What Should We Do When We Observe Verbal Abuse By Other Coaches?

verbal abuse

If you’ve spent any time on deck at a swim meet, you’ve heard it. A coach going well over the line when talking to a swimmer. Well past any reasonable form of criticism, and usually to the point where the (young) swimmer is crying.

I realize this is a highly subjective issue. What’s over the line for me may be considered ‘tough love’ by another coach. And you also have to take into account the age and experience level of the swimmer. But – paraphrasing the famous definition of art – I’ll recognize verbal abuse when I hear it.

Here’s the most recent example I witnessed a few months ago. The coach at the table beside us was really laying into a relatively inexperienced 10-year old girl. Among the barrage of negative comments were two which caught our attention. Among all of her other faults, he told her “You embarrassed me with your race”, and “If you don’t care about your swimming, I don’t care either”.

Of course, well before the interaction was over, the girl was just sobbing. To me, this was verbal abuse. To her coach, it was probably just another character-building with a young swimmer.

But the experience did make me wonder. As a fellow coach, what can I do about it and what should I do about it?

In the past, I’ve just ignored it, and silently vowed to make sure that neither I nor any of my coaches should ever talk to a child that way. But that just doesn’t seem to be a responsible way to deal with it.

Complicated Problem

The problem is complicated, and not just because of different perceptions on what defines an acceptable style of coaching. The Swim Ontario Coaches Code of Conduct and Ethics section 8e) says, “Refrain from public criticism of a fellow coach.” In other words, I can’t express my concerns to the coach in question while on a crowded pool deck, and I’ll be very unlikely to run into him at the meet when there aren’t other people around.

This “public criticism” rule raises a serious concern. Does this mean that if I witness serious verbal or physical abuse by a coach I’m not allowed to address it or intervene? Am I putting my coaching credentials at risk if I do so? Is this really the rule that we want to have in place?

We also know that if we register a complaint against another coach there might be repercussions against us from the general swimming community. Such as not allowing our team into crowded meets – just about every meet in our area ends up over subscribed, and the meet manager ends up turning away teams.

And yet we know that this type of coach-centric, over-the-top, heavy criticism is almost certainly detrimental to the swimmer (see Psychology Today’s “Five Reasons You Have to Stop Excusing Verbal Abuse“). We also know from accounts of swimmers who’ve been sexually abused that their coaches constantly criticized them to lower their self esteem and make them more controllable.

On the other hand, if this type of abuse is perceived by Swim Ontario, or that coach’s club, or the swimming community in general, to be beneficial (or at least not harmful) to the swimmer, then what right do I have to publicly address this? Am I just being too soft? Coddling a swimmer to protect their feelings?

I’m stumped as to what I should do in cases like this. I can tell you what we’ve decided to do, but in all honesty it’s quite unsatisfactory.

Our Work-In-Progress Response

We decided to develop an evolving process to allow us to address this matter. It involves recording the essentials of the incident (date, time, where on deck, summary of the coach-swimmer exchange, reactions by swimmer, description of the coach, identification of the team, and anything else deemed relevant.

We are then to revisit this report a few days later to see how serious it looks on paper when emotions aren’t involved. And then, if we agree to proceed, we send this information to the President of the team involved.

I highly suspect that this approach will amount to nothing at the other team. The coach can easily argue that the report is false or taken out of context, and realistically the President of that team would probably require a lot more evidence to take any action. And I sincerely hope that this approach won’t have repercussion on us.

Ideally, we should have a sports-wide system for dealing with these types of issues, as well as some guidelines over what is considered abuse. This might give other coaches the confidence to report abuse when they encounter it without risking their own careers.


I welcome suggestions as to how to handle this, whether we should be handling this at all, and if coaches should be prevented from doing anything when we witness any type of abuse.

15 thoughts on “What Should We Do When We Observe Verbal Abuse By Other Coaches?

  1. In response to your article about perceived abuse by fellow coaches, I believe that it is the right and responsibility of all sports professionals to behave in a way which supports young athletes and that the type of behaviour you describe is anything but. As such, there should be a climate of nurturing and support at meets and not bullying or abuse, both of which are contra to the policies of safeguarding we all sign up to ( certainly in the UK) when we take on our roles.
    Any coach who operates against these principles does not, in my opinion, deserve to be allowed the privilege of working with children and should not be trusted to do so. I would therefore have no hesitation of reporting them to the governing body and would expect action to be taken against them.

    1. Thanks for your comment Sandra. I agree completely, but one of the problems we have is that it’s such a subjective matter. I think this was clearly abuse, but others may disagree. And Swim Ontario’s Coaches Code of Conduct says I shouldn’t criticize another coach in public. This makes it a subjective and forbidden issue. I think by forcing this into the light of day, hopefully we can find ways to identify verbal abuse, and then to allow mechanisms to address it.

  2. First, I’m very glad that you recognized right off the bat that “verbal abuse” is subject to a pretty wide range of definitions. Which makes the question of whether something constitutes verbal abuse much like the classic military tactics question, to which the answer is: It depends on the situation. So, I think your decision criteria is about as good as it gets – you know it when you see it. (Although, I fear that leaves the door a little too wide open these days to frivolous complaints. . . but let’s assume for the sake of argument here that you’re not a fragile snowflake who thinks we all deserve a ribbon just for showing up and that occasionally some criticism – even in public – is acceptable.)

    So, once you’ve identified the situation as inappropriately harsh, what to do? First, I’m very curious why there’s a rule that says you can’t publicly criticize a coach but the rule doesn’t provide similar protection to swimmers. Seems like that might address at least some of this. But, barring a rule change, there’s nothing which says you can’t address the coach or swimmer as long as you’re not being critical, right? So, just as a hypothetical possible response to the situation you described, how about something like this: You wait for a break and make an excuse to insert yourself into the situation and then interject some sort of compliment or sympathetic remark like, “Hey, that might not have been your best race but, wow! that was an amazing starting dive!” Or, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you (swimmer) that I had a race just like that myself once. It happens to all of us.”

    A little trite-sounding, I admit. But, this will – hopefully – distract the offending coach and may help them realize that they’ve sort of lost control while giving them a discrete opportunity to get themselves back in check. And, of course, it will hopefully also help the kid realize that someone on a par with their coach has their back and the whole world doesn’t think the kid is a complete loser. You may have to use a little creative fiction to come up with a fitting remark, especially if you didn’t actually see the kid swim or whatever, but who’s to know? Just be sure you aren’t so specific that you’re obviously “fibbing.”

    Of course, even though you haven’t directly confronted the coach, there’s also the possibility that the coach will divert their attention to you, in which case you apparently have some protection under the standing rules. And, as a minimum, you’ve got the coach off of the kid’s back.

    1. Thanks Jerry. Fascinating idea. I may have to try that. It would certainly be a shock to the coach, especially when I don’t know them. But maybe that shock will jumpstart a conversation where I can respectively express my concern.

      Great comment!

  3. I’ve overheard meet management sometimes talking about issues they see as well, not sure if they ever follow through or what their process would be but I think not enough is being done. But Rick calling people out is uncomfortable and no one wants to feel uncomfortable……. I’m kidding of course no change without challenge, call them out. I think the tough part is determining where the line is, sometimes it’s obvious when a coach is bullying an athlete but sometimes what I might find overly aggressive and not positive another club might be cool with it. Your blog is always a great read.

    1. Thanks Chris. But here’s a question. Will SwOn have my back if they get a complaint that I was criticizing a coach in public, and especially in front of their swimmers? I have a suspicion that my criticism would become the focal point, and the initiating abuse would be lost.

      1. Yep. Sadly, that’s always how it seems to play out. I always told my kids when they were in school to pick their fights carefully if someone provoked them physically and to make any defensive moves count because it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll be the one who gets in trouble over it.

  4. I see the validity of all your points made and the various conflicts between coaches, meet managers, Club boards, etc. The biggest challenge I see is that almost everyone involved has a conflict of interest of some kind and many who volunteer, while doing so for well-intended purposes, will avoid tough situations that could arise by addressing these types of issues. Here is a suggestion – hire a third party service provider that will receive and detail/triage any safety-related complaints and protect the identity of the complainant. Types of issues that could surface could range from verbal abuse to physical abuse. The third party would present the issue in an anonymous way to a Swim Ontario designated group that could include a Swim Ontario employee executive, parent and former (non-active) coach who would then be empowered to investigate accordingly. While I’ve not seen this in amateur sports, it does exist in some companies so employees have a way to “whistle-blow”. Yes, there is a cost to this but at risk is the safety of our swimmers (and coaches, etc.). Furthermore, we have seen proven violations that have led to criminal and swim-related sanctions so the risk is real.

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment, Swimparent. You’ve done a great job of articulating a potential process for what I was searching for in my post. The anonymous aspect is especially important as many coaches on deck are young and/or female (including some of my assistant coaches), and the power dynamic involved in critiquing a male coach on deck definitely doesn’t work in their favour. I will be contacting Swim Ontario to gauge their interest in getting involved, and I’ll keep your idea in mind when I do so.

  5. HI Rick:

    This is both a troubliing and thorny area. My best advice is if there appears to be evidence, those witnessing need to act on it, which means to report it. A descriptions of incident and those involved, what was said, who said what, etc is great. And, where the line was crossed. Obviously context will help. Parents, coaches, officials, and swimmers shodul be informed if they are abusive or being abused there is a way to report it. It wil probably take a few iterations beffore the reporting instrument is correct and everyone comfortable with it. And, you described yours, but if something better is out there and you see it, DO NOT hesitate to ask for permission to use it with a citation to those tha gave it to you. Where does the report go, and what is the process for response to you AND to the coach who was observed. In the US we have due process, which means anyone accused has the right to present evidence they did not do that. I have to presuem in the US, that woud likely be handled by SafeSport or with the LCS. What process would be used in Canada and its provinces, or will be remain confined to Ontario province? As my own anecdote, I was presdient of a soccer club and we had a parent /coach abusing a ref. We assigned 5 board members to the next game to review and observe. I was mulling over when to make the phone call, when lo and behold, the coach approached me in the parking lot at the local grocery store. He did not leave happy. I handed him our assessments, and the previous incident and said, “You will not be coaching in this league again.” be taht as it may, probably gthe majority of what is seen may lack context, but once alerted any club could assign folks to observe, including officials to verify the reports. We’re not talking secret agent, but good people who respect the sport and everyone in it. In my experience, any “discussions” are usually heard by someone. I suspect what will happen is the nuber of incident reports will increase, then drop off as folks either start toeing the line, leave as the behavior is not tolerated, or try and go underground, which is tough.

    1. Thanks Dan. Yes, I’m hoping this process, which doesn’t seem to exist that I’m aware of, can make this type of reporting much easier. As it stands, people generally just keep quiet because there’s no avenue forward other than confrontation. And I’m trying to develop something that can work for my younger female assistant coaches who might not want to take on an older male coach.

  6. I am a parent of a swimmer I would be furious if I saw a coach do this to a child. I’d have no problem stepping in but alas I’m not allowed on deck. Therefore that takes the parents out of the equation of acting upon this behavior. Coaches and staff are all that is left to witness and address his digressions. You’d hope this girl would explain to her parents what has been happening but maybe she hasn’t. I understand the thought behind the rule of not talking in a negative way about a coach but this is totally different. You don’t just Iike his coaching style, you have an issue with him abusing a child. That is the most important thing to speak up about. I am a nurse and see quite a bit of emotionally charged exchange. For years I’ve done the same thing and it works within the confines of work and personal life to quickly diffuse the emotion. I lightly touch the person’s shoulder or elbow. I look at them with the kindest most gentle look I can muster at the time and 99% of the time it either diffuses the situation or turns the anger toward me. Both of which is a huge win. I’m not sure if you are close enough to do this as you discussed a table but I can’t tell you how often this immediately shuts down a person acting inappropriately. Almost like it grounds them. I often will circle back later and make a light comment about how I get upset sometime also but we don’t want to treat people like that bla bla bla. It may be an appropriate time for you to say how it is perceived by people around him and you’d hate for people to judge him by that behavior

    Verbal abuse is real and lasting and needs to be addressed especially with younger children. I see it everywhere and it is very sad.

    Keep up the excellent work! I enjoy reading your articles.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Jane. Excellent points, and you understand my concerns completely. I should have pointed out in my post that we’re trying to develop a process that can work for my assistant coaches as well, some of whom are young females. I strongly suspect that expecting them to critique an older male coach might be very difficult for them. To my shame, At a meet years ago, I didn’t address a very large, very angry male head coach who was screaming at his swimmers, simply because he looked to be completely out of control. To make things more ridiculous, the meet was hosted by his team, he was completely visible from the stands, and they did nothing about his behaviour. In any case, this post generated some great ideas from readers, and I have some great ideas to move forward with.

  7. I’m not a coach, swimmer, or parent.

    If one of the consequences of this rule is that coaches are afraid to act when they see inappropriate behavior, then I think the rule needs to be changed. It’s more urgent to protect athletes — especially kids — from abuse than to protect coaches from public criticism.

    I am glad you are thinking about this and trying to find a way to address these situations as they arise.

    1. Thanks for the excellent comment, Em. Yes, I will be following up with Swim Ontario about this type of situation. As I mentioned in the post, none of the coaches I’ve talked to on deck know how they should handle this type of coach-swimmer interaction. Lots of suggestions, but over the years I’ve noticed that everybody just turns a blind eye towards this conduct.

      If Swim Ontario gets back to me with something useful, I will write a follow up post.

      Thanks again!

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