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What do you do when the bully is the coach?

May 22 by

The ref blows his whistle. The play stops and the coach strides out onto the court. He gets up into the boy’s face and shoves his finger into his chest:

“That was f----- soft!” he yells.
He does not provide instruction on how to improve.
The other coach does not intervene.

Many things just happened in this moment: the student was humiliated and felt fear as the coach’s anger is extreme and unpredictable. The student believed the bullying was deserved because the other coach reinforced the abusive act by being a bystander. The use of a homophobic slur made all the boys worry that if they speak up then they will be seen as weak and feminine. Some student-athletes just lost a portion of moral courage because they don’t like what they witnessed, but they know they might get benched if they speak up. So they choose to be bystanders, conduct modeled for them by the other coach. Some of them normalize the conduct. These athletes may leave school believing that to succeed someone needs to be a target. They take this belief system into the workforce where bullying is at an all time high and costing a fortune.

Most importantly, however, all of the students, especially the targeted one, have just suffered changes, possibly scars to the brain according to neuroscientists. MRI machines record harm to the brain when bullying is adult to adult or peer to peer. No one has yet done a study of what happens to the brain when the greatest power imbalance occurs: coach to student-athlete or teacher to student.

The coaching conduct described above occurred in an independent school in Canada. After hearing from many distraught parents, the school’s Headmaster requested testimonies from students. He called the teachers’ behaviour “old-style coaching”. He announced to the faculty that some of the Senior Boys had “unhappy experiences.” At no point were the students’ testimonies assessed from a student health perspective. Instead, he brought in a lawyer.

School administrators, teachers, parents and students need to know that “old-style coaching” just might scar the brains of teenagers in particular, as the development phase of their brains makes them particularly at risk. According to a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence, Dr. Laurence Steinberg explains “The adolescent brain is extraordinarily sensitive to stress”  Therefore, when teenagers report that they are “unhappy”, it is vital to listen, hold coaches and teachers accountable, and at all times protect the students.

Dr. Steinberg turns to neuroscience in order to describe the way in which school environments shape students’ experiences:
As neuroscientists are fond of saying, plasticity cuts both ways. By this they mean that the brain’s malleability makes adolescence a period of tremendous opportunity – and great risk. If we expose our young people to positive, supportive environments, they will flourish. But if the environments are toxic, they will suffer in powerful and enduring ways.

At least fourteen students at my former School were clear in their testimonies that the environment they had to endure in order to play their sport was toxic. They were clear that they were suffering. Only time will tell how long their suffering will endure. However, the Headmaster did not consult emotional abuse experts when he received the student testimonies and interviewed the ones still on campus. He hired a lawyer to address the situation. However, our legal system is out of touch with years of psychological, psychiatric and neuroscientific studies that conclude bullying damages individuals, especially young ones, in terrible and lasting ways.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, Professor and Canada Research Chair of Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa in 2008 found “higher levels of cortisol in boys bullied by peers. Too much cortisol can damage brain structures such as the hippocampus that is involved with learning and memory.”  When a student’s brain has this kind of damage from peer bullying, the experts do not appear interested in where the bullying took place. However, there are still those who argue that in a sport setting there are a different set of rules that apply to teacher conduct. What would be seen as bullying in a classroom, suddenly becomes “motivation” on a basketball court. For the victims, however, the location is irrelevant.

We know that it’s against the law for a teacher or coach to cause a physical bruise, but he or she appears able to cause depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders without the law stepping in. It used to be that we categorized these expressions of harm as ‘feelings’ and considered them part of an emotional realm. However, research has shown that loss of concentration, anxiety and depression result from physical changes to the brain and thus one is left wondering why we attribute seriousness to a bruise or welt on an arm, but do not accord the same concern when it’s a bruise or welt done to a child’s developing brain.

Dr. David Walsh explains in his Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain that neurological studies are “showing us how serious and long-term the damage can be. Studies reveal that there are long-lasting chemical and structural brain changes that account for the cognitive and emotional damage that can be as severe as the harm done by child abuse”.  Dr. Walsh is focused on peer to peer bullying; how severe is the harm when it’s an adult in a caregiver position to a child? Teachers and coaches are in extremely powerful positions. Even parents are held in check because speaking up might mean more suffering for the child. Oftentimes, along with their children, parents and other teachers may well maintain a conflicted silence.

We have to stop minimizing and dismissing student suffering. We need to understand that when we use euphemisms like “old-style coaching” we may well be condoning abuse that harms students. Just because humiliation occurs on a court and not in a classroom, does not for a moment mean that it is safe for adolescent brains. My forthcoming book Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom discusses the need for emotional abuse to be included in the Criminal Code if indeed we want our children to be protected. Bullying is on the rise. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in teen populations. Workplace bullying is an epidemic. When will we realize that all of our talk is not working? It’s time for action. Bullies, especially those in caregiver positions, need to be held accountable for the damage they do.


Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014 (37).

Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa in the Faculty of Education and the School of Psychology. She is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University and a core member of the Offord Centre for Child Studies. Dr. Vaillancourt's research examines the links between aggression and bio-psychosocial functioning and mental health, with particular focus on bully-victim relations.

David Walsh with Erin Walsh, Why do They Act that Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, 2nd edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014 (252).

With a PhD and twenty years of teaching at university, college and high-school levels, Jennifer Fraser is a passionate educator and published author.