Football Coach Berates Teen. What Does a Parent Do?

Reader’s Question

I need help fast. My son is 16 years old, 6’2″ and weighs 305 lbs. He is currently a junior in high school and is on the football team. Motivation is a very big problem when it comes to our son, but we continue to work with him, stressing the importance of working hard to achieve goals. Evidently, he is not working as hard as he should at football practice. He will complain a little about the coach yelling at him for not hustling or not trying hard enough and our standard response to him is that if he would show more effort and work harder, the coach would probably get off of his back. The other day, our son came home in a rather foul mood, and when confronted he told me that the coach had called him and another rather large boy on the team, “fat, lazy pieces of s***.” I called the coach and explained that I understand how frustrating it is to coach a kid that isn’t real motivated, but asked him to explain to me how calling a kid fat and lazy was going to help that situation. The coach flat out denied calling my son or the other kid fat. I then called the other kid, without my son’s knowledge, and asked him to explain to me what happened at the practice. He confirmed my son’s story about the coach calling them fat and berating them for being the fattest kids on the team, about how they thought they needed special treatment because they are fat, etc. My husband feels that I am making too much out of this and thinks our son is using this as an excuse. I am in the process of setting up another meeting between the coach, the athletic director, my son and my husband and me. Am I making too much of this or is it wrong and damaging for a coach to behave in this manner?

Psychologist’s Reply

My take on this situation:

  • First of all, it’s a no-brainer to say the coach’s behavior was inappropriate. However inappropriate that behavior might have been, it’s also not that unusual in coaching situations where there is often a fine line between motivation attempts and being verbally abusive. If we videotaped coaching situations, many of the youth involved have unflattering nicknames for example.
  • It’s also predictable that the coach would deny berating the kids. He knows better than to say those things and especially to admit them from a coaching standpoint, a legal standpoint, and a public-media standpoint.
  • I’m concerned that your proposed actions may make the situation worse rather than better. As a concerned parent, you are taking action based on what you feel needs to be done. It’s more important to consider what your son feels needs to be done. He knows the coach, how the team would respond, what’s likely to happen, etc. Pressuring the coach with meetings to address his abusive behavior is only likely to move his behavior into the passive-aggressive mode — even to the point of targeting your son for very polite and mannerly, yet “special” assignments.
  • Your initial approach was totally correct. When you discovered the issue, you brought it to the coach’s attention. That told him that any misbehavior on his part would find you at his office door or on the phone. That’s probably all that’s needed. I call it “toasting” somebody — burning them around the edges a bit, making them uncomfortable, to remind them that their behavior or comments are being monitored and taken seriously by those around them. I had a similar experience when my daughter was in high school. I met with a teacher for about 30 minutes, asked a lot of uncomfortable questions, and assured them anytime there was a problem I’d be at the school to make sure we were all communicating properly on behalf of my child. Haven’t had a problem since.

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I’d recommend allowing this to die on the vine. The coach’s behavior has been brought to his attention in an uncomfortable manner. If the behavior reappears, you should reappear on his caller ID. Your son was no doubt embarassed by the situation but not enough to quit. Ask for his input — what would he like to see happen? After “toasting” the coach, I would bet he’ll find other ways to motivate your son in practice.

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