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.
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.