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When Does Mental Toughness Become Mental Abuse?

Several weeks ago the topic on my weekly radio show (7-8AM central on was a discussion about when coaches attempt to motivate their players, but go too far. When does the attempt to teach your athletes to become more mentally tough actually become mental abuse? This topic has resulted in several conversations with coaches, athletes and parents about scenarios where this has occurred. “Mental toughness is a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances (such as difficult training or difficult competitive situations in games) and emerge without losing confidence.”
“Psychological abuse, also referred to as emotional abuse or mental abuse, is a form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.”

During my 33 years in practice as a psychologist, I have worked with numerous athletes and their parents and with coaches and their teams in an attempt to understand the difference between these two issues. Unfortunately, I have worked with way too many athletes who have been subjected to coaches, who in their attempt to motivate their athletes, have gone over the edge from trying to mentally toughen up their athletes to emotionally harming them to the point that they want to quit the team or the sport all together. I have worked with several athletes who have been subjected to constant verbal abuse, which often will contain personal threats and attacks by the coach in an attempt to “toughen them up because they are too soft”. This has happened with both male and female athletes in numerous sports and with athletes as young as 8 years of age. In the end, almost all of the time, the one constant that occurs from this behavior is a destruction of self-confidence and self-esteem, a desire to quit the sport and the development of a lack of trust of authority figures.

So why does this occur? I believe that most coaches are good people who have their athletes best interest in mind. However, there are a number of coaches, both male and female, who feel the only way to build an athlete’s confidence is by verbally challenging them through intimidation. Many of these individuals were taught this way by the coaches who they played for. One high school football player that I have worked with suffered a severe heat stroke, and was constantly being berated by the position coach on his football team. When this athlete went to get some water, he was verbally berated by his coach in a hostile fashion, yelled at that he was weak and told that he would have never survived playing high school football when the coach played. The temperature on this day was 110 degrees and the player ended up passing out and being taken to a hospital via an ambulance in critical condition. The coach, has never apologized, and told others that he was trying to “toughen up” his players. Obviously, this coach is extremely misguided and biased based on what he believes is the correct way to mentally toughen up an athlete. In my opinion, this coach should have been disciplined and educated about why his behavior was not only incorrect, but also potentially harmful and was an excellent example of mentally abusing an athlete.

Many parents have shared with me stories of verbal abuse by their child’s coach. When I have asked these parents if they have reported the coach to the administration or to the league officials, many have told me they were afraid to, for fear of their child either losing their starting position on the team, or possibly not getting any playing time. In many cases, their lack of assertiveness often comes too late, with their child’s confidence being severely damaged.

I think there are several solutions to this problem. First, it should all focus around communication. Second, coaching education should become a mandatory requirement for coaches at all levels. When you sign your child up for a youth team, or your child makes their high school team, there should always be a preseason meeting with the coach and the parents and athletes. In this meeting, proper channels of communication need to be established for a variety of issues. Coaches should make it clear about their expectations for the season and a discussion about their motivational techniques should take place. A proper channel of communication should exist for problems, especially related to when a coach is pushing too hard. If a coach, in their attempt to motivate the athlete is getting frustrated, I believe this is an excellent time to have a meeting with the athlete about his/her goals and about their personal frustrations. By gaining the trust of the athlete, a coach will have a much better opportunity to challenge the athlete to perform to their potential without the threat of fear. A successful coach will take the time to understand the goals of the athlete, why they are on the team and what motivates them. Good coaches check their ego at the door before they enter the athletic arena. A frustrated coach will allow their personal frustrations to affect their coaching style, and take them out on the athlete.

As I have said before, “A good coach is a good psychologist, a bad coach needs to see a sport psychologist”. As always, your thoughts…

One thought on "When Does Mental Toughness Become Mental Abuse?"

Sharon Seaver says:

My daughters coach plans activities for Varsity but not JV although she coaches both and many play on both teams.
There was once a plan to decorate lockers of some girls but not others. Even when my daughter is included she absolutely hates this because she knows it’s cruel.

Last Summer the coach got married. She had the wedding reception at the school and invited some but not all of the players. Of course the wedding was all over Instagram. Many girls felt excluded but no one addresses the issue. It’s a private school.

Anyway team is going to be a lot smaller since several players did not sign up this year.

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