Psychological abuse in competitive and high­performance women’s volleyball


The coach—athlete relationship is a major part of the sport experience for most athletes (Brackenridge & Fasting, 2005; Jowett & Cockerill, 2003; Stirling & Kerr, 2014). Within the competitive/high-performance1 sport context, coaches and athletes interact on a day-to-day basis, and these interactions often inform the growth and direction of the athlete as a 'pupil' of the coach. Many studies indicate that such a relationship is one of high interdependence, where the coach occupies the more dominant role and the athlete the more submissive role (Barker-Ruchti & Tinning, 2010; Brackenridge & Fasting, 2002; Kirby, Greaves & Hankivsky, 2000; Lang, 2010; Parent & Bannon, 2011; Stirling & Kerr, 2009; Tomlinson & Yorganci, 1997). This creates a situation where the coach has a profound ability to impact the athlete's life, both in the short and long term (Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Stirling & Kerr, 2009). Research further suggests that a breakdown within the coach—athlete relationship often results in a negative sporting experience, which may impact athlete welfare (Brackenridge & Fasting, 2002; Jowett, 2007; Jowett & Cockerill. 2003; Stirling & Kerr, 2009, 2014).

One of the ways in which a breakdown can occur within the coach—athlete relationship is as a result of some form of abusive coach behaviour, which is often linked to the undermining of the athlete's autonomy by the coach (Brackenridge & Fasting, 2002). Abuse in sport can take many forms, ranging from physical and sexual abuse to psychological abuse. With the majority of research focusing on the more overt forms of abuse (e.g. sexual abuse), there remains a need to critically discuss more covert or nuanced forms of abuse (e.g. verbal and psychological). In response to this need, this chapter will unpack how verbal psychological abuse is understood by coaches and the impact that this form of abuse may have on the welfare of competitive/high-performance female athletes. In this chapter, I will outline current definitions of psychological abuse, review the research on psychological abuse (and, where available, verbal psychological abuse) within the Canadian sport landscape, and share the views of eight competitive/high-performance women’s volleyball coaches on verbal forms of psychological abuse.

Verbal forms of psychological abuse in competitive and high-performance sport

It is well documented in the literature that some competitive sport coaches adopt abusive coaching practices (i.e. Baker, Cote & Hawes, 2000; Brackenridge & Fasting, 2005; Kirby et «/., 2000; Parent & Bannon, 2011; Stirling, 2008; Stirling & Kerr, 2008a, 2009, 2012, 2014; Tomlinson & Yorganci, 1997). As previously stated, the emphasis has remained on sexual abuse (e.g. the Canadian women’s Alpine Ski sex abuse scandal)-, while psychological abuse remains underexamined. Literature that defines or includes verbal forms of psychological abuse specifically is sparse. Rather, verbal abuse is referred to as a part of psychological abuse in the literature.

The lack of literature on psychological abuse and verbal forms of this has been identified a result of: 1) societal acceptance of psychological abuse (i.e. normalisation), 2) the unclear intent of the perpetrator (i.e. intended versus unintended forms of abuse), and 3) a limited perceived view of potential interventions (i.e. understanding how to intervene) (Brassard & Donovan, 2006). Additionally, Iwaniec (2003) identifies the lack of focus on psychological abuse as a result of the contention in defining this form of abuse, which has further impacted the identification of psychologically abusive coaching behaviours and thus prevention and intervention within competitive/high-performance sport. Furthermore, researchers’ understandings of psychological abuse from a coach’s perspective are preliminary in nature; most studies attempting to define psychological abuse report on athletes’ perceptions rather than coaches' (Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Stirling & Kerr, 2008a, 2012, 2014).

Attempts to define psychological abuse exist within a range of research areas (e.g. Glaser, 2002; Iwaniec, Larkin & Higgins, 2006; O’Hagan, 1995); however, very few have been contextualised within the high-performance sport setting or the coach—athlete relationship (Stirling, 2008; Stirling & Kerr, 2008a, 2012, 2014). Defining psychological abuse in sport has been recognised as a struggle in the coaching and sport psychology literature for a number of years, and as a result, there is no consistent definition of psychological abuse applied in the research literature, in coaching education resources, in coaching policies, or in practice. Brassard and Donovan (2006) speculate that this inconsistency is because of a variety of societal factors, as previously identified. Furthermore, it is critical to acknowledge that the lived subjective experience of abuse (i.e. athletes’ experiences of coach abuse) and objective definitions of abuse (see, for example, Lang, Rulofs & Hartill, 2016) contribute to the tension that surrounds defining abuse broadly and psychological abuse specifically. For example, explicitly defining psychological abuse does not acknowledge the range of athlete experiences of abuse (e.g. some athletes may find being yelled at motivating and contributing to their performance, while others may find it unhelpful and having a negative impact on their performance). However, without a definition of psychological abuse, addressing and policing abusive coach behaviours is challenging. In order to provide clarity for readers, the remainder of this chapter will adopt the definition of emotional abuse from the work of Stirling and Kerr (2008a, p. 178), which is:

a pattern of deliberate non-contact behaviour by a person within a critical relationship role that has the potential to be harmful. Acts of emotional abuse include physical behaviours, verbal behaviours, and acts of denying attention and support.

In addition to being contextualised within the literature on Canadian competitive and high-performance sport, Stirling and Kerr’s (2008a) research specifically discusses verbal forms of psychological abuse.

Another relevant study explored the considerable amount of pressure on athletes and coaches to win in competitive sport and the impact that this pervasive performance narrative has on rationalising certain abusive coaching behaviours (Gervis & Dunn, 2004). Specifically, this study explored verbal forms of psychologically abusive coaching practices as a function of a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality adopted by the coach; Gervis and Dunn (2004, p. 216) state, “[i]n sport, the end, namely winning, often justifies the means ”, This mentality — that winning is all that matters — aligns with Ryan’s (1995) investigation that reported winning as all that is recognised within the athletic arena. Other factors that have been noted in the literature as contributing to the psychological abuse of athletes include prolonged periods of time spent with the coach, the high degree of interdependence of the athlete on the expertise of the coach, a coach's style of coaching (i.e. autocratic or athlete-centred), and gender power relations (Crosset, 1986; MacAuley, 1996; Stirling, 2008; Stirling & Kerr, 2007, 2009, 2012; Tomlinson & Yorganci,

1997) .

It is clear from the results of these studies that not only are some athletes experiencing psychological abuse at a young age but that this abuse continues to impact them long term. For example, athletes may experience withdrawal from sport altogether, drastic changes in mood, lowered self-efficacy, and disordered eating, to name a few issues (Stirling & Kerr, 2008b). As such, these kinds of coaching behaviours have the potential to profoundly impact athletes' experiences both within and outside of the competitive/high-performance sport environments and further call into question the role of the coach within this sporting context.

Psychological abuse within the Canadian sport landscape

Canadian sources analysing the psychological abuse of athletes by coaches date back to the mid-1990s, when the abuse of athletes was brought to the forefront of competitive sport as a major concern. Specifically, within Canada, this began with the release of the Fifth Estate’ programme by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1993 called ‘Crossing the Line’, which explored examples of the sexual abuse of female athletes by male coaches on two university volleyball teams, a swim team, and a rowing team. Following this investigative report, in 1996, ice hockey coach Graham James was convicted of repeated counts of sexual abuse against Sheldon Kennedy, a player Janies had coached in the National Hockey League (Donnelly, Kerr, Heron & DiCarlo, 2014). In addition to the conviction of James, the Fifth Estate programme contributed to the realisation that sexual abuse in sport is a serious reality (Brackenridge, 2001), further highlighting the need to re-examine harassment in sport policies and encourage further research on all forms of abuse in sport (Donnelly et al., 2014; Kirby & Greaves, 1996; MacGregor, 1998).

In response to the nationwide broadcast of‘Crossing the Line’, the high-profile James case, and the sudden recognition about the reality of (sexual) abuse in high-performance sport, several policies were created and adopted in Canada. In the early 1990s, the assistant deputy minister of sport formed a ‘harassment in sport' working group, composed of members from a variety of sport governing bodies. The most immediate policy responses from this group were the 1994 position statement ‘Harassment in Sport: A Guide to Policies, Procedures and Resources’, published by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity- (CAAWS), and the requirement that provincial sport organisations (PSOs) and national sport organisations (NSOs) appoint harassment officers (Donnelly et al., 2014).

During the 1990s, there was an increase in research on the rates of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse in Canadian sport (e.g. Holman, 1995; Kirby & Greaves, 1996; MacGregor,

1998) . Not only did these initial studies on the prevalence of psychological abuse in the context of Canadian high-performance sport establish this form of abuse as an ongoing issue that likely predated the 1990s, they also suggested that athletes’ experiences of psychological abuse by coaches required further investigation. Although considerable research dedicated to further understanding the role of abuse in sport in the early 2000s certainly had an impact, the 2014 conclusion from Donnelly and colleagues (2014, p. 12) is disconcerting:

almost 20 years after harassment policies and harassment officers were mandated in provincial and NSOs in Canada, many are failing to meet policy requirements.

This article also highlighted that where policies have been adopted by sports organisations, it is not always the case that clear definitions and examples of what constitutes abuse are included, which makes comprehension of the current policies difficult. These failings have been cited as contributing to the underreporting of coach abuse by athletes,4 resulting in few formal investigations into athlete abuse and a current culture of competitive and high-performance Canadian sport where certain coach behaviours, including psychological abuse, are normalised (CBC, 2019; Kirby et al., 2000). Stirling and Kerr (2012) highlight that adults, as coaches and teachers, play a crucial role in guiding young individuals with limited life experience and knowledge towards achievement. As such, it is particularly important to examine coaches’ understandings of how specific coach practices may impact athlete welfare.

Canadian coaches' views on verbal forms of psychological abuse

This section of the chapter contributes the insights of eight competitive and high-performance sport coaches.’ Specifically, three female and five male coaches between the ages of 30 and 65 from Canada participated in the study. All of the coaches had over 10 years of experience coaching competitive/high-performance women’s volleyball. Additionally, almost all of the coaches that participated in the study were further recognised as key stakeholders within the province’s volleyball community given their significant involvement within their sport’s 1’SO. Finally, all of the coaches were at one point competitive or high-performance athletes and, as such, often drew on experiences from their own athlete past in response to interview questions.

When asked to discuss their definitions of ‘verbal abuse’, all of the participant coaches acknowledged the personal attacking of an athlete as a form of this. Many of their responses included comments about things outside of the athlete’s control (i.e. their physical appearance) the verbal threatening or attacking of an athlete for improper skill execution or questioning an athlete’s character based on their physical capabilities. Coaches also gave explicit examples of what verbal forms of psychological abuse might include or sound like, which for most of the participant coaches was based on their own experiences as high-level athletes. For example, two coaches who played for a Canadian national team stated that verbal psychological abuse includes:

When a coach is telling you, ‘you are a waste of space’, ‘you are stupid’, ‘you’ll never be anything’, ‘you don’t have a sniff, ‘you’re a fucking bitch’, or that ‘I just can’t waste any more time with you’.

When a coach says, ‘are you stupid?’, ‘are you a fucking retard?’ ... or ‘you could jump higher if you weren’t so heavy’.

Responses from coaches who did not have experience playing at the highest level of volleyball in Canada also included making hurtful comments on an ongoing basis and frequent comments about things that were not specific or relevant to a player's athletic performance (i.e.

body shaming or questioning an athletes intelligence). Taken together, the responses from the coaches indicated that they regard verbal psychological abuse as including words spoken directly to an athlete that are personal in nature and unrelated to sport and that these words may be abusive based on the content of the feedback delivered (i.e. demeaning comments) or on the style of delivery (i.e. angrily screaming as a means to communicate information or feedback).

While keeping their personal definition of verbal psychological abuse in mind, coaches were then asked to define psychological abuse.6 Although many acknowledged it was hard to define, the coaches' attempts to define psychological abuse included comments with respect to patterned forms of coach behaviour (i.e. picking on one player), using mind games to manipulate athletes, and coaches making athletes believe they are worthless. Some of the definitions coaches provided included:

you know, consistent behaviours that belittle that individual either directly or within the group and, therefore, it could extend beyond verbal comments to including another sort of treatment or exclusion of a player from activity.

knowing that person doesn’t like something and then putting them in the situation on purpose to try and enact change, or controlling a person saying one thing to them and then showing a different behaviour to them.

repetitively devaluing somebody or . . . pointing out faults or flaws or mistakes . . . something deliberate, hurtful . . . doing something for a purpose, doing something to make a point . . . putting them in a situation where they are highly unlikely to be successful, and that’s your intended outcome.

Furthermore, coaches considered the following behaviours to constitute forms of psychological abuse: threats (i.e. to revoke playing time or scholarship funds), not following through on what a coach said they were going to do (i.e. not starting an athlete who was promised to start), and spreading rumours about an athlete within the team (i.e. telling one athlete something about another athlete in order to create tension). These findings add further weight to the literature that suggests that psychological abuse can include non-physical behaviours, including verbal attacks, by a coach (Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Stirling & Kerr, 2008a, 2012, 2014). Additionally, participants in this study added that psychological abuse could also be non-verbal (e.g. ignoring an athlete on a regular basis in the training environment).

After discussing coaches’ perceptions of both verbal forms of psychological abuse and psychological abuse, coaches were further asked whether they felt these were similar or distinct from one another. The coaches in this study discussed how grouping verbal behaviours and psychological abuse together is a common occurrence given that they can have similar effects on athletes. For example, two participants commented that:

mind games about ‘you’ll start if you do this’, ‘you’ll start if you do that’. . . . Or saying, ‘if you don’t do 100 reps in the weight room, you’ll lose your scholarship'. ... I think manipulating situations where a person can’t win. Sort of spirit breaking . . . could be both.

I guess maybe even ignoring a person could amount to mental abuse.

These answers are in line with and confirm Stirling and Kerr's (2008a, 2014) findings that emotional abuse may be the result of physical and/or verbal behaviours as well as neglect. Participant coaches from the present study also acknowledged that part of the difficulty in defining psychological abuse is linked to an athletes’ perception of circumstances or exhibited coach behaviours that may be considered abusive. In addition, the coaches noted that these athlete perceptions may be linked to the immediate environment that athletes were raised in (i.e. their home life) or the nationality of the athlete. In the case of an athlete’s nationality, coaches mentioned how in different parts of the world, athletes were conditioned to accept varying degrees of coach abuse that, in Canada, may be perceived as unacceptable. For example, one coach commented on witnessing an athlete being slapped in the face by a coach and another coach recalled witnessing the “verbal undressing” of an athlete where he recalled thinking “that would never be allowed in Canada”.

According to the coaches in this study, the impact of psychological abuse is heavily dependent upon the recipient and the context within which abusive behaviours manifest. Most of the coaches interviewed acknowledged the importance of the athlete perspective in potentially abusive situations. The coaches suggested that athletes’ reactions to statements had an impact whether or not comments are perceived as psychologically abusive and that the high degree of subjectivity is another contributing factor to the difficulty of defining psychological abuse.

I’m sure there have been moments where athletes believed they’ve been verbally abused and they haven’t! Or mentally abused and they haven’t!

. . . there’s always the perception like, where someone feels that feeling result, but you’re not in any way meaning for it to be that . . .

So that one player's take on it was that coach was abusing me. He picked on me. . . . That’s not abuse. But you feel it’s abuse so then it’s abuse to you.

These comments from coaches indicate that the difficulties in defining psychological abuse, as highlighted in the literature, are legitimate (Glaser, 2002; Iwaniec ct til.. 2006; O’Hagan, 1995; Stirling & Kerr, 2008b). However, there was consensus that psychological abuse results from actions taken against individuals that elicit certain emotional responses from each individual athlete.

All of the coaches acknowledged that verbal forms of abuse and psychological abuse were present in their specific sport contexts. Comments about the prevalence of abuse were predominantly recorded as very prevalent or not as prevalent as some may think. Participants' answers were contextualised to their sporting environments. For example, coaches who felt that this abuse was prevalent discussed the pressure on high-performance sport coaches to produce winning results and as occurring more often outside of Canada. When participants were asked to further comment on why they felt verbal forms of abuse and psychological abuse were prevalent in high-level female volleyball, their responses varied. Specifically, these coach responses ranged from the deep-seated historical roots of abusive coaching in competitive and high-performance sport (Holman, 1995; Kirby & Greaves, 1996; Kirby et al., 2000) to more universal comments around poor management. For example, one participant said:

You know certain coaches that’ve gotten away with it forever, why would they change? One, they've been successful. Two, they’ve been supported. Three, no one’s asked them to change [laughs]. Why would they change?

This response and others like it lend support to the literature on coaching styles (e.g. autocratic versus athletic-centred) (Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Kenow & William, 1999; see also Joseph Gur-gis, Gretchen Kerr, and Ashley Stirling’s chapter on coaching styles in this compilation), the processes involved in normalising abusive coaching behaviours (Stirling & Kerr, 2007, 2008ab,

2012), and the wider systemic issues pertaining to the high-performance sport experience (Tomlinson & Yorganci, 1997). Coaches who thought abuse was less prevalent contextualised their answers to the Canadian sport landscape. For example, one coach with international experience said:

I think it s probably less prevalent in Canada than in a majority of other countries in the world. But 1 think it exists. ... 1 see numerous examples of it.

When asked to further comment on why they believed this form of abuse may not be as prevalent in Canada as elsewhere (although CBC’s [2019] investigative report would suggest otherwise), coaches felt that this was indicative of having a better connection to or a stronger relationship with an athlete. These answers reinforce the importance of a coach—athlete relationship and the need to further research this relationship (Jowett & Cockerill, 2003; Kenow & Williams, 1999; Lafreniere, Jowett, Vallerand & Carbonneau, 2011; Stirling & Kerr, 2009). Finally, coaches also felt that abuse was less common in sporting environments where there was less pressure to win.

It is clear that coaches acknowledged the presence of psychological abuse, including verbal forms of this, within high-level volleyball. Most of the coaches also recognised that not enough is done to address psychologically abusive coaching practices within Canada. These responses from coaches were particularly unsettling. For example, one participant said:

I’ll use this analogy. When a dog goes into a playground and bites a child, we put the dog down. We don’t ask questions. We don’t give the dog a second chance. We don’t put the dog into another playground. We . . . have coaches that abuse, degrade . . . whether it’s emotionally, sexually, verbally . . . and we give them another chance. We get them another team, another set of athletes. We put them in another gym!

As a part of the conversation on preventing psychological abuse in all its forms, coaches were asked to comment on how their coach education addressed abusive coaching. All but one coach felt strongly that coach education (e.g. the Respect in Sport [RIS]7 and Make Ethical Decisions [MED]8 modules) did little to address psychological abuse in sport and was ineffective in its purpose of educating coaches on contentious sport situations and ways in which to act morally in these situations. Some of the coaches' comments included:

It’s just more like a hoop to jump through.

RIS training makes it safe for organisations. . . . Every coach in my club has taken Respect in Sport so, ‘hey man, the fact that they’re abusing them, I did all that I could' . . . it's just, it’s almost a green card for organisations to not get tagged . . . when something goes wrong.

These responses from coaches unfortunately contradict the statement made on the Coaching Association of Canada's (CAC) website, which states that, “by successfully completing the NCCP Make Ethical Decisions training, coaches will be fully equipped to handle ethical situations with confidence and surety" (CAC, 2019, para. 2). Additionally, according to these coaches, RIS training does not help coaches to identify and deal with abuse, harassment, neglect, and bullying in sport (Sport Manitoba, 2019, para. 1).

A final set of questions linked to preventing psychological abuse touched on policy. These questions were posed to coaches in order to assess the availability, awareness, and overall effectiveness of sport policies on abuse within this specific high-performance sporting environment. In the case of this study, five of the eight participants were unaware of any policy on psychological abuse, which was startling given that all of the coaches interviewed for this study were key stakeholders within their sport and coaching environments. The coaches that were aware of policies on abuse were actively coaching in university sport and made comments like:

when there’s policy in place it’s fluff and . . . and ‘the curtain over the rabbit in the hat’ . . . it doesn’t matter.

While these coaches may have some knowledge about policies on psychological abuse, these policies did not appear to matter, as they were not taken seriously in preventing harmful coach behaviours. This response supports the finding from Donnelly et al. (2014) that the sport governing bodies, and by extension their policies, are failing to address psychological abuse.

The results from this study confirmed that coaches were aware of what coach behaviours are considered verbally psychologically abusive and that verbal forms of psychological abuse and psychological abuse more broadly could be a concern for some athletes within this specific high-performance sport context. The participant coaches identified a variety of reasons for why this may be the case, including the demands of high-performance sport and the lack of intervention from governing authorities present within this community, as well as ineffective education and policy. These responses from coaches contribute to rationalising this form of maltreatment as a part of the competitive/high-performance sport experience, which is in line with other studies that have documented the normalisation of psychological abuse broadly within the culture of high-performance sport (Lang et al., 2016; Stirling & Kerr, 2009, 2012, 2014; Stirling, 2008).

Final remarks

I think it’s awful the number of abused women that have come out of this province over the last 40 years that we know about. It’s awful and we continue to allow that to happen. Maybe not in the same quantities, but it’s happening. It absolutely is!

This quote from a coach participating in this study highlights her beliefs on both the current and past existence of psychological abuse within the context of this specific competitive/high-performance female volleyball community. Additionally, it supports the conclusions of many scholarly studies that have identified psychological abuse as normalised within the context of competitive/high-performance sport (Brackenridge & Fasting, 2005; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Kirby et al.. 2000; Parent & Bannon, 2011; Stirling & Kerr, 2008a, 2009, 2012, 2014; Tomlinson & Yorganci, 1997). Coaches from the study discussed in this chapter identified a number of reasons verbal forms of psychological abuse have been and continue to be an issue within competitive women’s volleyball. Some of the reasons that coaches identified were indicative of the nature of competitive sport (i.e. the focus on results), the role of the coach (i.e. expectations of the coach by the athlete), cultural aspects of competitive sport (i.e. inadequate coach education), and coaching policy (i.e. not readily available).

Given that little attention has been paid to verbal forms of psychological abuse in high-performance sport, this research sought to specifically ask the participant coaches for their views of psychological abuse with an emphasis on verbal behaviours. In response, the interviewed coaches acknowledged verbally psychologically abusive behaviours such as comments including jokes, insults, and verbal remarks that were directed at the athlete’s personality or appearance.

The findings on verbal psychological abuse are in line with the results from Stirling and Kerr’s (2014) study on emotional abuse in sport, which categorised verbal behaviours as a distinct form of emotional abuse. As such, an important consideration for athlete welfare is to begin to raise awareness of verbal abuse as a form of psychological abuse that warrants attention and to educate coaches on what constitutes verbal psychological abuse and how to communicate effectively with athletes in a way that is not abusive.

In addition to identifying what verbal psychological abuse involved, coaches also provided insight into their understandings of how yelling or verbal forms of abuse can become psychological abuse. According to participants, psychological abuse causes athletes mental and emotional turmoil, and it occurs when both comments and/or actions towards athletes cause feelings of emotional distress. In light of the lack of attention paid to psychological abuse in the policies and guidelines for women's volleyball and the coach education sources coaches reviewed as part of their training, it is not surprising that coaches in this study found it difficult to define psychological abuse, even though they could readily come up with examples of it occurring. In particular, when discussing examples of psychological abuse, the coaches told stories of either athletes they worked with or their own athlete experiences, and they frequently connected these stories to the personal or subjective nature of psychological abuse. More specifically, they highlighted the importance of the athletes’ lived experience as a major aspect of experiencing psychological abuse. Based on the perspectives and examples provided by the participants, it is clear that coaches understand verbal behaviours as a form of psychological abuse while at the same time acknowledging that this kind of abuse is often subjective.

In discussing solutions to the normalised occurrence of verbal psychological abuse in competitive/high-performance sport, the participants felt that improved coach education, alongside clear and concise sport policy, as well as repercussions for coaches who psychologically abuse their athletes, whether verbally or otherwise, were the best ways to address these forms of abuse. More pointedly, the participants felt their coach education was inadequate and all, except for one coach, were unaware of any policies that operated at the PSO level on psychological abuse. In addition, when coaches discussed implementing sanctions for psychologically abusive coaches, they made comments such as:

I don’t think we’ve done a lot to kind of try and address it as a volleyball community.

I think that's something that would be good to see. If we just keep not doing anything, it doesn’t really get any better.

This quote clearly demonstrates that in addition to improvements in coach education and policy and more repercussions for coaches, there is a need to address verbal psychological abuse including its verbal forms more broadly and in this volleyball community specifically. While the insights of the coaches are valuable, it is important to mention how education and policy, as products of a volleyball community that has done little to address athlete psychological abuse, may be insufficient means to address the issue of abuse in sport. This is especially the case given that high-performance women’s volleyball in Canada is one example of a specific sporting community that is part of a larger competitive/high-performance structure of sport that has currently accepted abuse as a part of the athlete experience.

Athlete welfare considerations

Although this research was limited to the views of eight coaches5 from one specific competitive/ high-performance sport community, the findings are nonetheless important and contribute to the current lack of literature that explores the views of coaches on psychological abusive coaching behaviours, and especially verbal forms of this, in competitive and high-performance sport. Based on the responses from these coaches, there is a need for more effective coach education, policies on psychological abuse (which specifically include a definition of verbal psychological abuse), and the appropriate sanctioning of abusive coach behaviours (i.e. repercussions for abusive coaches). Although the coaches in this study were aware of sanctions, it was their perception that very few coaches were sanctioned for psychologically abusing athletes, largely because of the normalisation of verbally psychologically abusive coaching behaviours and the tight-knit community of women's volleyball within the province. As such, it is important for sporting communities to find ways to regularly evaluate their coach education materials by conducting research on coach experiences of coach education and, where necessary, using the data collected (for example, through observation, interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires) to improve and revise these. Additionally, it is important to have clear policies that are explicit and outline the procedures and resources in place for coaches and athletes alike who may be experiencing any form of abuse. Coaches and the organisations they are employed under need to take educating their coaches, athletes, and other key stakeholders (e.g. parents) on the existence of these policies seriously in order to limit challenges to accessibility and ensure that members of the community are aware that protective policies exist. Finally, in clarifying these policies, coaches in the study reported here also specified that it is important to both outline and follow through on the repercussions for coaches who are appropriately investigated and found to be abusing athletes. What and how these repercussions are structured will depend greatly on the sporting context. However, coaches in this study felt that facing disciplinary sanctions was a starting point for penalising abusive coach behaviour.


  • 1 The coaches that were interviewed for this research were coaching at the 18U, university, and national sport levels. The Canadian Sport Policy (CSP) outlines competitive sport as being aligned with the Train to Train, Train to Compete, and Train to Win stages of athlete development and high-performance sport. These stages of athlete development are borrowed directly from the long-term athlete development (LTAD) model, created and written by the Canadian Sport for Life organisation, which categorises athletes at the Tram to Tram, Train to Compete, and Tram to Win stages as being from high-performance clubs, universities or colleges, and national or Canadian sport centres. Additionally, this study was specific to the sport of volleyball. As stated on Volleyball Canada’s website, athletes aged 18 years or older fit into the Learning to Compete, Training to Compete. Learning to Win, and Training to Win stages of the LTAD. Therefore, the coaches within this chapter are referred to as competitive/high-performance coaches.
  • 2 In 2017. Alpine Ski coach Bertrand Charest was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexual offences against many minor athletes who were part of the Canadian Olympic Alpine Ski team. Additionally, Alpine Canada was sued by victims of Charest, based on allegations that Alpine Canada covered up the abuse suffered by athletes. The following link provides a detailed report on the allegations: sports/Olympics/alpineskiing/sexual-assault-victims-suing-alpine-canada-1.4942675
  • 3 Forty years ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation started a series of investigative documentary programming called the Fifth Estate, with the intent to "bring in-depth investigations that matter to Canadians” on a range of topics. In the 1993 broadcast titled ‘Crossing the Line’, the topic of conversation was sexual abuse in high-performance Canadian sport. Specifically, in this programme, university female athletes from volleyball, swimming, and rowing who had been sexually abused by their male coaches were interviewed. This was one of the first publicly broadcast conversations concerning the well-concealed reality of sexual abuse in high-performance sport. Unfortunately, there is no online link to this video, but a hard copy does exist in the CBC archives.
  • 4 A recent investigative report by the CBC documented how severe the under-reporting of sexual abuse in Canadian sport is. The statistics presented in this report demonstrate the number ofsexual offences per sport and per province as well as the gendered nature of these sexual offences. The full story including the statistics mentioned here can be found at this link: amateur-sports-coaches-sexual-offences-minors-1.5006609.

d This chapter uses only data generated from semi-structured interviews conducted as a part of a larger study undertaken for a Masters research project. Other forms of data were used in the initial study, namely auto-ethnography and content analysis of coach policy documents. The complete study can be found at the following link: Thesis%20Document%20%28Alix%20Krahn%207757385%29.pdf?sequence=l

6 Although the research from the study on which this chapter is based was on verbal and mental abuse, the author has employed the term ‘psychological abuse’ for the purposes of this book chapter.

/ Respect in Sport is a mandatory coach education module that all coaches must take in order to coach in the province where this research was conducted. This training promotes itself as equipping coaches with the knowledge they need to identify and deal with abuse, neglect, harassment, and bullying in sport. Completing the course requires viewing a short series of online videos, followed by a quiz at the end of each section. Given that this training is online only, there is no way to confirm whether coaches completed the training themselves. Several coaches in this study told stories about knowing coaches who had other people complete it for them.

8 The Making Ethical Decisions module is a mandatory coach evaluation that all coaches in Canada must complete. It is positioned by the CAC as a “cornerstone” of coach education, and it promises to leave coaches competent in handling ethical situations (CAC, 2019, para. 2). The CAC does not require all coaches to attend a MED workshop or even take the online tutorial; however, all coaches must take the online evaluation and achieve a passing grade of 75%. Only if a participant fails this evaluation must they then take the online tutorial or attend a workshop. If a coach decides to take the workshop prior to doing the evaluation, they are then afforded an unlimited number of opportunities to pass the online evaluation (Coaching Association of Canada, 2019, para. 7).


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