Cross Country Checkup

Abusive coaching doesn't make better players, says former athlete

Nearly three decades after his time as an athlete — and now with kids of his own out on the field — Young has made it his mission to modernize the culture around coaching with his company, Personal Sport Record.

'Because that's the way we've always done things' are the 8 most dangerous words in sports, says Matt Young

Matt Young is the founder of Personal Sport Record, a company that aims to 'shift today’s sports focus away from simply the score and who scored.' (Ron Sombilon)

Matt Young has faced his fair share of aggressive coaches.

"We came through that era of 'tough love,'" the former high school and university football player told Cross Country Checkup.

He says coaches hurled insults and degraded him and his teammates, while telling them to "toughen up" and "be a man."

Nearly three decades after his time as an athlete — and now with kids of his own out on the field — Young has made it his mission to modernize the culture around coaching with his company, Personal Sport Record.

"The saying goes, you coach the way you are always coached," Young said. "The reason why it doesn't work is because parents no longer parent the way they were parented … and teachers no longer teach the way they were taught."

Amid NHL player allegations of bullying, bigotry, and physical abuse at the hands of former coaches, questions about where to draw the line are circling sports, both professional and amateur.

Not only does Young worry about the effects of abusive coaching on young athletes, he says it's keeping them out of sports entirely.

"I can't tell you how many kids have left sports because of the verbal abuse," he said.

'You've got people in therapy'

Former Olympic rower and Royal Roads University professor Jennifer Walinga has studied abuse in sports and its effects on athletes. 

"I see it all the time across social media ... that pressure produces diamonds and you need a tough approach to get broken down, to be built up and all this. And it's just simply not true," she said in a phone interview.

She compares what she describes as "bad" coaching — abusive, degrading behaviour — to military training.

Jennifer Walinga is a former Olympic rower and now a professor at Royal Roads University. (Canada's Sports Hall of Fame)

While the approach can be character-building when preparing people for war, it can have negative effects on athletes.

"You've got people in therapy. You've got people who ... quit the sport, who hate the sport, who are bitter. Who, yeah, maybe they might have won something, but they hated the memory of it all," she said.

Instead, she says coaches should focus on creating leaders by building an athlete's "sense of self-worth and capacity" and not "hardening them."

"You can win way better, and with way more benefits — and way more medals — if you just take the approach of building people to their capacity, like enhancing their capacity and on their optimum performance," she said in a phone interview.

'They'll move mountains for you'

It's an approach that Young shares from the sidelines as a coach for athletes and a coach for other coaches.

His goal is to understand what each athlete is looking for on an individual level, something he'd like to see from other coaches.

"My job is not to get the athlete to believe in a system, a system that's going to help us win first," he said.

"My job is to get a young athlete to believe in themselves first, because if you can get the athlete to believe in themselves, they'll move mountains for you."

Young says that he supports the development of an independent reporting body for abusive coaches, but that it's not about throwing "everyone under the bus," or getting them fired. 

He wants coaches to be more supportive of their players and to shake off old stereotypes.

"The eight most dangerous words in any sport, or anything in life, is 'Because that's the way we've always done things.'"


On Sunday, Dec. 8, Cross Country Checkup asks: When does a coach's behaviour cross the line?