Abusive Behavior: When Does a Coach Cross the Line?

Coaches can be demanding without being demeaning, according to Joanna Lohman, co-author of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.”

I stood on a sideline this weekend and rolled my eyes at an opposing team’s coach just before I moved as far away from him as the stands at the soccer stadium would allow. Even from the top row I couldn’t get away from the sounds of his constant hollering, badgering and criticizing of his players. “Damn, that dude needs to just chill out,” said my friend, who had come with me to watch my daughter play an otherwise quiet game.

We interviewed more than 20 coaches for our book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions,” including Anson Dorrance, Chris Petrucelli, Lauren Gregg and Becky Burleigh, some of the most successful men and women in the history of soccer. If there are two common denominators Joanna Lohman and I uncovered as we spoke to the coaches — as well as the National Team players who experienced their behavior along the way — it’s that they often win, and they occasionally make people cry. It just happens. The celebrated phrase, "There's no crying in baseball," doesn't apply when you're talking about young players with soccer dreams and coaches who dole out playing time and advice, sometimes loudly and colorfully.

We shared dozens of coaches' stories amongst the book’s 20 chapters and, to at least one potential reviewer, some of the anecdotes we shared seemed uncomfortably close to an unacceptable threshold. “Don’t you think you should have called out these actions for what they are: abusive treatment?” asked the journalist.

Except for a few notable exceptions that you’ll see if you read “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions,” Joanna and I consciously steered clear of making these kinds of value judgements when we retold the stories of the National Teamers and their coaches. We left that to our readers, the parents and players, to decide for themselves; we wanted anyone dreaming of a high level soccer career for their child to understand that demanding coaches are part of what you sign up for when you start writing checks to soccer clubs in hopes of getting money back in the form of an athletic scholarship — yet those demands should not include constant screaming and demeaning of players.

When does a coach cross the line? Anoher phrase, “I know it when I see it,” infamously first invoked by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a landmark 1964 case that first attempted to legally define obscenity, seems to apply in the same way to coaching abuse — which means that, unless the abuse is physical, it’s often unclear if truly unacceptable behavior is happening. It’s also true that situations that can feel abusive to one person are perfectly acceptable to a teammate.

Joanna tells the story on Page 195 of RTC about a psychologically abusive coach who had no business being on the field. On Page 117, Jessica McDonald defends her club team coach, who had eventually been fired from the club due to inappropriate use of profane language. Throughout our seventh chapter, on the subject of coaching, Marian Dalmy Dougherty details her complicated relationship with Santa Clara University coach Jerry Smith. Put off by his bluntness, she loathed him as a teenager, yet came to think of him as one of the most positive influences in her life by the time she graduated. On Page 59, Joanna tells the story of a young girl who nearly quit soccer because her club coach’s behavior was literally giving her nightmares.

Santa Clara University head coach Jerry Smith is profiled in Chapter 7 of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” (photo courtesy of Santa Clara University).

“I know that, for myself, I needed to feel safe around my coaches or I would walk away,” said National Team pioneer Denise Boyer Merdich, who became a coach herself. “There were situations with certain people that just didn’t feel right to me and that would be my advice — that if the coach doesn’t feel right to you, doesn’t feel safe, then walk away.” Yet Denise also noted that tough practices and constructive criticism are all part of the package of a competitive environment. “Having a coach ride your tail, or running extra sprints? That’s not the kind of behavior I would be worried about. But if a coach is doing something you really think is inappropriate, then talk to your parents, talk to your safe person, and leave that coach if you have to.”

I know I wouldn’t allow my daughter to play for the coach I observed this past weekend. No amount of winning or on-field development would be worth listening to the heap of obnoxiousness being spewed the entire game. But was I witnessing abuse? At the end of the game, his players were all smiling and, from the outside looking in at that moment, one might conclude that I was the one being overly sensitive. That’s why these answers are rarely black and white.