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When Does Tough Coaching Cross the Line Into Abuse?


  • Thursday, 07 April 2022

Many people put a premium on excellence in sports. Employers often favour applicants who have participated in team or individual sports in schools because they typically have more discipline and drive than those without such experience. In most cases, athletic prowess is a combination of talent and tough coaching practice.

However, people are becoming aware of the potential for athlete abuse by coaches in youth sports training, particularly in injury-prone sports, such as basketball, football and gymnastics. For example, alleged abusive gymnastics coach, Elvira Saadi, has been suspended pending an investigation for being psychologically abusive.

Suppose your child sustains injuries or displays signs of emotional and psychological trauma. In that case, it may indicate that tough coaching has crossed the line into abusive behaviour. Your child may have been subjected to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

What is Abusive Coaching?

The line separating a tough coach from an abusive coach is very fragile. Youth athletes may not realise that their training and treatment are unacceptable or unsafe and tantamount to emotional abuse. Many may think it is just the style of their baseball or football coach. In fairness, it is usually the intent of the coach for their athletes to reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, that is not always true. Some coaches and trainers push their athletes to extreme lengths because they enjoy the power. Grade school children are particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse from coaches, which can scar them for life.

Sports coaches owe a duty to youth athletes to ensure that they do not sustain serious injuries that have lifelong effects. Parents and children need to learn the difference between tough love and emotional abuse. Abusive coach behaviours follow a prolonged and deliberate pattern and may involve the following:
Undermining the athlete’s self-esteem

  • Uttering threats and insults
  • Throwing things
  • Pushing athletes beyond reasonable physical or mental limits
  • Denying food, water or rest
  • Inflicting physical intimidation or assault
  • Manipulating them emotionally
  • Isolating them
  • Intimidating them into secrecy

While some people and organisations may accept these behaviours because they yield results, the long-term effects on the child can be devastating. In fact, long-term abuse may result in lifelong physical disability, anxiety, chronic depression, sleeping disorders, gastrointestinal issues, eating disorders and other symptoms.

The Difference Between Tough Coaching and Abusive Coaching

Young athletes are resilient and, therefore, they might not complain when their coaches take an uncompromising approach to training. Moreover, the youth sports landscape is competitive, so some hard coaching for a basketball team may significantly benefit the athlete. But, how do you determine when coaches cross the line to abuse?

It all boils down to the relationship between the coach and the athlete. If there is a foundation of respect and care, even a tough approach to training will not harm the child. Generally, tough coaching may include the following:

  • Demanding the athlete get out of their comfort zone
  • Expecting focus and consistent effort on a daily basis
  • Requiring commitment to the training schedule and imposing repercussions for failure to follow it
  • Treating all athletes equally
  • Requiring them to follow the rules and meet standards before allowing them on the field
  • Raising the bar beyond the abilities or skills (within reasonable limits) of the athlete to motivate them to try harder
  • Pushing them to perform without resorting to name-calling or insults

While you should expect your child to sustain some physical injuries during training, these injuries must be reasonable. Therefore, serious recreational sports injuries require further investigation. If you believe the athlete’s injuries are due to the neglect or abuse of the trainer or coach, you may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against them and the organisation in charge of the coaches.

Types of Abusive Coaching

An abusive coach comes in many flavours, and some abuse may even be perpetrated (or condoned) by parents. While most people associate abuse with physical assault, it is not the only type, as abuse may also be a combination of two or more kinds of behaviour.


Physical abuse may be an action or inaction that results in physical harm to the victim, which includes the following:

  • Exacting punishment through excessive exercise or denial of fluids 
  • Failing to prevent bullying by teammates
  • Forcing injured athletes to play
  • Treating injuries inadequately
  • Grabbing
  • Hazing
  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Providing inadequate equipment
  • Pulling ears or hair
  • Shaking
  • Shoving
  • Slapping
  • Striking
  • Throwing equipment at or near a player


Emotional abuse often has longer-lasting effects on young children than physical abuse, but it is generally harder to detect. These may include:

  • Name-calling and insults
  • Fat-shaming
  • Shouting and threatening
  • Humiliating
  • Ignoring or rejecting
  • Bullying
  • Taunting
  • Shunning or isolating
  • Denying playing time


Sexual contact between an athlete and a coach is unacceptable. Unfortunately, it is quite common and often goes unreported. Sexual abuse by a coach may include:

  • Indecent exposure
  • Touching of genitals or buttocks in a sexual manner
  • Penetration
  • Kissing and fondling
  • Sexualized comments or suggestions
  • Exposure to or creation of pornographic materials

Pro Tip

It is important to call law enforcement if you suspect a child has been abused by a coach since some laws require that reports be submitted within 24 hours.

Never Let Abusive Coaching Go Unpunished. Contact Diamond and Diamond today!

To a certain extent, sports injuries are expected, but not if they are the result of the neglect or bad acts of a coach or trainer. A coach’s job is to build up and train athletes – not break them down.

Abusive coaches and the resulting physical, emotional and psychological effects on young athletes are serious issues and occur quite often. Unfortunately, most organisations in charge of coaches typically defend these behaviours in official statements.

Nevertheless, as a parent, guardian or family member, you must report athlete abuse and abusive behaviours to proper authorities to put it on the record. You should also consult a sports injury lawyer from Diamond & Diamond to make abusive coaches and other parties liable and get compensation. 

Coach abuse is hard to prove, but we have extensive experience handling complex cases and presenting the unvarnished truth. We are the top personal injury law firm in Canada. Call us today at 1-800-567-HURT or fill up our online contact form to schedule a free case evaluation.

Are you or your loved one showing some signs of abusive coaching behaviour or mistreatment? Let Diamond and Diamond help you!


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