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The Emotional Abuse Checklist: Ensure Your Sports Team Is Safe

May 1, 2023

crying child

Harm is the last thing that a sports organization wants for its athletes. Yet in a US Center for SafeSport Athlete Culture & Climate Survey, it was found that about 80 percent of athletes have experienced psychological abuse. To easily identify the signs and stop abusive behavior, it would be useful to have an emotional abuse checklist.

Abuse comes in many forms. Physical abuse is obvious. Sexual abuse is well hidden but takes over the headlines when discovered. Emotional abuse, though, is insidious. It leaves no tangible scars, it’s easy to overlook, and it’s ubiquitous. 

Bystanders can understand the violence associated with the other types but the verbal assaults and neglect that accompanies emotional harm are difficult to notice. There are no cuts or bruises – only wounds on a person’s mind and soul. And these can be surprisingly wide and deep.

Emotional Abuse Checklist: Signs
The reason that emotional abuse can be difficult to determine is that it can’t be reduced into one single taboo act. It involves deliberate, prolonged, repeated, non-contact behaviors. Striking an athlete is obviously a form of physical abuse and it will leave a wound which proves that the act happened. But emotional abuse? There is no way to prove that harsh words mean anything more than frustration at a certain point in time. And the signs of psychological harm can be easily attributed to other causes.

Signs of emotional abuse:

  • Being overly compliant, passive, demanding, or affectionate
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Sudden or severe onset of depression, anxiety, or aggression
  • Difficulty in forming friendships or relationships 
  • Delayed physical, emotional, or intellectual development
  • Headaches or stomachaches with no medical basis
  • Avoidance or fear of specific situations or people

While these are signs of emotional abuse, they can be caused by too many other reasons. Is the athlete who isn’t making friends suffering from emotional abuse or is he simply introverted or even neurodivergent? It’s hard to come to a conclusion without a thorough investigation.

white female coach training two black male athletes

Emotional Abuse Checklist: Behaviors
Many young sportsmen and women would be familiar with one or more coaching behaviours that can be considered as emotionally abusive.

Examples of abusive behaviors:

  • Name calling
  • Shouting
  • Bullying
  • Insulting
  • Threatening
  • Humiliating
  • Scapegoating
  • Taunting
  • Shunning
  • Isolating
  • Gaslighting
  • Constant switching from praise to criticism and vice versa

In a strange way, their familiarity makes it more invisible. If shouting is normalized, the entire team would have similar signs and that becomes a mark of being an athlete instead of abuse.

Why Resort to Abusive Behaviors
Coaches most often don’t know that a practice is abusive. These have been used before and to great and proven results over years and decades. They tend to value the knowledge and practices of experienced and admired coaches over formal, academic education.Unfortunately, some of these accepted and proven practices include abusive approaches. These emotionally abusive methods are often used to train mental toughness and deployed in extreme training environments to help the athlete.

Athletes accept these methods because sometimes they’re not recognizable as abuse. They’re simply regarded as normal practices for athletes because they have been used for a long time. And since they have been used to create successful athletes, these abuses are simply tolerated as one of the costs of victory.

Happy girl's soccer team and female coach who are free from emotional abuse

What Can Sports Organizations Do
The first step to reduce abusive behaviors is to make the people – coaches, athletes, parents, sports leaders – aware of them. Most of them practice and accept these emotionally abusive behaviors not out of malice but out of ignorance. They are not immediately at fault. Programs must first address this issue and delineate the line between toughness and abuse. 

If you want to discuss and learn more about safeguarding against emotional abuse, book a consultation.