British Columbia·Analysis

Aggressive behaviour found in up to 40% of coaches, says Justplay research

Justplay, a Toronto-based organization, found 30 to 40 percent of coaches scored a poor or very poor ranking when it came to international coaching standards.

Behaviour so entrenched in sports culture that now it's acceptable to many parents

Justplay, a Toronto-based organization, has found that on a one to five scale, 30 to 40 per cent of coaches scored a four (poor) or five (very poor) when it came to international coaching standards. (Cameron Whitman/Shutterstock)

Maybe all it takes is some encouragement to become a sports champion.

"If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we're gonna be winners," said Gene Hackman, playing a basketball coach in Hoosiers

That coaching style probably wouldn't fly with the character Terence Fletcher, an abusive jazz instructor in the film Whiplash. 

"Any moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them," said J.K. Simmons' character in describing his reasons for throwing cymbals at those he teaches.

"I believe that is... an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we're depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker."

The reality of what makes a great coach — and in turn a great player — lies somewhere in between. At some point, any parent who has watched a game at an arena, in a gym or on a field has seen a coach yell at a player.

More than a few bad apples

The behaviour has become so entrenched in sports culture, it has become acceptable for many parents.

Justplay, a Toronto-based organization, has found that on a one to five scale, 30 to 40 per cent of coaches scored a four (poor) or five (very poor) when it came to international coaching standards.

These numbers include basketball, soccer, hockey, football and baseball and range across Canada. They also include games in California.

The consensus is that no matter what the sport, the age or level of play, this aggressive behaviour is happening.

"Over the course of 13 years, the trends we have noticed in the data have not changed. It is not getting worse, the trends are stable in terms of prevalence of poor and very poor behaviour," said Elaine Cook, the founder of Justplay.

"That is more than a few bad apples.

"Children that are exposed to consistent levels of abuse have higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD-like symptoms ... There are quite serious short- and long- term consequences to exposing children to these types of behaviours."

Veteran Richmond FC elite soccer coach Roberto Sciascia has been charged with verbally and physically abusing his teenage players. (CBC News)

But where do you draw the line between tough love and abusive behaviour? 

Paul Legge's son has played for the past five years under Richmond FC coach Roberto Sciascia.

Other parents have complained not just about Sciascia​ swearing at players but in one incident "putting his hands on [his] neck in a choking manner."

But Legge insists the coach's behaviour has been misunderstood.

"There are a few times where he yelled at my son, but in the sense that it made my son a better player because he didn't make the same mistakes in the games that he had made in practice."

"There is also the belief that kids that are playing at the top level in their community want to be pushed. There is a fine line between pushing and when you cross the line and when you get personal, and I never saw Roberto getting personal with people."

Winning at all costs?

Divisive coaches often do just that — they get personal with players.

That is why organizations like ViaSport work closely with sports organizations to train coaches.

In most cases there are strict guidelines from organizations like B.C. Hockey or B.C. Soccer. But even among the black and white rules, there are many layers of grey.

"There is a fine line on that ... when certain athletes, depending on how they feel, they can be motivated [in ways that] are different from others," said Eric Sinker​, ViaSport's coaching and leadership development manager.

"We want to make sure the kids are learning the skills and having a great time at the same time."

But that begs the question: At what point do coaches sacrifice winning and dealing with failure to have a good time?

That depends in many cases on the team, but also on the individual players.

There is a sense from some experts that parents and kids have become more sensitive to criticism, and that has led to parents calling a coach aggressive when in the coach's mind, they are just correcting mistakes.

'I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them' - so said Terence Fletcher, the abusive jazz instructor played by J.K. Simmons in the film Whiplash.

"I give talks to elite coaches on the biggest mistakes that coaches make. One of them is being too negative,"says sports psychologist Dr. Saul Miller.

"Another one is not being sensitive to the individual that you are communicating with. Some athletes are more sensitive and if you want to be successful you can't be too confrontational with them."

Abusive behaviour will exist in sports up until the point that parents and athletes believe that it no longer makes them better.

Billy Bob Thornton, playing the real-life Gary Gaines, summarized it this way in Friday Night Lights:

"Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning. It's about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends."

When that balance will be met in youth sports in Canada remains the question.

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