My daughter, along with her high school basketball team, was emotionally abused by her basketball coach. The coach had been at the school for sixteen years, and parents were nervous about speaking out because we all knew that saying something would be taken out on our daughters.
What does emotional abuse in sports look like? One junior basketball player talking about her high school coach shared: “He told me I was nothing. He said I was dumb — I’m not going to go anywhere in life. He’d use words that degrade LGBTQ and us as girls with obscenities in practices and games.”
If you’ve ever been involved in sports, this might sound familiar. Emotional abuse is often accepted as part of being on a team, despite the fact that research tells us people perform better in safe, supportive environments. As one parent said to me, “When my kid joins a sports team, it’s like a crapshoot. I have no idea what experience she’ll have.” Why is that?
Competitive athletic contests were all the rage at the turn of the 19th century. High school athletics started in earnest on December 26, 1903, in New York City’s Madison Square Garden with a sports extravaganza that unleashed a new form of entertainment and exercise that has never stopped growing.
120 years after its inception, high school sport often continues to promote the values of 1903 when blind obedience was considered an attribute and the medieval adage “children should be seen and not heard” was the North Star. These twin foundational pillars that institutionalize a power imbalance between coach and athlete are the table setters for abuse then and now.
More training of coaches, while helpful, will not stem the tide of headlines of abuse, hate, and bias on sports teams. This represents a classic case of an antiquated system that has outlived its purpose, which was, in part, to develop students to be career-ready for factory work or military service.
But we can do something about it.
In January, 2023, the Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and child advocate Representative Kay Khan jointly filed An Act to Remodel Public School Athletics Through Social Emotional Learning to amend this antiquated system by offering school districts an opportunity to update their sports delivery system to include our 21st century knowledge about how to achieve in sports, work, and life.
At the core of this updated knowledge is social and emotional learning (SEL), which promotes fostering a healthy culture and teaching valuable life skills like responsibility, leadership, teamwork, empathy, setting and achieving goals, and more.
By equipping schools and coaches with SEL knowledge and guidelines, we can change the culture of youth and school sports for the better. Imagine your child playing for a coach who models positive and ethical conduct, creates space for student voice and decision-making, and intentionally builds supportive relationships with athletes. Imagine that this coach uses evidence-based strategies to teach valuable skills like emotion management, resiliency, and teamwork through sports.
So, how would the new legislation help bring this vision to life?
- The MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) would venture into the world of sport, where so much can be learned from the sciences of achievement. No state DOE in the United States now addresses sports despite the mental health crisis and the headlines of abuse, hate, and bias.
- Districts who wish to establish a common thread running through all teams in a district would have guidelines on how to go about implementing an SEL curriculum on sports teams.
- DESE would formulate lessons and guidance that address hate, bias, and negative behaviors to foster healthy, responsible norms on sports teams.
- The benefits that come from sport, often touted by administrators, would be explicitly taught, so student athletes would learn how to become people who exemplify sportsmanship, teamwork, resiliency, emotion management, etc.
- Athletes would learn the skills that would make them more successful in their homes, in sports, and in their work.
Here’s what a high school sports team could look like if we opened our minds:
There’s an air of discontent among parents and educators when abuse, hate, and bias keep making headlines, when our children’s mental health is threatened, and when sports experiences become all-too-often negative for children. We can do better by taking action:
- Join EndAbusiveCoaching.org because there is strength in numbers.
- Tell your story to show others that they are not alone.
- Speak in support of the Act to Remodel Public School Athletics Through Social and Emotional Learning at a legislative briefing on June 14 at the Massachusetts State House.
- Contact us if you wish to start a movement in your state that results in legislation similar to the one filed in Massachusetts.
- Most importantly, don’t walk away from abuse when you see it – stand up, speak out, and demand change.
Mitch Lyons, retired attorney, decades-long basketball coach, and founder of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts and GetPsychedSports.org, has worked for the betterment of children over the last 40 years. Emotionally scarred from his mother’s death when he was sixteen, he noted the lack of care and support he received by school officials which is what attracted him to social and emotional learning. He is now working on his initiative, EndAbusiveCoaching.org.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.