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Child Abuse Review Vol.Emotional
13: 215–223
Abuse
(2004)
of Elite Child Athletes
215
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/car.843

The Emotional
Abuse of Elite Child
Athletes by their
Coaches
This study investigates the prevalence of emotional abuse of elite child
athletes by their coaches in the UK. Previous research has focused
primarily on the parent–child relationship, with little attention given to
date on the sports environment. Participants were 12 former elite child
athletes who competed as internationals in their respective age groups.
All participants had been identified as elite athletes between the ages of
8 and 16 years (M = 13.1 yr, SD = 2.4 yr) and had competitive careers
of between 6 and 10 years. Participants were from the sports of diving
(N = 2), football (N = 3), gymnastics (N = 4), hockey, netball and track
and field athletics (N = 1 each). The study was a retrospective analysis
of their experiences as elite child athletes. (Age at interview: M =
22.9 yr, SD = 0.9 yr. male = 4, female = 8.) Thus, participants were
reflecting on experiences from about 10 years previously, so their
responses represented the residual impact of their experiences that had
survived over this period. Data were collected using semi-structured
interviews and response-coding techniques. Abusive behaviours were
categorized under eight headings: belittling, humiliating, shouting,
scapegoating, rejecting, isolating, threatening and ignoring. Results
showed that all (N = 12) of the participants reported experiencing
belittling and shouting by their coach, nine athletes reported frequent
threatening behaviour, nine reported frequent humiliation, seven
reported scapegoating, six reported rejection or being ignored and
four reported being isolated when they were elite child athletes. All
participants reported that the behaviour of their coaches changed and
became more negative after they were identified as elite performers.
Participants reported feeling stupid, worthless, upset, less confident,
humiliated, depressed, fearful and angry as a result of the behaviour of
their coaches. The results provide tentative evidence that the behaviour
of some coaches is a threat to the psychological well-being of elite child
athletes. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
KEY WORDS: sports coaching; emotional abuse; child athletes

I

Misia Gervis*
Nicola Dunn
Department of Sport Sciences
Brunel University
Uxbridge, UK

‘The behaviour
of their coaches
changed and
became more
negative after they
were identified as
elite performers’

n the pursuit of excellence, sport is demanding more and
more from its elite performers. These demands are now

∗ Correspondence to: Misia Gervis, Department of Sport Sciences, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 394, UK. Tel: 01895 274000. Fax: 01895 816341.
E-mail: misia.gervis@brunel.ac.uk
Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Accepted 7 May 2003
Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

216

‘The coach has the
power to decide
the path of their
athletic career’

‘Widespread recent
publicity of sexual
abuse of young
athletes in the UK’

Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Gervis and Dunn

being placed on elite child athletes (8–16 years of age), and
in the constant struggle for success these athletes are training longer and harder (Donnelly, 1997). As a consequence,
elite child athletes are spending significantly more time with
their coaches. The relationship between them could be the
most significant relationship that a child has with an adult.
Indeed, the athlete may even perceive the coach to be more
important than their parents (MacAuley, 1996). As children
work their way up the sporting ranks, the relationship with the
coach becomes even more significant since the coach has the
power to decide the path of their athletic career. The coach
also has a personal investment in the athlete, which may
directly relate to his or her own career advancement (Gervis
and Brierely, 1999).
In order to appreciate the role of the coach in the production of world-class performances, there is a need to understand what it takes to achieve excellence in sport. Training
is often long, boring and repetitive. It is physically and
psychologically demanding, requiring athletes to push themselves to extreme limits. The sport dominates their lives
and often socially isolates them. If an elite child athlete trains
6 days a week for several hours a day, there is very little
time left for anything else except school, sleeping and eating.
Athletes also travel abroad to compete and can spend even
more time with their coaches than with their parents. The
coach is therefore in a position of considerable influence,
which makes the elite child athlete very vulnerable if this is
misused.
Brackenridge et al. (2000) have reported cases that demonstrate coaches abusing their position of power resulting in
the sexual abuse of athletes. Widespread recent publicity
of sexual abuse of young athletes in the UK, as reported in
Guardian Sport (MacKay, 2001) and the Observer Magazine
(Downes, 2002), highlight the recent cases against swimming coaches who were found guilty of rape and other sexual
abuses of their athletes. However, while these cases set off
alarm bells, there is a lack of literature that explores the
nature of the relationship between elite child athletes and
their coaches.
Sexual abuse may not be the only expression of the coaches’
abuse of their power. In sport, the end, namely winning,
often justifies the means. In 1995 Ryan, an award-winning
sports journalist in America, documented through in-depth
interviews many instances of coaches from the sports of gymnastics and figure-skating abusing their position of power.
She posits that coaches were committing a legalized form of
child abuse, which is hidden behind success. Ultimately, all
Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

Emotional Abuse of Elite Child Athletes

that is acknowledged in sport is the winning performances, not
the methods involved in achieving them.
Despite the fact that there is now a greater awareness of
the incidence of sexual and physical abuse, sports coaching in
the UK is largely unregulated. Although national governing
bodies of sport are responding through the introduction of
child protection documents and courses, people continue to
work closely with children without any, or with only limited,
formal training. Sport has still not fully addressed the quality
assurance of coaches, which leaves child athletes potentially
exposed and vulnerable to abuse. Sport largely operates outside statutory organizations, and therefore national frameworks
that guide other organizations working with children are largely
ignored. Children who participate in sport would not in
normal circumstances be considered ‘at risk’, so researchers
have not previously identified them as a vulnerable population.
Furthermore, there is a critical area of coaching behaviour
which to date has not been debated, that of emotional abuse
by coaches as a function of ‘normally’ accepted coaching
practice.
Glaser and Prior (1997) noted that in the professional
literature, the terms ‘psychological abuse’, ‘emotional abuse’
and ‘mental cruelty’ have been used interchangeably. This lack
of consensus has been seen as a deterrent to researchers in the
field (Doyle, 1997). Despite this lack of research consensus,
there is a clear understanding from professionals and nonprofessionals alike on what is meant by ‘emotional abuse’.
Doyle’s (1997) definition is as follows:

217

‘People continue
to work closely
with children
without any,
or with only
limited, formal
training’

‘Lack of consensus
has been seen as
a deterrent to
researchers in
the field’

‘Such acts are committed by parent figures who are in a position of
differential power that renders the child vulnerable. Such acts damage
immediately or ultimately the behavioural, cognitive, affective, social and
psychological functioning of the child.’ (p. 331)

The present study adopts this as the working definition and
substitutes the coach for the parental figure.
Garbarino et al., in their extensive work in this area,
identified eight key behaviours as being indicative of emotional abuse. These behaviours were belittling, humiliating,
shouting, scapegoating, rejecting, isolating, threatening and
ignoring. To date, research using these behaviours has been
extensively employed to explore emotional abuse in the family
context.
The present study proposes that, given the coach often
fulfils the role of a parental figure in the life of elite child
athletes, it is appropriate to use Garbarino’s behaviours as
a framework for investigating emotional child abuse within
sport.
Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

218

Gervis and Dunn

Aims of the Study

‘Garbarino’s
framework of
emotionally
abusive behaviour
was utilized’

The overall aim of the study was to conduct preliminary
investigations into emotional abuse in the coaching context.
Garbarino’s framework of emotionally abusive behaviour was
utilized. Specifically, the objectives were:





To investigate child abuse in a sports context utilizing
Garbarino et al.’s (1986) framework of behaviours
To use qualitative methods to retrospectively investigate
coach behaviour from the elite athlete perspective
To examine the athlete–coach relationship from a new
perspective

Methods

Participants

‘Purposive chain
sampling methods
were employed’

‘The residual
impact of their
experiences that
had survived’

National governing bodies of sport only select small numbers
of elite child athletes to be part of their world class performance programme. Consequently, this study aimed to identify
a sample from this small population. In order to do this,
purposive chain sampling (Patton, 1990) methods were
employed in the recruitment of participants for the study.
Athletes were selected on the basis of the following criteria:
they had been in world class performance programmes or
equivalent; they were resident in the Greater London area;
they gave their consent for interview. Consequently, 12 former
elite child athletes (male = 4, female = 8) from the sports of
football (N = 3), gymnastics (N = 4), athletics, netball, diving
and hockey (N = 1 each) were recruited. All the athletes had
been identified as elite as children (i.e. 8–16 years of age) and
had competed at the highest level for a period of 8 years on
average. (Age at identification: M = 13.1 yr, SD = 2.4 yr. Age
at time of interview: M = 22.9 yr, SD = 0.9 yr). Thus, participants were reflecting on their past experiences as elite child
athletes, so their responses represented the residual impact
of their experiences that had survived. Men coached 50% of
female (N = 4) and 75% of male (N = 3) child athletes. Women
coached 50% of female (N = 4) and 25% of male (N = 1) child
athletes.

Measures
This initial exploratory study used semi-structured interviews
as the sole means of data collection. The questions were piloted
and standarized to ensure that all Garbarino’s behaviours
Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

Emotional Abuse of Elite Child Athletes

were explored. In order to satisfy issues of validity, interviews
were extensive and retained an open-ended element for detailed investigation. It was critical that trust was built between
the participants and the researcher, given the sensitive nature
of the area of investigation. Consequently, all interviewees
completed an informed-consent form and were told that their
names would remain confidential.
The interviews were constructed in the following manner.
Firstly, questions were asked about the sporting life history of
the athlete (Agar, 1980). Secondly, a series of questions were
asked in relation to the behaviours previously defined as being indicative of abusive behaviour (Garbarino et al., 1986).
The interviewees were asked to examine their experiences
of coaching behaviour with respect to the eight key behaviours.
Specifically, the interview sought to determine if they had
experienced the key behaviour. If an affirmative answer was
given, the interviewer sought to establish the frequency of the
behaviour. This was deemed important because for behaviour
to be defined as abusive, it must be sustained and repetitive
(O’Hagen, 1993). Secondly, the perception of the intensity
of the behaviour was determined (Hart, 1987). Finally, the
interview focused on the emotional response to each behaviour. This again was deemed important, as it is the individual
perception of the behaviour that will determine whether the
behaviour is abusive or not (Findlay and Corbett, 1999).

219

‘It was critical
that trust was
built between the
participants and
the researcher’

‘For behaviour to
be defined as
abusive, it must
be sustained and
repetitive’

Procedure
The object of the interviews was to ascertain if any of the
athletes reported experiencing any of the key behaviours, and
if so how these behaviours manifest themselves in a sports
coaching environment. Each interview lasted on average
30 minutes and took place at the discretion of the athlete. All
interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim.

Discussion of Results
Table 1 shows that all the athletes reported some form of
emotionally abusive behaviour from their coaches when they
were elite child athletes. Belittling and shouting were experienced by all of the athletes. The next highest reported abusive
behaviour was threatening and humiliating. The reported
occurrence of abusive behaviour was independent of athlete
or coach gender.
Table 2 reveals that the most frequently reported abuse was
that of shouting. It would appear that this was an habitual
Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

‘Belittling and
shouting were
experienced by all
of the athletes’

Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

220

Gervis and Dunn

Table 1. Number of athletes responding to the question ‘Have you ever experienced
. . . behaviour from your coach?’
Abusive behaviour category

Participants answering ‘yes’

Shouting
Belittling
Threatening
Humiliating
Scapegoating
Ignoring
Rejecting
Isolating

12
12
9
9
7
6
6
4

Table 2. Number of athletes who responded ‘frequently’ to the question ‘How
often did this behaviour occur?’
Abuse category

Participants replying ‘frequently’

Shouting
Belittling
Humiliating
Scapegoating
Threatening
Isolating
Ignoring
Rejecting

12
9
9
6
6
2
2
2

‘coaching tool’ used by coaches of elite child athletes. Such
behaviour was often reported as having a very negative impact
on the elite child athlete. One participant in the study recalled:
‘When she shouts it is very personal. I don’t like it and I can’t train
properly, it puts me off because it scares me when this happens.’

Another participant commented:

‘I was frightened
to do anything
because everything
I did was wrong’

Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

‘He was always very aggressive, it scared me a lot, I was frightened to
do anything because everything I did was wrong, or everything I did he
shouted at.’

Clearly, these two athletes perceived their coach’s behaviour as abusive. The verbal assaults that they had to endure
created a climate of fear for the young athlete. This put them
into an almost impossible position, whereby in order to fulfil
their dream of becoming an international athlete they had to
continue training with their coach. No-one seems to question
such coaching behaviour; it is accepted as being part of sport,
and often takes place behind closed doors.
Belittling and humiliation behaviour was frequently reported
by the young athletes. Interview data reveal that the consequences of this behaviour are felt long after the involvement
with the sport is finished. As another participant reflected:
Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

Emotional Abuse of Elite Child Athletes

221

‘I think being humiliated is so horrible and the pain of that I think I’ll
always remember.’

This further reinforces the view that what these athletes
reported experiencing as children must be categorized as
emotionally abusive behaviour on the part of the coach.
The resultant feelings that the athletes reported following
the abusive behaviour of their coach included: feeling stupid;
feeling worthless; feeling upset; lacking self-confidence;
feeling angry; feeling depressed; feeling humiliated; feeling
fearful; and feeling hurt. These results are indicative of a
destructive cycle in which the athlete exhibits a lack of belief
in their own ability to perform. This is often referred to as low
performance self-efficacy, which culminates in performance
detriments. These in turn intensify the abusive behaviour of
the coach, as performance expectations are not met. One
participant remembered:

‘Low performance
self-efficacy,
which culminates
in performance
detriments’

‘I was upset and depressed most of the time when I was training.’

Another participant commented:
‘I gave up because I had no confidence, because she constantly
told me that I was crap and worthless all the time. I believed this and
it carried on into general life and I am now scared of rejection, failure,
because of the things she did.’

Many of these athletes were competing nationally and
internationally when they were experiencing these feelings.
Moreover, the experience of their coach’s behaviour is longlasting, leaving emotional scars. As their suffering is not
acknowledged, there is no support to help them heal. One
participant recalled:
‘His coaching was too personal and too soul-destroying, forget the
money, nothing was worth that.’

‘As their
suffering is not
acknowledged,
there is no support
to help them heal’

Indeed, some of the athletes viewed the interview for this
study as a ‘cathartic experience’, which allowed them to talk
freely about issues that had hitherto been hidden.
All the athletes responded in the affirmative to the question:
‘Did your coach’s behaviour change once you had been identified as elite?’. Moreover, all the athletes reported that the
change was negative, with a more ‘serious’ attitude now taken
towards training. One participant observed:
‘He became very intense and driven, it almost happened overnight, it
was like it was his sport now and his career not mine.’
Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

222

Gervis and Dunn

Another participant remembered:
‘Yes, he just became some power maniac because I was good; he
thought that it was all his doing.’

‘A coach’s
reputation is built
upon the athletes
they produce’

A coach’s reputation is built upon the athletes they produce.
If the potential of a child athlete is recognized externally, this
elevates the position of the coach within the sport. The coach
then has a lot more to lose if this athlete does not achieve success. The resulting coaching methodologies may be centred
on a ‘win at all costs’ approach. This then creates a dilemma
for the young performer, who wants to succeed but no longer
enjoys the training.

Conclusions

‘Indicative of
accepted coaching
practice’

Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

All of these athletes have reported some form of emotional
abuse as a direct consequence of their coach’s behaviour.
Many of the athletes reported having residual emotional and
psychological problems. The long-term effects and consequences of being exposed to this type of coaching behaviour
are not currently available, but clearly this is an area for future
research.
The elite child athlete has to cope with pressures of training, long hours and competing at the highest level in a climate
of sustained attacks on their self-esteem at a time when they
are most vulnerable. Participants reported that coaches were
abusing their position of power, and that they felt damaged
by their coaches’ actions. But this behaviour goes on without
being challenged or questioned so long as the athlete is successful. This contributes to the habitual coaching tools and
creates a culture of coaching which reinforces those behaviours
that are associated with success. If future research shows this
to be the case, it would be important that researchers focus
their attention on alternative coaching strategies that do not
expose children to abuse.
The results from this research may lead one to hypothesize that the experiences of these athletes are not likely to
be isolated incident, but are indicative of accepted coaching practice. Further investigation is needed in this area
to challenge such practices and to examine the extent of the
problem. Moreover, the results of this study suggest that child
protection policies currently being implemented in UK sport
should challenge some accepted coaching methodologies.
Overall, this study found that research methods previously
used to investigate relationships in a family setting can be
Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)

Emotional Abuse of Elite Child Athletes

223

utilized to theorize and understand the relationship between
the coach and the elite child athlete. They provide a workable framework within which the complex dynamics of the
coach–athlete relationship can be explored and a better
understanding of the experiences of the elite child athlete can
be developed. Future research is needed to build upon this
with a view to establishing sport-specific theory to understand
the unique issues in this context.

References
Agar AH. 1980. The Professional Stranger. Open University Press:
BucKingham.
Brackenridge C, Johnston L, Malkin K. 2000. A critical evaluation of
training needs for child protection in UK sport. Managing Leisure 5:
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Donnelly P. 1997. Child labour, sport labour, applying child labour laws to
sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 32(4): 389–406.
Downes S. 2002. Would you drive five miles to a place you don’t know,
knock on a door, hand over your child to whoever answers, and leave
them for a couple of hours? Observer Magazine, 36–40.
Doyle C. 1997. Emotional abuse of children: issues for intervention.
Child Abuse Review 6: 330–342.
Findlay JRG, Corbett R. 1999. What is harassment? http//
www.harassmentinsport.com [26 September 1999].
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Child: Strategies for Identification, Assessment and Identification.
Jossey Bass: San Francisco.
Gervis M, Brierely J. 1999. Effective Coaching for Children: Understanding the Coaching Process. Crowood Press: Marlborough.
Glaser D, Prior V. 1997. Is the term child protection applicable to emotional abuse? Child Abuse Review 6: 315–329.
Hart SN. 1987. A major threat to children’s mental health. American
Psychologist 42: 162–165.
Mackay D. 2001. Sport faces up to its final taboo. Guardian Sport, July
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O’Hagen K. 1993. Emotional and Psychological Abuse. Open University
Press: BucKingham.
Patton MP. 1990. Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, 2nd
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Ryan J. 1995.Pretty Girls in Little Boxes. BPC Paperbacks: Aylesbury.

Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Child Abuse Review Vol. 13: 215–223 (2004)


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