Why this matters
Some mental health challenges in sport are internal or the product of high-level competition, but external forces such as coaching can often have adverse effects for athletes and others around teams.
Earlier this year, Texas Southern University did something highly unusual, prohibiting all contact outside of practices and games between the school’s women’s head basketball coach, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, and the athletes on the team. Coming during the second half of the college basketball season, the school’s no-contact order was as extensive as it was extraordinary, barring in-person and virtual contact and even communications through third parties.
In May, a detailed report from The Athletic revealed the reason for the order: a Title IX investigation by Texas Southern into allegations of improper behavior against Cooper-Dyke, who abruptly retired in March before a scheduled April hearing.
According to The Athletic’s article, the coach and Basketball Hall of Fame member allegedly has a decade-long pattern of subjecting athletes to language, behavior, and punishment drills that some considered abusive. Cooper-Dyke allegedly used overt and inappropriate sexual language with players, belittled them, pressed some to practice when they were injured, weight-shamed a particular player to the point where she stopped eating in front of her coach, and said that another one of her players – who had a known mental health diagnosis – wasn’t depressed but rather “just needs some d***.”
“This woman mentally and emotionally terrorized us,” an athlete who played for Cooper-Dyke at the University of Southern California told The Athletic.
In a text message to The Athletic, Cooper-Dyke called the allegations about her behavior “untrue.” Across college sports, however, allegations and examples of abusive coaching are hardly rare:
- In 2021, Syracuse University women’s basketball coach Quentin Hillsman resigned after players accused him of bullying and unwanted, inappropriate physical contact that led some players to experience suicidal thoughts and receive therapy.
- In 2020, Wichita State University men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall resigned after players accused him of physical and verbal abuse that included punching a former player in the back.
- Also in 2020, Texas Tech University fired women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings after players accused her and other coaches of creating a culture of abuse that left players feeling “fear, anxiety, (and) depression.” (Stollings has subsequently sued the school for firing her without cause. A jury trial is scheduled for September.)
Abuse isn’t relegated to women’s basketball, either. In August 2019, exit surveys from the University of Nebraska softball program detailed allegations of verbal abuse and harassment. Later that year, there were allegations of intimidation and abuse with the Rutgers softball program as well. More recently, in the summer of 2020, football players from the University of Iowa alleged that head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, and strength coach Chris Doyle “regularly used verbal abuse and racial epithets” and “intentionally discriminated” against Black players.
At a time when many within sports are speaking more openly and frequently about mental health than ever before, efforts to curb abusive coaching – and the harm it can cause athletes – have taken on newfound importance. That’s especially true at the college level, where athletes face not only unique risk factors for depression and other mental health issues but also a prevalence of abusive leadership that an Ohio State University researcher found was two to three times higher than in the regular American workforce.
In a field purportedly devoted to athlete well-being, why is abusive coaching so seemingly common? How, exactly, does it impact athletes? And what more can be done to put a stop to it?
Crossing the Line
According to University of Edinburgh doctoral researcher and former college swimmer Kait Simpson, one of the primary reasons college athletic departments struggle to protect athletes is simple: The industry lacks a clear definition of what constitutes abusive coaching, especially when it involves emotional instead of physical harm.
Abigail Hazlett, a doctoral student studying intimate partner violence at the University of Texas, emphasizes that this dynamic isn’t limited to the sports world. “We live culturally in a space where people don’t really understand violence or abuse outside of physical violence and abuse,” she said. “And so, most of the time, people aren’t taught to recognize the harm that’s taking place until severe physical harm is in the picture.”
Compounding this fuzziness is the fact that – at least historically – general behavioral norms are often suspended when it comes to sport. Case in point? In 1996, the Los Angeles Times described University of Tennessee point guard Michelle Marciniak as “the flashiest women’s player in the SEC.” Her style of play irked her coach, basketball legend Pat Summitt, so much that at one point during a game, Summit grabbed Marciniak by the collar and yelled in her face over a mistake.
Afterward, Marciniak taped an Associated Press photo of the moment to the dashboard of her Honda. When asked by the media why she did it, Marciniak replied: “I wanted to make sure that that never happens again.”
In most workplaces, grabbing a subordinate by the collar and screaming at them would be grounds for getting fired – or, at the very least, launching a human resources investigation. Within the Tennessee women’s basketball program at the time, however, it caused a quick media frenzy that was forgotten relatively quickly. Marciniak doesn’t seem to have taken it personally in the long run, either. In 2016, she read a eulogy at Summitt’s funeral, in which described her coach as a “mentor,” “role model,” and “friend.”
Keirsten Sires, founder and CEO of the college coach rating company 2aDays and a former Skidmore College tennis and soccer player, said that some coach behaviors that wouldn’t be acceptable in a classroom or other contexts – like yelling at players – aren’t necessarily abusive and can even be beneficial for some athletes. “I've had coaches growing up who were 100 percent hard-a**es,” she said. “But I’m still close with them and they've come to my wedding and they look out for me to this day. But they would have no problem yelling at me at practice if I did something that was stupid.”
So when does so-called “tough coaching” cross the line into abuse? Child abuse researchers have identified behaviors including belittling, humiliating, shouting, scapegoating, rejecting, isolating, threatening, and ignoring as forms of emotional abuse. In 2016, the International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement detailing “negative influences on athlete health, well-being and integrity” that places emotional abuse under the umbrella of psychological abuse, which it defines as “a pattern of deliberate, prolonged, repeated non-contact behaviors within a power-differentiated relationship.”
Jonathan Katz, a clinical and sports psychologist, has a more straightforward definition. “An emotionally abusive relationship, I think, is when a coach fuses the criticism of what the athlete is doing on the field or the court with who they are as a person,” he said.
Softball player-turned-coach Ali Ramirez is all too familiar with this kind of treatment. Ramirez grew up under a tough coach: Her father was a high school football defensive line coach and played a huge part in pushing his daughter to the next level of competition. But as a freshman at East Carolina, Ramirez noticed a significant shift in the way her coaches were treating her. “It wasn’t like my dad coaching his guys and being tough, telling them to get it together,” she told 2aDays.com in 2019. “It was ‘Ali, why are you so stupid?! What is wrong with you?’ With some choice words thrown in there.”
According to Dr. Emmett Gill, who worked in the athletic department at the University of Maryland and the United States Military Academy Center for Enhanced Performance, abusive coaching often takes the form of emotional and psychological manipulation. Think of a “coach who tries to press certain buttons,” said Gill, now chief visionary officer for Athletes and Advocates for Social Justice in Sports. “For example, some coaches might have information that the athlete provided in confidence and then they share that information with the entire team or coaching staff.”
Two former Texas Southern players told The Athletic that during a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas, Cooper-Dyke asked the school’s athletic director in front of the team if she could send another player, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, “home on a boat.” Cooper-Dyke allegedly called players “dumba**,” “p****,’ and “b****,” and also yelled at a player who was slow during team sprints that “If you weren’t getting d***** down all the time, if you weren’t on d*** or whatever, you would be making times.”
By belittling the players on their team, Hazlett said, a coach can make athletes “learn to not trust themselves and their own intuition about the situation. Ultimately, the goal of it is to gain control over the other person so that they can be manipulated, and that they can be basically used in the service of the person who’s in control.”
Other forms of manipulation are more subtle, but no less of a power grab. A former college swimmer who asked to remain anonymous told Global Sport Matters that during her freshman year, her coach told her that she needed to maintain a 3.5 GPA to stay on the team. “I remember the first midterms came out and I had a 3.2,” the swimmer recalled. “And then I went back to the team, and I was upset about it, and no one has a 3.5 except for like three people.”
2aDays CEO Sires says that her former tennis coach played “mind games” with her. “One time I asked to go get water,” she said. “He said no, which is weird in itself. But then my teammate asked literally two seconds after and he said yes to her, but not to me.”
‘A Mental Health Battle’
Although these repeated behaviors wore on Sires throughout her freshman year, a key turning point was when she eventually developed a shoulder injury. “My coach was like, ‘You're fine. You probably just have a strain. There's no way you tore it,’” Sires said, even though she remembers her shoulder being in “throbbing pain.”
After her freshman year, Sires quit the tennis team, opting to finish her college sports career playing soccer. In retrospect, she said, her experience with her tennis coach took an emotional toll, even if she didn’t quite realize it at the time. “I mean, to quit your sport that you have played your whole life, there was 100% a mental health battle with that,” Sires said. “I wouldn't say I was depressed or anything, but, of course, I was just generally unhappy.”
Eventually, Sires also discovered that the injury her tennis coach dismissed when she was a freshman was serious. “After college, I went to get an MRI, and I had a [rotator cuff] tear for all of those years,” she said.
For college athletes, abusive coaching can exacerbate existing feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and depression. For Ramirez, this manifested in increased self-criticism on and off the field, as well as heightened anxiety. The question “what’s wrong with me?” ran through her head daily.
Hazlett said that the same effect is common in abusive relationships between intimate partners, “even though the relationship might look very different.” These relationships are characterized by “very high levels of control” and have wide-ranging, damaging mental health effects on victims that can persist long after the relationship ends.
“Anxiety, depression suicidal thoughts, all those things,” Simpson said. “You’ll often see an athlete excluding themselves from society or feeling really low self-esteem and cognitive functioning.”
Because abusers often use isolation tactics, there can be social consequences for athletes that leave them feeling alone and cut off from others – even after they graduate. “Oftentimes, those abusive relationships have led them to maybe cut off people in their family or relationships that were protective to them,” Simpson said. “That can put them in situations where they're actually unsafe outside of their sport as well and become victims and other areas of society.”
For some athletes, Simpson added, abusive coaching can lead to “controlling behaviors like disordered eating and self-harm.” In the 1990s, psychologist Hilde Bruch found in her then-groundbreaking studies that eating disorders are “correlated with an individual’s underlying sense of powerlessness in the face of life’s stressors and a general lack of control.”
College athletes already lack control in their relationships with coaches. Consider athletic scholarships. Although there is a common misconception that they are guaranteed for four years, the vast majority of scholarships are not and can be revoked by coaches for many reasons. In addition to an athlete’s food, housing, and tuition, coaches also control playing time – all of which makes reporting abusive coaches more difficult. “We know that if you're an athlete and you start to talk, you're going to likely be removed from the team,” said Judie Saunders, co-chair of the Griesing Law Confidential & Sensitive Investigation Practice and member of the Employment Practice Group. “You have so much riding on you.”
Saunders and Hazlett each said that athletes often are conditioned to normalize abuse before they ever set foot on college campuses – in part because they are accustomed to coaches holding high levels of power and control, and in part because they are encouraged to be “tough” and perform through physical discomfort and pain.
Sometimes, Hazlett said, this normalization even contributes to abused athletes becoming abusive coaches themselves. Abuse, she said, “has lasting impacts. It actually can rewire and change your brain. And so we also come to mirror some of the same dynamics that we've accepted in other spaces. When we have normalized being treated horribly or those dynamics, I think it becomes easier for us to start treating other people like that.”
Breaking the Cycle
As shown by the recent firings and resignations of college coaches accused of abuse, athletes can curb toxic behaviors by speaking out. Many times, however, normalization means that athletes don’t realize they are in abusive situations until long after they graduate. “As far as you know, that was normal,” Hazlett said.
As such, Simpson says, the NCAA and its member institutions would do well to follow the IOC’s lead by adopting a clear definition of abuse that can help athletes recognize unhealthy coaching. “It has to start in the setting you’re in,” she said. “So people know ‘this was abuse,’ ‘this person needs help,’ or they can self-recognize. … if it's not going to happen at the governing body level, maybe it could happen at the conference level to start.”
When athletes do report abuse, said sports lawyer and athletic trainer Tammi Gaw, schools often can be slow to respond or fail to take appropriate corrective action because they fear negative publicity and potential litigation. That, she said, needs to change – or else schools run the risk of repeating the mistakes made by Michigan State University, which enabled the crimes of infamous sexual abuser Larry Nassar by looking the other way.
“They got to where they were because they denied it for so long,” Gaw said. “They played a cost-benefit analysis, and they lost. They lost at the expense of hundreds of athletes. And they still colossally lost the PR fallout, so there's no reason not to nip it in the bud.”
Saunders said that having diversity “in thinking, in race, in color and abilities” within athletic departments is also an important part of curbing abuse. “Diversity also speaks to believing people,” she said, adding that in some of the cases she has worked on involving serial abusers of athletes, “it can take 20 to 30 athletes to find for someone to finally believe [reports]. When you have true diversity within an institution, it shouldn't take that many consistent stories.”
College athlete unionization also could shift the power imbalances between coaches and athletes that currently make abuse more likely. In professional sports, athletes with relatively strong unions tend to have less tolerance for and greater protections against bad coach behavior – in part because players have the ability to advocate for themselves through collective bargaining. “[Abuse protections] could be very easily bargained for with mental and or with physical health and medical care,” Gaw said. “It's easy as anything else. You're just requiring an ingrained institutional mindset to realize that this isn't the game anymore."
Athletes continue to tell us they are not OK with their actions and words. In response, the sports industry has acknowledged it can and should be doing more to support the people who are its lifeblood, from athletes to coaches and beyond.
Sport is both reckoning with its roots, uncovering how history and habit created circumstances that don’t suit everyone who competes, as well as navigating new territory during a time of unprecedented strain on our mental well-being. By making mental health a priority, sport has an opportunity to confer a host of benefits supporting mental wellness and to be more safe, inclusive, and inspiring.