Bullying In Coaching Lacrosse

Game Photos: Virginia vs. Stony Brook by Tommy Gilligan

Two recent articles have grabbed the attention of the sports world, and while both tackle the subject of yelling, and bullying, by coaches, the two articles also come to VERY different conclusions. One argued that all the yelling was ineffective, and amounted to bullying. The other argued that the yelling was actually good for kids, and always has been.

Bloomberg’s Harlan Coben wrote That’s Not Coaching. It’s Child Abuse., while Jennifer Wilson (no relation to the author of this article) wrote Old School Coaches – In Defense Of Coaches Who Yell, for Esquire. The two both have strong feelings on the issue, and bring up compelling arguments to support their positions, but who is right?

Is all this YELLING good, or bad, for the kids?

Honestly, it’s hard to say.

In the real world, you will get yelled at. Policer officers may bark orders at you, your boss may hand down some “advice” in a not-so-nice way, or your significant other may really let you have it if you mess up something serious. Prepping kids for yelling, even when it’s not the 100% rational kind, makes, at the very least, some amount of sense. Yelling may not be an ideal motivator, but it is a reality in the world we live in.

On the other hand, one of sport’s great lessons is to treat people with respect, right? We teach this about opponents, refs, and our own teammates. Coaches are supposed to teach their players, and screaming at them all the time does not fall under this teaching expectations umbrella. Teaching, and not yelling, is usually in a coach’s job description, so the latter is obviously not required, even if it can be deemed useful. So how can we even begin to draw a line?

For me, it is pretty simple… There is NO line.

People love to create steadfast rules, and hard guidelines for action. Everyone loves to say what is definably right, and what is known to be wrong, especially in opinion columns. But in my experience, every situation is different, and unique, and sometimes yelling will work, and sometimes it won’t. You see, we’re all snowflakes and…

Ok, I’m not going to get too sappy here. I’ll spare you that. But I will say that no two situations are ever truly alike, and that sometimes, but not always, a little yelling can go a long way. Does it seem like I have selected a total fence-sitter position here? Do you bemoan my inability to say one side is definitively correct?

Well, how about this? Both authors are definitely WRONG.

The press loves to create two-sided stories these days. It’s us vs. them, this vs. that, and everything is shown in black and white. There is no nuance, or grey area; it’s all extremes. In this case, Coben is the extreme of painting yellers as villains and talentless coaches, while Wilson is their apologist. Both writers miss the boat by a couple nautical miles.

Coben is correct when he decries small children being told that they look like they are having sex with their grandmothers. No one should be told that, and definitely not by their coaches. I found that example he cited to be repulsive. But Wilson is also correct that a coach yelling at a kid who is being lazy can help that child achieve, and learn how to achieve in the future. What shocks me is that neither of them can see the other side of what they are espousing.

Coben comes close to creating some caveats, but immediately after, he dedicates a single line of text to “Zero tolerance. None.”, and then writes:

When you call a kid a name or belittle him, that’s abuse. Plain and simple. It should be treated as such. If you cannot coach without screaming, don’t coach. I appreciate how much time and effort it takes. I’ve coached kids, too. But if you can’t do it without tantrums, find something else to do. This is abuse. Parents may not be aware of the long-term effect coaches like these have on their child. Study after study has shown that verbally aggressive language doesn’t motivate. In fact, it harms.

Are parents aware of the effect that NOT getting yelled at, ever, until a child has grown up, can have? Because that is what will come with a Zero Tolerance policy. NO Yelling. That’s what zero tolerance is, by definition. Does “Get back on defense!” also mean “you’re not trying hard enough?” Can that be seen as “belittling a child”? As usual, zero tolerance is not the answer.

Of course then we get to Wilson, and while she does a good job of saying when someone has gone way too far, she also makes some troubling generalizations that I don’t fully understand, especially when she writes:

I am not scared of the coach who lays it all out there, night after night, caring that my kids do their best, not just for themselves, but for the benefit of the whole team. Caring harder than a two-by-four to the face. Caring so hard that it is a real possibility that he will some day blow out that one vein in his neck.

It’s funny, because I feel the same way Wilson does on this one, FOR ME. I am not scared of this coach. I like a coach who cares more than a 2×4 to the face. I like a coach that cares about the team so much he may have a stroke. But I, and Jennifer Wilson… we are not everyone.

There are kids out there who internalize yelling as nothing more than anger. There are kids who shut off to anger and yelling because they have seen so much of it already in their lives. There are kids who need to be hugged, and legitimately cared for out there, and some of them may be on the very teams that Wilson’s kids are on. She assumes that kids everywhere have a great family to go home to. She assumes that athletics is not a release from the pressures of a dangerous life, and that for some, it can be the only place a kid can feel safe. Perhaps she is ignorant to these factors in life, because she certainly doesn’t account for them in her article.

Actually, Coben also seems pretty ignorant to the above issues as well, when he writes:

I’m also not a huge fan of the namby-pamby New Age coaching. If a kid hits a weak grounder and doesn’t run it out, don’t yell, “Good hustle!” But still, that overcompensation is preferable to ones on the other side. There can be nothing approaching abuse directed at a kid.

At least he thinks hand holding could be preferable to berating a kid. I guess it’s a start, but it still shows little compassion for kids in tough situations, or kids who live their lives outside of Coben and Wilson’s immediate sphere.

You know what? Screw it, I am going to get sappy here, because these are kids we are talking about, and not cookie cutter robots. Each one really does need different things from a coach. Some need to be yelled at, and told they run slowly. Others need to be encouraged, even when they fail, simply because NO ONE else in their life is doing so. And countless others need everything in between, and a thousand things we aren’t even discussing.

At the end of the day, it is NOT about whether a coach is a yeller, or calm. It is not about whether a coach berates players, or holds their hand. It is how the coach interacts with each player to make sure they are reaching their potential, and becoming a better member of their team, ALL WHILE BECOMING A BETTER PERSON. It has nothing to do with yelling, or not yelling, and everything to do with nuance.

THAT is what the great coaches all have in common: Nuance. Now if only the sporting press and more parents could pick up on that we might be able to have a truly honest and enlightening conversation for once.


  1. Couldn’t agree more, Connor. It’s all about knowing your players and how they will respond to your cues and directives. In my opinion, certain players need to “get it” every once in a while to keep their focus on the right things, and “giving it” to certain players may shut them down and hurt their pysche and development. It’s all about knowing how to get the most out of each individual player and their individual psychology, as well as tempering one’s demeanor for the situation and case at hand. Black and white rules like “yelling is ALWAYS abuse, no matter the circumstance” and “yelling will always work for EVERYONE” do nothing to prepare kids / young adults for the real world.

    That being said – there’s certainly no need for a verbal assault on a kid’s person or character – we can make the destinction between a player making a characteristically poor play outside of what the team needs him to do and a player being a poor person.

    Coaches who resort to name-calling / assaults on personal character don’t seem to have it, in my opinion. But, then again, there are Coaches at the highest level who resort to it and they seem to do just fine / get the most out of their players who still respect them.

  2. Nice contrast and thoughtful comments, Connor. I tend to agree with you, as long as coaches are responsible about how they act and how they treat the kids in their care. And there is actually social psych and business/leadership research on this sort of thing, comparing?say-a Bob Knight style of leadership vs a Mike Krzyzewski. And (if I remember right) even though Bob Knight got results, the Mike Krzyzewskis of the world tend to come out ahead, and in quantifiable ways beyond just Ws and Ls or National Championships (grad rates, NBA draft picks, professional success outside of basketball, etc). Lastly, there’s also research that shows pretty definitively that people who were praised/rewarded for EFFORT as kids far out-perform in life people who were praised/rewarded for ACHIEVEMENT. This goes totally against our [MY!] natural instinct to scoff at the “everyone gets a trophy!” mentality that youth sports has become. But what the research has found is that if you reward kids when they try, they’ll keep trying. But if you reward kids only when they achieve, they will only do things they know they can achieve (ie., they won’t try something new because they’re afraid of failure). Anyways, good post!

  3. “It is how the coach interacts with each player to make sure they are reaching their potential, and becoming a better member of their team, ALL WHILE BECOMING A BETTER PERSON. It has nothing to do with yelling, or not yelling, and everything to do with nuance.”

    You hit the nail on the head! Each kid/player is different and needs different approaches – I wish more coaches would recognize this and adapt.

  4. An amazingly well written article Connor. You hit all the points perfectly and are absolutely right. Players respond to things differently when being coached, and there really is no black and white rule to coaching behavior, at least where yelling is concerned. There needs to be some kind of understanding and adaptability based on the player and situation.

  5. My High School coach almost forced me to give up the sport. He was a big headed jerk who had favorites on the team. What was worse was that he still thought he was in high school and never grew up. From day one he despised me for no reason (other players knew it) and it was weird because I was a quiet kid. I did whatever he asked of me, but was yelled at and criticized. I decided not to play my senior year because I had given up. Luckily I found a college program where I fit in and was coached by someone who knew how to coach. Unfortunately I had to give up the game due to an injury, but I rather stop playing because of an injury rather than some jerk.

  6. Excellent article. I’ve coached for over 8 years from U9- HS Varsity. Every kid is different and responds differently. I learn who the kids are that need the extra push and a little extra vocal chord strength to get the message through, some need a hand on the shoulder and direct eye contact to get the message through.

  7. I am relatively new at coaching and find that yelling is not the problem technically you can yell positive things as well as negative things the problem is the content of the criticism . Things like “what are you doing you @&$##^%” are highly uncalled for I agree but we can’t not tell them they are doing something wrong