Bullying vs. Tough Love Coaching

Bullying vs. Tough Love

Hi, everybody.  I’m coach Rebecca Smith, and today I have a topic that is making my heart pound – bullying vs. tough love coaching.  I was interviewed for a podcast earlier today and we started talking about this, and the amount of energy that came through my body during that conversation was very instructive.  I knew I needed to talk about this, so here I am.  Let’s talk.

“Good” Coaches, Bad Work

There are some coaches in the world who are doing bad work.  I will name a few – Maggie Haney Qi Han, John Geddert.  These are a few of the coaches who have been revered as having produced really phenomenal athletes, but my question is at what cost?

Let’s talk about when a coach is being a bully and when it’s tough love.  Tough love is good coaching that just sounds a little stern.  If you feel like your athlete is experiencing bullying, I’m going to give you some suggestions on what you can do.  It’s up to us, those of you who are watching this or listening to this, and me to make this change and make bullying unacceptable.  I’m all about accepting what we can’t change, but this is a thing I think we can and must change.  So let’s work together on this.

Coach Feedback

Also, if you’re a coach and you’re listening, I want you in on this conversation.  I want you to post in the comments, I want you to send me an email – I want you to reach out to me and tell me your side of the story.  If you feel like at any moment during this conversation that I’m alienating you or being too far on one side, I want to hear from you.  I want to know what you think and what coaches are doing right?  But at this point, I’m going to talk about when is it bullying and when is it not.


What I see in athletes over and over in my specialty, is fear.  Athletes are becoming afraid because a lot of the time they are in situations that feel unsafe.  They may look normal, they may look fine, but they feel unsafe.  If an athlete is being bullied by an adult, by a coach, then they get this message. This message is received by a young person, a child, that they feel like the world is not a safe place.  They’re in this bubble of “everything’s safe and my parents love.  I’m great and happy” and then something happens to pop the bubble.

At some point, usually it’s in adolescence where they look around and realize maybe the world isn’t so safe.  If this is happening because of their gymnastics coach, because of their sport coach, that’s something that shouldn’t be there.

Here’s a quote from Jennifer Sey, a former national champion at gymnast.  She said,

A lot of what we consider normal coaching (and I’m specific specifically talking to gymnasts, but I see this in figure skating, cheerleading, and a lot of different sports) is actually quite abusive.

When there is this abuse of coaching, when a coach is bullying your athlete, there are some warning signs.  If you’re seeing any of these in your athlete, you should perk up.


When your brain feels threatened, avoidance is one of the key red flags.  That can look like avoiding certain skills that feel scary.  If your tank of courage is on empty because just walking into practice takes up all of your courage, then you’re not going to have the courage to try that next big skill.   This is not conscious, but you’re going to start to avoid skills, then you’re also going to avoid practice.  You might have meltdowns going into practice, you might have digestion issues related to the fight or flight response.

Nutrition, Depression, and Isolation

When you feel threatened, you also might have nutrition issues.  If a coach is saying something about your body, headaches and pain can actually be part of that brain level desire to avoid.  It will ramp up physical ailments to keep you away from the threat.  Depression and isolation, keeping to yourself in an unhealthy way – also red flags.

Definition of Bullying

Here is the department of education’s definition of bullying:

Bullying: 1. Unwanted aggressive behavior

I know a lot of coaches are thinking, “I’m just loud.”  I hear that, but if you’re being aggressive and the athlete does not want that, that’s bullying.  If you’re a coach and you’re listening, if you’re coming at somebody and they’re giving you a reaction that that’s not working for them, that is now unwanted aggressive behavior.

Bullying: 2. Observed or perceived power imbalance

Notice observed or perceived.  In the conversation I was having earlier, it was a talk about how coaches get a bad rap because they’re just coaching and the kids are saying they’re being bullied.  Well, you know what?  If your kid is perceiving a power imbalance, where they think they don’t have a say, that their coach is powerful and they have to do what they say – that is bullying.  Even if it’s just perceived.  We’re going to believe the victim here.

Bullying: 3. Repetition of behaviors or a high likelihood of repetition.

If your coach throws a fit, say they throw a beanbag across the gym yell, “Oh my gosh, you guys are driving me crazy!”  That’s one thing.  If it happens every day and you were like and you have cell phones and things flying at you, that is bullying.

Different Types of Bullying

Direct vs. Indirect Bullying: Bullying comes in different modes, direct and indirect.  Direct is in the present where you’re actually going at the kid.  Indirect isn’t directly communicated.  An example is spreading rumors, talking behind their back, tearing them down to other people.

Physical Bullying: I actually am guilty of this – pushing kids down in the splits.  I was all about “Give them the pain” and “I’m a tough coach so I’m going to push them down on their splits” and “They’re going to be so flexible”.   That’s physically abusive behavior.  If you would have told 19-year-old me that, I would’ve said, “No, everyone did it to me.  That doesn’t matter.”  It’s the fact that you don’t have their consent to do that.  They’re in pain.  You’re inflicting pain on them and they’re not happy about it.  That’s abuse.

Verbal and Relational Abuse: That would be harming relationships, undermining, talking with other coaches, getting people on your side, all of that is damaging.

Property Damage: If you’re damaging their equipment.

Yuck, right?  Let’s move on to tough yet compassionate coaching.

Tough Love

The keyword here is love.  Love is the guiding force.  This might come off as somebody saying girl, “I know you have more in you.”  Stern words, but it’s constructive.  Saying, “Wow!  That was terrible.  I don’t want to see that again.”  Instead, it’s, “Okay.  That’s not what I was looking for.  Here’s what I am looking for.”

Give Feedback in Private

Also, when possible, if there’s criticism, the kind way is to actually talk to that athlete up close, not scream it across the gym.  That’s bullying.  Giving direction, constructive criticism and direction, is never hurtful.


When coach and athlete are communication, there isn’t a power dynamic where the coach is allowed to speak and the athlete is not allowed to speak.  Everybody’s allowed equal opportunity to communicate.  This doesn’t mean the athletes get to walk all over the coaches, but communication is allowed and encouraged.  That is the answer to almost every fear-related issue I have with the athletes I coach.  That’s it – communication.

If I could give you one thing, an open line of communication between athletes and coaches will solve just about any problem.


Also, in a tough love coaching situation or environment, you can be stern, but you also give the kid the ability to decide or provide consent for their body without fearing punishment.  This means if you say, “Go up on the high beam and make 10,” and the athlete feels scared, they know they can come to you without getting yelled at, without getting demoralized or humiliated.  Even if you are a tough coach, there’s nothing wrong with that.  As long as it comes from love, communication is allowed and athletes are allowed to provide their own consent.

This is something that I did not have going into my adult years.  I didn’t know about consent.  I thought when I was told something to do, I had to do it.  That backfired in a lot of ways, and I don’t want your 12-year-old to lose that message of:

If someone tells you to do something with your body and you don’t feel right, you get to say no.  You must say no.

In contrast, a coach who is bullying is putting the child down, humiliating them in front of others, shouting, swearing, yelling, using degrading or discriminatory language, and deliberate isolation.  That means kicking them out, isolating them from the group, punishing them through isolation is bullying.  That is not acceptable.

Setting Unrealistic Goals

I hear this constantly where the coach goes, “I know you have a mental block, but you need to have that by the end of next week or you’re off the team.”  If you know anything about that athlete, if you’ve been working with that athlete for months and they haven’t done the skill, that’s setting them up for failure.  Setting really high goals that they’re not going to be able to reach and then blaming their shortfalls, even if you have good intentions, that’s not the way to do it.  There’s no place where that’s going to be acceptable to speak to an athlete that way a child, okay.


Threatening with consequences is also verbal abuse.  “If you don’t do it, then you’re going to have to do conditioning.”  Using conditioning as a punishment, that’s a stretch to say that that’s always abused because sometimes that’s just part of training.  The difference if you’re going to go out in the hundred-degree heat and run 12 laps around the building because the didn’t do the thing that you’re afraid to do.  That is abuse.

Virtual Bullying

Harassment through social media, text, email, altered photographs, intimidation, even if it’s secret and under the radar, questioning the athletes, commitment, monitoring food intake, body comments – all of that is abuse.  If any of that is happening, that is not acceptable.

My Recommendations

Listen: If your athlete gives you information that makes you feel like maybe they’re being bullied by an adult, first of all, listen.  One in three or one in four children will be bullied through the course of their schooling.  That’s just regular school, that doesn’t even count in high-level, high expectation sports, and only 20-30% gets reported, okay.  So 60% experience it, and 20% report it.  If your athlete is coming to you and saying something, you must take it seriously because it took a lot of energy for them to work up the nerve to tell you.

Validation: To help them to take it seriously and remind them it’s not right, say, “It’s not okay.  It’s not your fault.”  Don’t let them blame themselves.  No matter how good or bad you are doing that day, nobody deserves this treatment.  Nobody.  Help your athlete understand you can’t blame yourself for somebody else’s poor people skills.  You can’t blame yourself for somebody else’s unacceptable behavior.  This is not your fault.

Asking the Tough Questions

Then you have this major dilemma – do you tell somebody and risk at getting worse or do you just hope it goes away?  Do you teach the kid coping skills?  Here’s what I want to ask you – Do you make waves and potentially see retaliation from this adult toward this child?  That’s fear, right?  The bully counts on the fact that there won’t be any retaliation and that the athlete isn’t going to say anything.  Or, do you not make waves and just hope it gets better?  You make waves or your child loses their love for the sport?  They lose their self-esteem, their confidence, and they feel like the world is unsafe.  Meanwhile, the perpetrator keeps feeling like it’s okay and they go on for 30 more years.

bullying quote

Or, don’t make waves and don’t make change, and your child loses their self-esteem.  I’m going to just go ahead and say let’s make some waves.  That is what hasn’t happened for so long, and it’s why we’re in the boat that we’re in and it’s starting to change, but it’s only barely starting.  It is our time to make some waves.

How to Make Waves

Intervene: If you’re a bystander and you see it happening, call it out.  “That’s bullying.  That’s not okay.  You can’t talk to a kid that way.”  If you’re a coach and a co-coach is bullying somebody, take them aside afterward and say, “Hey, that thing you said, that’s borderline bullying.  That’s not okay.”  Call it out, intervene.

Talk to the coach: I’m not going to tell you to go file a report, but you have to talk to the coach. First, you talked to the coach, then maybe you go to the club owner.  Once you have an audience with somebody who knows what’s going on, you open a dialogue.  It’s a two-way street here.  This isn’t about us making waves and just yelling at people and blaming.  You’re going to go in with the goal of listening, trying to understand.  You can say, “Hey coach, there were some things said that really didn’t sit right with my daughter.  I would love to have a conversation about what was going on and find some common ground here.”  Maybe even mention in your family, that’s not the type of language that you subject your children to.

Have Compassion: Then you listen.  Have compassion.  This coach is obviously doing their best.  Maybe they’re frustrated, maybe they’re feeling insecure, maybe they’re worried about their job.  We’re in a pandemic, after all.  There’s probably some stress going on.  Try to find out where’s this coach coming from.

Find Common Goals: They probably want your athlete to succeed.  You want your athlete to succeed.  Your athlete wants to succeed.  Everybody wants the same thing. So, from that place of, “We’re all going for the same thing here,” let them know what that behavior does your athlete, and also what you’ve noticed about what works best with them.

Set Boundaries: Once you set a boundary, it’s your job to uphold that boundary and follow up.  Say, “Thank you for the conversation.  Thank you so much for being honest with us,” and keep the communication going.  That will solve any problem.

Exhaust All Options

If things are not getting better, that’s when you know you go to the owner.  If that hasn’t already happened and you do the same thing, you open your mind, you open your ears, and you have a conversation, if that is still not happening, it is time to report.  You can report.  Now, I’m going to be the first to say that reporting to USA Gymnastics feels a little bit like you’re not doing anything, but let’s make it an action step.  You can go to Safe Sport and you’ll find the national governing bodies of every sport.  You can go in and file a complaint.  It does not have to be sexual abuse. It can be physical, emotional, and/or verbal.


So you report it, but there are some questions you have to ask yourself before it happens, so I’ll leave you with this.  If you’re considering reporting, you’ve talked to the coach and nothing is changing, I’m going to say you report, even if you switch facilities, you have to ask first:

  • Has this happened over the course of time? 
  • Is it repetitive? 
  • Is there a power imbalance? 
  • Are there examples of humiliation, degradation, discrimination, or deliberate isolation? 
  • Has there been any harassment? 
  • Have any photographs taken an altered? 
  • Have you addressed this issue with the club owner or coach?

If you have done all those things and things are not getting better, report.  Even if you’ve left the sport, report, because you could be the thing that stops that from continuing to happen, and then get your kid out of there.  If it’s not changing, you’ve done everything within your power, it is not worth their feeling of safety in the world to have this sport.  It’s not.

Find Joy Elsewhere

In the meantime, get them some hobbies and do some other stuff that feels really great.  If you feel like your kid’s being bullied, they’re losing their passion, start planting new passions now.  I know you probably don’t have a whole lot of time, but let them learn to knit, give them something so that if they felt like their emotional safety in the sport is not going to be okay, they can walk away and know, “I’ll still be me.”


If you have any reaction to what I’ve talked about today, I would love to have a conversation.  You can email me at rebecca@performhappy.com.  Let me know if I was totally off base.  If you completely disagree with me, I want a conversation about this because I feel compelled to help make this change, to make USA gymnastics put their money where their mouth is, and start making these changes.

I’ll close with this conversation I had earlier.  This woman was saying, “Some of my gym owner friends are terrified.  They’re closing their gyms because they’re afraid that everybody’s going to start getting reported for abuse,” and I’m like, “Bye-bye!  Shut down.”  If you have any worry that your facility is perpetrating abuse and you’re afraid you’re going to get caught… Shut. It. Down.  We have no need for that.  If there’s any risk, are you kidding me?  Shut it down.

All right, everybody. Thank you for listening to my soapbox today.  Please reach out.  I would love to continue this conversation.


Bullying Versus Tough Love Coaching

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