Q&A | Sheri Meismer on what athletes can do when coaches cross the line
'There is an inherent power imbalance between coaches and players' says Meismer
First Mike Babcock, then Bill Peters and then Marc Crawford ... when coaches behave badly, it can be hard to figure out what do as an athlete or someone involved in sport.
Sheri Mesimer, an investigator with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada joined Windsor Morning's Tony Doucette to discuss the prevalence of verbal and physical abuse from coaches to athletes.
TONY: It seems everyone is talking about coaches and when their methods cross the line from aggressive to abuse. First stories about Mike Babcock, then the Calgary Flames fired Bill Peters. Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Mark Crawford is on a leave of absence as the team investigates allegations of verbal and physical abuse. What do you make of all this?
SHERI: It's disappointing but generally not surprising. I think your top level coaches are of a certain demographic where those sorts of skills are engrained in them to be motivating and inspiring to their athletes. I think we're a lot wiser and smarter now and know that those methods are so harmful and detrimental to young people and to players.
More and more voices have begun to speak out about this. What does that tell you?
There is an inherent power imbalance between coaches and players. The best coaches out there, they understand intuitively that they are in a position of power over their players. I think if you ask any of the players, none of them are motivated by being humiliated or intimidated ... all you need to do is ask them.
You have to appreciate how hard it is for these athletes and these players to come forward. They know that their position on that team and their opportunities for playing time are controlled entirely by their coach.
Your son plays travel and high school hockey. Have you had this discussion with him?
I have. We've explained to him that a lot of life is out of your control sometimes and sometimes these decisions are being made by other people. Know your passion, know your skill ... but there are other factors that coaches use to make decisions about the people they want on their team.
As a parent, as a bystander or even just as somebody involved in sport you really need to be asking those critical questions to your kids. We've had good and bad experiences and if you're in tune with your kids, a few critical questions asked at the right moment and those floodgates usually come open.
Why do you think coaches resort to aggressive or even abusive behaviour?
Being in a power position as a coach of a team unfortunately attracts certain types of people. Sometimes you're getting people with insecurities, on the bench or on the field who might lack in other areas and feel that they can compensate by doing this.
There is an inherent power imbalance between coaches and players.- Sheri Meismer
As a coach, you're supposed to be enhancing this player's abilities, drawing out their natural talents to do that. These athletes need to feel safe to explore and push their limits.
Many of the conversations following these NHL stories has described an old school mentality. Do you see evidence that that is changing?
I hope that it's changing. For my kids, for the next generation of kids that are coming up ... I hope that it changes. For the people at the elite level, this is their workplace. This is something they've devoted decades of training and travel and preparation for. They should be able to go to the rink or the pool or the field and be happy there — not go their with their head hung low, worried about what they will experience.
For their sake and for our kids, I hope it gets better.
As an investigator for the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, what can you and that organization do to intervene in these cases?
So it's a pilot project, a place to go if you're in receipt of government money and you have issues with your teams or coaches that you can't resolve.
Many grassroots organizations might not have people around with the right mix of skills and abilities and experiences to do these things. We rely on our volunteers to run these sport organizations ... it doesn't mean they have the right qualifications to be dealing with bigger, more serious issues.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview: