“It Was the Worst Time in My Life”: The Effects of Emotionally Abusive Coaching on Female Canadian National Team Athletes

in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal
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  • 1 University of Toronto

This study sought to explore the long-term effects of emotionally abusive coaching on female athletes. Although the long-term effects of childhood emotional abuse are well-documented in the child abuse literature, this question has not been explored empirically in the domain of sport, an environment in which emotionally abusive coaching practices are known to be common. In various prevalence studies of athlete maltreatment in sport internationally, emotional abuse is the most frequently experienced form and yet the long-term implications of these experiences are not well-understood. This study involved interviews of eight retired, elite, female Canadian National Team members. The findings revealed that athletes reportedly experienced different effects depending on whether they were in their competitive careers, in the retirement transition, or in post-transition life. All of the athletes required professional psychological assistance to help them recover from their emotionally abusive experiences; for some, this process continued for six years post-retirement. The effects described by the athletes resembled the symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suggesting an important line of future research. Until coaching practices become abuse-free, these findings also indicate a clear need for the provision of psychological supports and resources for athletes during and post-athletic career.

For far too many athletes, sport participation is not the “inherently good” experience so often advocated (Vertommen, Kampen, Schipper-van Veldhoven, Uzieblo, & Van Den Eede, 2018). Rather than being an environment which fosters holistic health and life skills, sport can be an environment in which abuse occurs and is allowed to perpetuate either through normalization, the over-prioritization of performance outcomes, or the failure of bystanders to intervene (Breger, Holman, & Guerrero, 2019; Nite & Nauright, 2019). Recently, several high-profile international cases of athlete abuses have raised concerns in scholarly and public domains alike. The USA Gymnastics case involving team physician Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of gymnasts (Hobson & Boren, 2018), the United Kingdom’s case involving sexual abuse of young male soccer players by Barry Bennell (Taylor, 2018), and Canada’s national team alpine skiing coach, Bertrand Charest, who sexually abused his female athletes (Donovan, 2019), are some of many examples.

Stemming from the child abuse literature, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect are covered by the term “maltreatment.” Crooks and Wolfe (2007) defined maltreatment as “voluntary acts that result in, or have the potential to result in, physical or psychological harm” (p. 3). While it has been acknowledged that several forms of maltreatment occur in sport, the majority of media and research attention to-date has focused on the sexual abuse of athletes by authority figures (Parent & Fortier, 2018). Despite the predominant focus on sexual abuse of athletes, research consistently indicates that it is the emotional abuse of athletes that is the most frequently reported form of abuse (Alexander, Stafford, & Lewis, 2011; Kerr, Willson, & Stirling, 2019; Vertommen et al., 2016). Moreover, Kerr et al. (2019) found that female athletes reported significantly more experiences of emotional harm than male athletes.

Stirling and Kerr (2008a) defined emotional abuse as “a pattern of deliberate non-contact behaviors by a person within a critical relationship that has the potential to be harmful” (p. 178). Emotionally abusive behaviors can be organized into three categories: verbal behaviors (e.g., demeaning, humiliating, insulting, or belittling comments), physical behaviors (e.g., throwing objects in anger or frustration), or actively ignoring an athlete (e.g., due to poor performance) (Stirling & Kerr, 2008b). A recent prevalence study of maltreatment in Canadian sport indicated that the most commonly experienced form of harm by national-level athletes was emotional with 59% of current athletes and 62% of retired athletes (retired within the past 10 years) reporting at least one form of emotionally harmful behavior (Kerr et al., 2019). When asked about experiences of emotionally harmful practices on a repeated basis, 17% of current athletes and 23% of retired athletes reported these experiences. These results are consistent with recent prevalence studies conducted in the United Kingdom (U.K.; Alexander et al., 2011), Belgium, and The Netherlands (Vertommen et al., 2016), finding emotional harm was the most commonly experienced type of harm.

One of the challenges in preventing and addressing emotional abuse in sport is that many of the behaviors are considered to be normal, expected, and/or required coaching methods. In an analysis of 19 popular sport films, Kerr, Stirling, and Bandealy (2016) found 346 instances of coaches depicting emotionally abusive behaviors, reinforcing the notion that these behaviors are used as a standard coaching tool. Moreover, athletes who experience emotional abuse often label these behaviors as normal, accepted, and simply part of the sport culture (Stafford, Alexander, & Fry, 2015; Stirling & Kerr, 2008b). An athlete in a study of emotional abuse by Stafford et al. (2015) explained that these behaviors were seen by their coaches as tactics for character building, and that these behaviors were “drilled into you.” However, the athlete also acknowledged that “there was something that wasn’t right, because that was the only place I ever got treated like that” (Stafford et al., 2015, p. 134). From the perspective of the coaches, Stirling and Kerr (2013) found that coaches used emotionally abusive practices either for expressive reasons or when they lost emotional control, or for instrumental reasons as they believed these practices were effective in getting the best out of the athletes. Emotionally abusive behaviors may be justified by coaches as part of the common methodology that is ‘win-at-all-costs’, particularly because coaches’ careers are dependent upon performance outcomes (Jacobs, Smits, & Knoppers, 2017).

Athletes most frequently report that coaches are the perpetrators of emotionally harmful behaviors (Kerr et al., 2019), although the acceptance of emotionally abusive behaviors is also seen within other positions of power in sport, such as sport administrators. For example, Jacobs et al. (2017) found that high-performance directors accepted these behaviors as part of coaching, even though they had acknowledged that some of their coaches’ actions could be seen as inappropriate. Moreover, the directors rarely intervened when witnessing these behaviors (Jacobs et al., 2017). Even parents of elite athletes appear to be socialized in ways to also accept these emotionally harmful behaviors as an expected and necessary part of developing athletic talent (Kerr & Stirling, 2012). The normalization of emotional abuse in sport has become a challenge in rectifying the behavior because it is so engrained in the sport culture.

Interestingly, the retirement process out of sport seems to disrupt athletes’ acceptance of emotionally harmful practices as a normal and necessary part of elite training. For example, Kerr and Dacyshyn (2000) found that athletes had normalized emotionally abusive coaching behaviors when they were competing, but after being removed from the sport environment, these same behaviors were relabeled as abusive and harmful. Moreover, harmful coaching behaviors impacted athletes during the retirement process. Athletes who experienced emotional harm reported increased difficulties in their transition because they were dealing with feelings of bitterness, regret, anger, and needing to take time to heal (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000). The challenges that athletes experience with the retirement transition from sport are well-documented, including negative social, psychological, and behavioral impacts (Cavallerio, Wadey, & Wagstaff, 2017; Côté, Strachan, & Fraser-Thomas, 2007; Knights, Sherry, & Ruddock-Hudson, 2016); however, in the study by Kerr and Dacyshyn (2000), it was suggested that retirement transition difficulties may be exacerbated when emotionally abusive coaching practices have been experienced. This proposition has yet to be fully explored empirically at this time.

Despite the acceptance and commonplace nature of emotionally abusive behaviors in sport, preliminary evidence has shown that athletes experience adverse effects to being emotionally abused. Athletes have related the emotional abuse they endured by their coaches to increased anxiety, anger, depression, discontent, and eating disorders (Stirling & Kerr, 2013), in addition to a loss of motivation for the sport (Yabe et al., 2019). These findings are consistent with those of the child abuse literature which has found emotional abuse increases the likelihood of eating disorders, decreased self-esteem, depression, psychiatric treatment, and suicide (Mullen, Martin, Anderson, Romans, & Herbison, 1996).

Although preliminary evidence in sport suggests a wide range of negative impacts to athletes as a result of experiencing emotionally abusive coaching practices, the long-term effects of emotional abuse have not been explored in the sport domain. Child abuse literature has demonstrated that the effects of abuse are long withstanding and continue to influence the victim well after the abuser has been removed (Arata, Langhinrichsen-Rohling, & Farrill-Swails, 2005; Lansford et al., 2003); however, this has not been explored in sport. It may be possible that the findings from the child abuse literature apply to sport or perhaps there are qualities of the sport environment or the athletes themselves that account for differential effects. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore the longer-term effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices. More specifically, in this study we sought to explore the effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices on female athletes over the course of retirement from sport including their time as competitive athletes to their lives post-retirement. Female athletes were the focus of this study given the evidence from outside of sport that girls and women face more gender-based violence than boys and men (Ellsberg, 2006) and the evidence from sport that female athletes reportedly experience more emotional abuse than male athletes (Kerr et al., 2019).

Methods

This study was approached from a constructivist perspective, which posits reality is co-constructed by the researcher and the participants (Bunniss & Kelly, 2010; Green & Thorogood, 2009). This perspective follows a relativist ontology, in which reality is presumed to be dependent on individuals’ experiences (Illing, 2013), and subjectivist epistemology, meaning there are multiple interpretations of reality (Bunniss & Kelly, 2010). This perspective was appropriate for this study because of the focus on understanding athletes’ subjective experiences with their coaches and their perspectives on the culture within their sport. Moreover, it recognizes that every athlete may have her own unique experience and that emotional abuse is not necessarily experienced or interpreted in the same way by every athlete. Additionally, it recognizes that the effects of abuse may be different for each participant.

Participants

A total of eight retired female Canadian National Team athletes were recruited for this study from three different sports, which included individual and team sports. Participants competed in their sports for an average of 14 years. The age of participants ranged from 24–29 years of age. Five participants competed in the Olympic Games, the other three had competed in Pan-American Games and World Championships. Elite athletes were chosen for this study because previous research on emotional abuse has indicated an increased prevalence at higher levels of sport (Alexander et al., 2011Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Vertommen et al., 2016). Female athletes were recruited because females have been shown to be at a greater risk for abuse in sport compared to male athletes and have reported significantly more experiences of emotional abuse than male athletes (Kerr et al., 2019). Athletes had retired from their sport within two to six years before the time of the interviews, and the average time since retirement was 4.5 years. Retired athletes were chosen because previous researchers have reported that athletes normalize their sport experiences while in the sport context but provide more reflective descriptions of their sport experiences once retired (Kerr & Dacyshyn, 2000). Further, athletes who reportedly experienced emotionally abusive coaching practices were recruited.

Procedure

Upon approval from the University of Toronto’s human ethics review board, participants were recruited through social media platforms. Participants were required to sign a letter of consent prior to the interview. Semi-structured interviews were conducted, lasting between 40 and 90 minutes, with an average interview length of 61 minutes. One-time semi-structured interviews were chosen to provide a starting point to explore the longer-term effects of emotional abuse, an area that has not been previously empirically examined. The interview began with introductory prompts to establish rapport, including asking athletes to “Tell me about your experiences as an elite athlete,” “Tell me why you retired from elite sport,” and “Please describe some of the positive and negative aspects of your sport experience.” After the introductory portion of the interview, more specific prompts and questions about potential effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices were posed, such as, “Please tell me about some of behaviors that your coach used that made you feel badly about yourself/were hurtful,” “How did these behaviors make you feel?”, and “What has been the impact of those coaching behaviors?” Given the potential for these questions to elicit emotional distress, participants were assured of their rights to decline the answering of any questions they wished, to pause the interview, or to end the interview without consequence. In addition, all participants were provided with a list of psychological resources and supports at the end of the interview. At the completion of the interview, participants were asked if they had any recommendations for other athletes who may be interested in participating in this study. If suggestions were given, athletes were reminded that their own participation was confidential and would not be shared with future participants. Participants were assigned pseudonyms at the start of the interview to ensure anonymity through the research process. Given that many of the athletes were Olympians and could therefore be readily identifiable, the sports will not be named throughout the result section in order to protect the anonymity of the participants.

Data Analysis

Interviews were recorded, with permission from the participants, and transcribed verbatim. To ensure the rigor of the data, the interviewer (second author) maintained self-awareness of her biases and assumptions throughout the data collection and analysis phases through memos and journal writing. The interviewer was also a former elite athlete and therefore was sensitive to the topic and the participants’ experiences.

A reflexive thematic analysis was conducted (Braun & Clarke, 2019). The intention of a reflexive thematic analysis is that there is an active interaction between the data and the researchers to allow for a thorough investigation and producing a reflective, in-depth analysis of the data (Braun & Clarke, 2019). The thematic analysis included immersion in the data, generating initial codes, identifying themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and producing a final report (Braun & Clake, 2006). The reflexive analysis enabled the data to be interpreted and presented by the researchers in a temporal timeline, while also generating the themes on the effects of emotional abuse.

Results

Athletes reported a variety of ways in which they were impacted by emotional abuse in sport, including negative psychological effects, negative effects on their social lives, and negative impacts on their relationships with sport. More specifically, athletes reflected that while they were in sport, they experienced negative psychological wellbeing and mental health (e.g., depressed, anxious, unhappy, fearful, hurt), decreased confidence, changes in sport performance, questioning of their involvement in sport, and drop-out from sport. Moreover, once athletes had retired, effects of emotional abuse included a dissociation from sport, difficulty forming new relationships, a propensity for engaging in abusive relationships, and seeking professional help. Athletes discussed an eventual acceptance and reconciliation of their experiences; however, lingering effects still persisted even 5–6 years after retirement. The athletes’ accounts of the effects of the emotional abuse indicated that their experiences shifted across time and were clearly demarcated according to three different phases. Specifically, they spoke about the effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices pre-retirement or when the athletes were still actively competing and experiencing emotional abuse. They then described effects throughout the retirement transition which occurred after the athletes stopped competing and were removed from the sport environment, but remained identified as an athlete and had not yet committed to a new endeavor. Finally, the athletes referred to a post-retirement phase which was characterized by a self-reported conclusion to the retirement transition and settling into a new, non-sport path. As the athletes referred to the effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices as differing across these three phases, we honored their disclosures by organizing the results section according to the reported effects of emotional abuse in each of these phases.

Pre-Retirement

Athletes reported that being in an emotionally abusive sport environment had a negative impact on their psychological well-being while they were in competitive sport. More specifically, athletes described feelings of being emotionally hurt by their coaches’ emotionally abusive behaviors, being fearful and anxious, nervous, unhappy, depressed, with occasional suicide ideation. Lindsey claimed that the most hurtful behaviors of her coach came from the specific words her coach used.

. . . there’s screaming and yelling and then there’s screaming and yelling in a totally different way. . . . I wouldn’t even say that yelling is necessarily a big element, it’s more the words that are used. . . . A lot of the stuff was really hurtful for me and my experience of what was said was not said in a screaming voice. . . . I remember the most hurtful thing that [my coach] ever said to me she said to me one-on-one privately on purpose when no-one could hear.

Moreover, athletes discussed having a sense of nervousness, fear, and unhappiness as a result of their training environment. Serena described her feelings about her being at training:

It was a tainted environment. It was kind of like there was always something in the air, something was always lurking, you never knew what you were walking into when you came [to training]. . . . I was always nervous; I was always scared that something would go wrong.

Similarly, Kaitlyn expressed that, “I had knots in my stomach every morning because I didn’t know what kind of mood [my coach] would be in, what she would say to me or to my teammates.” Athletes reported that these emotions often resulted from the unpredictability of the coaches’ behaviors.
The emotional abuse athletes experienced also impacted their self-confidence. Serena, who consistently experienced emotional abuse from her coach, stated:

I was constantly in fear, in fear that I was not good enough, fear that I was, you know, not pretty enough or not thin enough, or that I would be kicked off the team for one reason or another. That feeling was kind of spread throughout my entire, every aspect of my life. I wasn’t as happy, I was kind of, more reserved, nothing seemed to go right.

Athletes also discussed how their mental health was significantly impacted in a negative way, describing symptoms of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. Eating disorders and body image issues were discussed by many athletes in this study. Emily recalled how her weight became an aspect she could control to satisfy her coaches: “I got determined to make the coaches happy. I felt like that was my purpose was to make them happy I had to reach that goal weight. So, I almost became obsessed with losing weight and meeting my goal weight.” Adrienne shared one scenario where the emotional abuse she experienced led to suicidal ideation:

I locked myself in the bathroom and like, I took a bath, and I told myself that I could stay there forever, like I don’t want to go back. I was literally locked in the bathroom for maybe two hours, I didn’t want to go back out there. I was so scared. And that’s about the time that I had really really hard ideas, like if I took my own life right now, like who would notice, you know. So that’s the point, it had gotten really bad. But then you know . . . I came back home, and everything was okay again, well, back to normal.

Emotional abuse was also discussed in relation to their sport performances. Although the predominant view was that performance suffered as a result of emotionally abusive coaching practices, some referred to positive impacts. Kaitlyn, for example, explained that there were both positive and negative outcomes as a result of emotionally abusive coaching practices:

But I will say that having a coach that was a bit of a bully like that, definitely didn’t do me any favors. It definitely did not help in any way, shape, or form how I felt about myself, my performances, or the way I looked. But in the same breath I will say that, that might have made me work harder. I’m not sure, but I feel like always looking for this approval of this person also made me work extremely hard. [I] probably tried harder than I ever would have.

However, most of the participants associated the abuse experienced with hindered athletic performance. Lindsey described it as being “destructive to our whole team.” She also reflected that her teammates would “come into training and see her [coach] and start shaking, and obviously make so many mistakes because they were so scared of her.” Similarly, Kaitlyn described the impact emotional abuse had on her performance saying, “It made me very anxious all the time, and I think that’s just not something that is good for performance.” Serena also claimed that the emotional abuse she experienced influenced her emotional state which in turn impacted her performance, which according to her, became a vicious cycle:

[The] response to the yelling, to the somewhat humiliating, to the scare tactics, that’s not something I responded to. So, when that happened to me I would recoil and I would make more mistakes, so then there would be more humiliation, so obviously that was not helpful.

Not only was emotional abuse described as being detrimental to performance, it also reportedly led athletes to question their participation in the sport. Kaitlyn reported, “Honestly there were days where I remember thinking I wouldn’t make it, that nothing would make what I was going through worth it. I didn’t even think that going to the Olympics was worth it.” Emily shared one of her experiences of emotionally abusive coaching and the effects it had on her:

I’m okay with a coach yelling at me during practice and training environment. But when you’re in a competition warm-up, you’re about to compete in 20 minutes . . . and your coach is yelling at you because you can’t do [your sport], you’re not worth being here, you shouldn’t be on the team. I don’t understand why breaking someone down at that point is a good idea. And I think that’s when I was just like, “What am I even doing here?” And even when I was [performing in the competition] I was just zoning out, and being like, well what’s the point?

Questioning sport participation was commonly mentioned by athletes after they experienced emotional abuse. For example, Kaitlyn described:

I remember coming home at night and crying myself to sleep every day because I knew I had to do it all over again the next day. So, there were some really not great times in my life where I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing, and why I was putting myself through it?

The emotional abuse was also reportedly one of the reasons many athletes chose to retire. Lindsey explained that her reason for removing herself from the sport was “that one of our coaches was just completely off the walls, just so unprofessional and I just couldn’t be in that environment anymore nor did I want to support it in any way by being involved.”

During the Retirement Transition

All athletes discussed that the transition was a very long and difficult process. Jessie expressed:

I just felt relieved because I didn’t have to deal with all the negative comments and all that I got from my coaches, so, at first, I was very relieved, and then obviously you kind of have that gap where you don’t really know what to do.

Many athletes described changes to their moods and interactions with others during the transition process. For example, Serena offered the following:

[My mom] sort of thinks I was just a shell of who I was . . . and then after [I retired] she just saw the shift in my personality that she realized, wow, it wasn’t just because she was a solemn teenager, it was because the sport just had such an impact on her day-to-day.

Athletes frequently discussed that once they left the sport, they tried to avoid thinking or talking about their sport to get away from their pain. Serena summarized her attempts to distance herself from the sport, but how this eventually transitioned into a more positive reflection of her time as an athlete:

Once I was no longer in the sport I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to think about it, I wanted to escape. I didn’t even want to acknowledge my existence in the sport for a long time, for a couple years. [After some time] I was like why is this a side of me that I’m trying to forget? Why is this something that I’m trying to hide? But it took time . . . a couple years probably.

Moreover, athletes discussed that their emotionally abusive experiences in sport impacted their personal relationships once they had retired, which included both maintaining existing relationships and creating new ones. Athletes reportedly found it difficult to meet new people after retirement, which they associated with not wanting to talk about their past experiences of emotional abuse in sport. Emily reflected on these challenges:

When I retired and then I was meeting new people, I kind of froze each time. . . . Meeting new people and [explaining my past] I was trying to find a way that was not going to make me cry, and then have to explain, well, why am I crying to you, a complete stranger?

Similarly, Adrienne discussed challenges with meeting new people:

Sometimes it feels hard for me to discover a new place or meet new people. . . . My confidence has been so affected all these years because I was being told that I couldn’t do stuff that now, yeah. It’s something I have to deal with every day, you know to do something that scares me or overcome these little fears and gradually build my confidence back.

Emotional abuse was also linked to challenges in romantic relationships. Lindsey reflected on her first relationship outside of sport and how there were similarities with how she was treated in sport and how she allowed herself to be treated in her relationship:

My first ever real relationship . . . was a terrible disaster and it just was because it became an extremely emotionally abusive dynamic. It was almost like that was the environment that I was familiar with and so I just kind of fell into it because that was the environment of my relationships. You know, it’s just when you’ve been treated a certain way for so long that’s just what you’re used to and that’s what you think you deserve.

Mental health challenges persisted during the retirement process as well. For example, eating disorder symptomology continued during this time. One athlete recalled “Even to talk about the eating stuff, it definitely affected me after I retired. For like the whole year after, I was still weighing myself every other day, so crazy. So, well not crazy but I call myself, that crazy. So, I think I should have seen someone sooner.” All of the participants in this study sought professional help either during their sport career or after they had retired. Lindsey expressed, “thank goodness I still had a connection with my sport psychologist, because she actually totally saved my life at one point.” Natalie described her feelings of needing help during this transition:

So, I think I should have seen someone sooner. But I didn’t have someone from the organization to help me transition, so I didn’t know what I needed. I didn’t know what tools would help me move forward, I think that’s what made it really hard when I retired, was that there was no help.

Athletes frequently discussed their realizations after sport about the way they had been treated was not okay when they had left sport, but they had previously been normalized within their sport environment. Jessie, for example, recalled this realization through conversations with her boyfriend and friends:

Like I would talk to my friends about it after, my boyfriend and he was like “Are you kidding me? That’s ridiculous.” . . . In the moment we were just so used to it that we didn’t even realize how messed up it was.

Emily shared her journey during her psychological care:

I discovered a lot of things with therapy about how I was treated and how it actually wasn’t right at all. And I just didn’t realize it. I wasn’t aware that like, that’s not how a coach is actually supposed to treat you. . . . I am more able to talk about it now, which is better. So, I think it was just a hard process to get over.

After Retirement

Athletes identified a new feeling of confidence as an indicator that they had successfully navigated the retirement transition and had entered a new, far more settled phase. For example, Natalie expressed, “I know it’s 6 years after the fact, but I feel more confident now in myself than when I [did sport]. So, confidence is a big thing that I feel like I’ve achieved in the past few years.” She continued:

I’ve definitely learned to love myself, and who I am . . . I have nothing wrong with myself. I don’t compare myself to others, it’s just like a whole different world. When I think back to what I was in, how I felt at the time . . . it’s hard to believe.

Self-love was something many of the athletes discovered after retirement. Lindsey reflected, “I’ve also really focused on myself and now I can say that I’m like, I am very insightful of myself as a person, and like I am very loving of myself, like that changed.”

Similarly, Adrienne echoed this shift:

I would say I know who I am, I know what I like and what I don’t like. I know what I want to do later. It took me a long time to discover that, but I know what I want to do. And I’m very much happier. I’ve made my peace with it . . . but it took time, you know? It takes time to work on yourself and after all of these years of distress, it just, it takes time.

While confidence, self-love, and re-formulating an identity were some of the positive aspects that came out of the retirement process, many athletes acknowledged they still felt lingering effects from their experiences of emotional abuse. Adrienne explained, “that’s what stays with you after sport, all of the psychological issues you get from the sport, it just follows you into real life.” Athletes also discussed the persistence of mental health challenges, for example one athlete described continuing treatment for her eating disorder: “My eating disorder, now I’ve been struggling with it for a few years now and I’ve decided to see a nutritionist who is also a psychologist and that really really helps me.”

Athletes also shared that their memories of sport still can trigger negative emotions. For example, Emily explained, “I always still think of it when somebody calls me by my last name, I always just like flash back to [my coach] yelling my name in [my sport environment].” Memories of sport were also reported to still be tainted by their abusive experiences. Serena stated, “I think for the most part my experience was good . . . but there were a couple of events that were not as good, and those ones tend to stay a little bit stronger in my mind.” She also remembered the physical reactions she felt in those moments. “I don’t remember the worst [comments] that were specifically said. I remember feelings, that feeling of my stomach turning, and thinking ‘wow, what a fail that was’ and I’m laughing now, but I was definitely not laughing back then.” Similarly, Emily shared, “my heart sinks whenever I think about that time. But it’s for a shorter amount of time. Before it would take me like a week to get over it, again. But I think, now it’s just like, okay.” Adrienne shared, “I maybe have a few good memories, but the big ones are so, they are so bad and so tainted and still clear in my head, that they overcome all the good memories. I still have nightmares about things that happened. They are still very vicious in my mind.”

Athletes also discussed how there was a shift in perspective, for example, Emily shared, “I think that it’s turned into more of an accomplishment versus like a terror point in my life. . . . I mean it still brings up the issues every time someone like says it. But I’m a little more lenient.” Serena described how with time her feelings about her experience have improved:

I kind of let go of it over time. . . . When it happened, I was mortified, horrified, angry, just like anyone when they are young and something happens and it seems like it was the worst thing in the world at that point in time. . . . With time my perspective of my coach changed a little bit, not entirely but a little bit.

Jessie reflected upon her sport experience as follows: “Just everything that I went through, I don’t think that anybody should ever go through that. So, having to do it if I knew what was going to happen . . . I wouldn’t want to put myself through it, because it was the most difficult time in my life.”

Discussion

This study explored the effects that elite, female, retired athletes reportedly experienced as a result of emotionally abusive coaching practices. The athletes reported negative effects over an extended period of time, from their competitive careers throughout the retirement transition and into life post-transition.

During their athletic careers, the athletes recalled that emotionally abusive coaching practices were linked with decreased self-confidence, increased nervousness and fear, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and for some athletes, suicidal thoughts and a need for professional psychological care. These results are consistent with previous findings regarding the effects of emotional abuse in the sport and child abuse literatures (Courtney, Kushwaha, & Johnson, 2008; Kent & Waller, 2000; Stirling & Kerr, 2013; Wright, Crawford, & Del Castillo, 2009). During their time in sport, athletes tended to normalize their experience based upon the observation that emotionally abusive coaching practices were used with everyone. However, many of the athletes eventually recognized that their training environment was not healthy and attributed their decision to retire to their abusive experiences.

Athletes also reported both an increase and decrease in performance after experiencing emotional abusive coaching practices. Performance was reportedly negatively affected due to a cycle of displeasing the coach, which elicited the abusive behaviors, which in turn evoked fear, anxiety, and distraction. These emotions led to an increase in performance errors, which displeased the coach, and so on. On the other hand, because athletes had a fear of displeasing the coach, they reportedly worked harder to try to please their coaches and thus avoid further emotionally abusive behaviors. The finding that athletes reported mixed performance effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices is consistent with previous research on the effects of emotionally abusive sport practices (Stirling & Kerr, 2013). However, these findings challenge the current discourse that advocates for the use of these behaviors to enhance performance and thus view them as accepted—even necessary—coaching practices. Jacobs et al. (2017) found sports administrators allowed their coaches to use these techniques because they are equated with success and that “elite sport is primarily about winning” (p. 131). The mounting evidence that these behaviors do not always elicit an increase in performance, coupled with the significant negative effects of emotional abuse on athletes’ emotional well-being, suggests that future research should explore ways to disrupt the commonly accepted sport discourse that emotionally abusive coaching practices are necessary to build mentally tough athletes and optimize athletic performance.

During the retirement transition, athletes reported mixed psychological experiences. On one hand, they felt relief and happiness to be out of the strenuous and abusive sport environment; however, on the other hand, they had some cognitive dissonance as they began to recognize that their experiences in sport were not as normal as they had believed when they were in the midst of their athletic careers. Often with the assistance of professional psychological care, the athletes gradually came to recognize that the ways in which they were treated by coaches wasn’t right or deserved. Some cognitive disruption appeared to result in this phase in which they were encouraged to recover from the abusive experiences by re-appraising and reflecting upon the behaviors they had previously accepted. Importantly, all of the athletes required professional psychological support to recover from their experiences of emotional abuse, thus indicating the significant impact their coaches’ practices had on them. This finding challenges the common assumption that sport contributes to psychological well-being by building self-confidence and a positive self-image.

The final stage was marked by moving beyond the feelings of disruption and distress experienced during the retirement transition to a stage of acceptance of their previous harmful experiences. During this time, athletes felt more confident and noticed they were more self-assured, and even expressed that they “loved themselves,” which they spoke about as if these were new experiences. However, despite feeling better about themselves, their negative emotions associated with their sport experiences were still embedded deep within them. Athletes spoke about triggers to the elicitation of negative emotional reactions such as being called by their surnames or being asked about their previous Olympic experiences. They were also at the point of reflecting upon their experiences in such a way as to claim that they “would never do it again” if they had known what it would take. The athletes reportedly required, with the help of psychological professionals, between two and six years to process their emotionally abusive sport experiences and reach a point of resolution. Again, this finding highlights that sport does not always contribute in positive ways to mental health.

A novel finding in this study was the impact that experiences of emotional abuse had on interpersonal relationships. Athletes in this study mentioned that familial relations were strained because of the abuse they had experienced and the resulting psychological effects such as depression and eating disorders. Moreover, athletes who had retired had challenges meeting new people, especially when it involved discussing their past lives as athletes. Challenges were also experienced in romantic relationships, with one athlete describing an emotionally abusive dynamic in her relationship which she attributed to being the only dynamic she was familiar with. This finding is congruent with those from the child abuse literature which has indicated a positive relationship between emotional maltreatment as a child and later experiences of dating violence (Wekerle et al., 2009). In fact, Wekerle et al. (2009) emphasize that childhood emotional abuse has a unique effect on adolescent impairments with respect to dating violence. As the effects of emotional abuse perpetuated long after the athlete left the sport environment and the abusive coach, future research should investigate the potential connection between experiencing emotional abuse as an athlete with subsequent emotionally abusive intimate relationships.

Of particular significance is the observation that the negative effects that persisted in the long-term, including intrusive nightmares, physical reactions when remembering experiences (e.g., heart sinking), avoiding thinking or talking of traumatic events (e.g., “I’ve put them in the same box in my head, I haven’t opened it up yet.”), negative self-concept (e.g., feeling worthless), and disruption of relationships are all symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD; Litvin, Kaminski, & Riggs, 2017). While we did not set out to explore this disorder, the effects of emotionally abusive practices described by the athletes clearly resemble the symptoms of PTSD. In hindsight, it would have been interesting to have asked the participants in the current study whether they had received a diagnosis of PTSD from their psychological professional. Several previous studies on child abuse have revealed that of all forms of maltreatment, emotional abuse is the strongest predictor of PTSD (Burns Jackson, & Harding, 2010; Leahy, Pretty, & Tenenbaum, 2008; Wekerle et al., 2009). Research on the effects of maltreatment, both instant and in the long-term, indicate the psychological outcomes of emotional abuse can be just as, if not more, serious than the effects of physical and sexual abuse (Burns et al., 2010; Kent & Waller, 2000; Mullen et al., 1996; Spertus, Yehuda, Wong, Halligan, & Seremetis, 2003; Van Harmelen et al., 2010). Furthermore, Wekerle et al. (2009) suggest that there are unique outcomes associated with emotional abuse and as a result, greater attention should be devoted to this issue. The findings of the current study as well as those from the general child abuse literature suggest that more research needs to be devoted to understanding the effects of emotional abuse in sport and ways to prevent it. Given the similarities between the symptoms reported by the athletes in the current study and those that characterize PTSD, it would be important in future research to explore this possible link further.

The findings of this study have implications for the protection and support of athletes. The current model of safeguarding in sport is focused primarily on prevention and intervention and does not sufficiently consider the support of the athlete once she has been removed from the abusive environment. This study recognizes that the impacts of emotional abuse are sustained long after the athlete is removed from the environment and her coach and that professional psychological care was required to assist athlete’s recovery from abusive experiences. As effects linger long after the experience of abuse is over, we need to think beyond prevention and intervention, to the provision of resources to support athletes after their careers has ended.

Taken together, the findings of this study indicate the need for more research on the long-term effects of abuse in sport, potential diagnoses of PTSD associated with sport experiences, and how to best support athletes through their recovery process. Further, future research should consider the impact of the experiences at each of the three proposed stages and specific interventions and supports tailored to each stage. Given the limitations associated with one-time interviews (McGannon, Smith, Kendellen, & Gonsalves, 2019), future studies could look more in-depth into the nature of these experiences through such methodological approaches as phenomenology, narratives, or case studies. Further, as the use of snowball sampling may have encouraged similarities with this sample, future studies should include a more diverse sample of athletes (e.g., different races, genders, and sports).

From an applied perspective, this study illuminated some of the challenges that athletes are facing within the coach-athlete relationship and the impacts this can have in the long term. Therefore, it is imperative for coaches to become educated on the effects their actions have on their athletes, and to have proper education on positive coaching methods that do not cause harm to their athletes. Moreover, interventions are needed to eradicate these behaviors, including policy changes to decrease normalization and tolerance of such behaviors.

Conclusion

Given the negative effects of emotionally abusive experiences that are well-documented in the child abuse literature, we sought to explore the potential effects of emotionally abusive coaching practices on athletes in sport, an environment in which this question has not previously been explored empirically. Consistent with the conclusions drawn about long-term effects of childhood emotional abuse, the retired, elite, female athletes in the current study reported significant detrimental effects of emotional abuse on their psychological health, including increased fear, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Particularly poignant findings were the negative effects that emotionally abusive coaching practices had on social relationships, that all of the athletes in this sample required professional help to recover from their abusive experiences, and the similarities between the effects reports by the athletes and the symptoms that characterize PTSD. Implications for future research include further study of the long-term effects of emotionally abusive experiences, the potential link between emotional abuse in sport and PTSD, and the different types of supports needed during the athletic career as well as during the post-career recovery process. From an applied standpoint, until the use of emotionally abusive coaching practices is diminished in sport, psychological supports and resources for athletes during and after their careers are needed.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knights, S., Sherry, E., & Ruddock-Hudson, M. (2016). Investigating elite end-of-athletic-career transition: A systematic review. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28(3), 291308. doi:10.1080/10413200.2015.1128992

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The authors are with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Kerr (Gretchen.kerr@utoronto.ca) is corresponding author.
  • Alexander, K., Stafford, A., & Lewis, R. (2011). The experiences of children participating in organized sport in the UK. Edinburgh, UK: Dunedin Academic Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Arata, C.M., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Farrill-Swails, L.O. (2005). Single versus multi-type maltreatment : An examination of the long-term effects of child abuse. Journal of Agression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 11(4), 2952. doi:10.1300/J146v11n04_02

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 11(4), 589597. doi:10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628806

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breger, M., Holman, M., & Guerrero, M. (2019). Re-norming sport for inclusivity: How the sport community has the potential to change a toxic culture of harassment and abuse. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 13, 274289. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2019-0004

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bunniss, S., & Kelly, D.R. (2010). Research paradigms in medical education research. Medical Education, 44(4), 358366. PubMed ID: 20444071 doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03611.x

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burns, E.E., Jackson, J.L., & Harding, H.G. (2010). Child maltreatment, emotion regulation, and posttraumatic stress: The impact of emotional abuse. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 19(8), 801819. doi:10.1080/10926771.2010.522947

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cavallerio, F., Wadey, R., & Wagstaff, C.R.D. (2017). Adjusting to retirement from sport: Narratives of former competitive rhythmic gymnasts. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 9(5), 533545. doi:10.1080/2159676X.2017.1335651

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Côté, J., Strachan, L., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2007). Participation, personal development, and performance through youth sport. In N.L. Holt (Ed.), Positive youth development through sport (pp. 4860). London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Courtney, E.A., Kushwaha, M., & Johnson, J.G. (2008). Childhood emotional abuse and risk for hopelessness and depressive symptoms during adolescence. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 8(3), 281298. doi:10.1080/10926790802262572

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crooks, C., & Wolfe, D. (2007). Child abuse and neglect. In E.J. Mash & R.A. Barkley (Eds.), Assessment of childhood disorders (4th ed., pp. 649684). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Donovan, C. (2019, June 26). Former Olympic skier alleges Alpine Canada failed to protect athletes from Bertrand Charest. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/article-former-olympic-skier-alleges-alpine-canada-failed-to-protect-athletes/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ellsberg, M.C. (2006). Violence against women: A global public health crisis. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 34(1), 14. doi:10.1080/14034940500494941

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gervis, M., & Dunn, N. (2004). The emotional abuse of elite child athletes by their coaches. Child Abuse Review, 13(3), 215223. doi:10.1002/car.843

  • Green, J., & Thorogood, N. (2009). Qualitative methods for health research. In J. Green & N. Thorogood (Eds.), Qualitative methods for health research (pp. 334). London, UK: Sage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hobson, W., & Boren, C. (2018, May 16). Michigan State settles with Larry Nassar victims for $500 million. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2018/05/16/michigan-state-settles-larry-nassar-lawsuits-for-500-million/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Illing, J. (2013). Thinking about research: Theoretical perspectives, ethics and scholarship. In T. Swanwick (Ed.), Understanding medical education: Evidence, theory and practice (2nd ed., pp. 329347). Wiley-Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781118472361.ch24

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jacobs, F., Smits, F., & Knoppers, A. (2017). “You don’t realize what you see!”: The institutional context of emotional abuse in elite youth sport. Sport in Society, 20(1), 126143. doi:10.1080/17430437.2015.1124567

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kent, A., & Waller, G. (2000). Childhood emotional abuse and eating psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 20(7), 887903. PubMed ID: 11057376 doi:10.1016/S0272-7358(99)00018-5

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerr, G., & Dacyshyn, A. (2000). The retirement experiences of elite, female gymnasts. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 12(2), 115133. doi:10.1080/10413200008404218

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerr, G., & Stirling, A. (2012). Parents’ reflections on their child’s experiences of emotionally abusive coaching practices. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24(2), 191206. doi:10.1080/10413200.2011.608413

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerr, G., Stirling, A., & Bandealy, A. (2016). Film depictions of emotionally abusive coach-athlete interactions. Sports Coaching Review, 5(1), 87101. doi:10.1080/21640629.2016.1175149

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerr, G., Willson, E., & Stirling, A. (2019). Prevalence of maltreatment among current and former national team athletes (pp. 151). Retrieved from https://athletescan.com/sites/default/files/images/prevalence_of_maltreatment_reporteng.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knights, S., Sherry, E., & Ruddock-Hudson, M. (2016). Investigating elite end-of-athletic-career transition: A systematic review. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28(3), 291308. doi:10.1080/10413200.2015.1128992

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lansford, J., Dodge, K., Pettit, G., Bates, J., Crozier, J., & Kaplow, J. (2003). A 12-year prospective study of the long-term effects of early child physical maltreatment on psychological, behavioral, and academic problems in adolescents. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 24(1), 8081. doi:10.1097/00004703-200302000-00023

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leahy, T., Pretty, G., & Tenenbaum, G. (2008). A contextualized investigation of traumatic correlates of childhood sexual abuse in Australian athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(4), 366384.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Litvin, J.M., Kaminski, P.L., & Riggs, S.A. (2017). The complex trauma inventory: A self-report measure of posttraumatic stress disorder and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 30(6), 602613. PubMed ID: 29160557 doi:10.1002/jts.22231

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McGannon, K.R., Smith, B., Kendellen, K., & Gonsalves, C.A. (2019). Qualitative research in six sport and exercise psychology journals between 2010 and 2017: An updated and expanded review of trends and interpretations. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. doi:10.1080/1612197X.2019.1655779

    • Crossref
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    • Export Citation
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