a coach who was very discouraging, a marked change from her previous experiences. Her father, a scientist, says the coach picked on her shooting technique and form without offering any constructive criticism. “He’d say things like, ‘You’ve got to get with the program,’ but he wouldn’t tell her what she was doing wrong or what the program was.”

Eventually she quit the team. “She ended up being really spooked by this guy, and it really shook her confidence,” her dad says.

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