Oct 10, 2011

It needs to be said

I wrote this last year:
Some skating relationships become abusive, either emotionally, financially or I hate to say it physically. If your child complains that she feels uncomfortable with a coach's physical presence, end that relationship immediately. The coach may not be stepping over any lines, but the child's discomfort is crucial. A child's unwarranted discomfort with a coach can ruin an innocent coach's career. Better to simply end the relationship before things get out of hand.

Sometimes, the coach is physically inappropriate. If you suspect this, please go to your child's doctor and have her interview the child. Do NOT go to the skating director first. The skating director is legally obligated to report suspected abuse, but may not have the proper training to identify it. This is how careers get ruined. Better to go to a physician, who is also obligated to report suspected abuse, but has the training and background to interview the child and recognize the signs.
It bears repeating every now and then.

I would like to emphasize that you do not need proof to remove your child from a suspect situation. The child's discomfort is enough. If you cannot, or will not, ask someone for help, don't worry about it. Just get your child out of the situation and make up an excuse (schedule, cost, your rotten kid, whatever).

A larger problem is that sometimes the abuse is hard to see. You may pass inappropriate touching off as necessary coaching--correcting a position, hands-on. It may be subtle from the stands, but enough to discomfort the child.

Physical abuse is not only sexual; I have heard of coaches pinching, pushing, and tripping students, or forcing them to continue practice when they are clearly too tired or hurt.

It may be emotional--I had a difficult conversation with a coach just this morning, who simply would not let me talk. Every time I tried to voice my concerns (about another matter, not about abuse), and tried repeatedly to end the conversation, the coach simply talked over me louder and louder, eventually resorting to calling me names and questioning my right to teach. This is emotionally abusive behavior, and is another bad sign--if a coach treats a colleague like this, imagine how that coach is treating helpless children. Be concerned.

I have actually witnessed coaches telling kids that they'll never be able to skate because they are fat. (Sometimes these kids are not by any stretch of the imagination fat.) I am ashamed that I did not immediately call this coach on it.

Here's the advice my doctor offered:

Pay surprise visits to the lessons. Don't sit in the stands every time. Come and go, on no set schedule. And remember, a coach who tells you that you may not watch lessons needs to be put in his place-- whether and when you watch your child is not his call.

Ask the coach about actions that bother you, directly.
"Why do you need to touch her like that." He may have a perfectly good explanation, or may not have realized that it made the child uncomfortable. Once he knows this, a good coach will pull back on even the innocent physical contact, so that the child does not feel uncomfortable.

Ask the child occasional, non-leading questions: "How was Coach today?" If the child says "coach is mean" explore that. It might just be that she made the child work hard. Children are reluctant to voice discomfort with adults, but conversely are easily led into the wrong answers. Make sure your mind, and your questions, are open.

Financial abuse takes two to play. A coach cannot get you into a financial situation that you cannot handle without your collusion. Don't let a coach add lessons that you can "pay for later." Don't agree to lessons or extras that you cannot afford. Set a budget and stick to it. Know how much you're spending (even if you're hiding it from your husband). Never never let a balance build up.

If you find out years later that there was physical or emotional abuse in the past, and this coach is still teaching (and is therefore still at it, almost certainly), then you have a dilemma. You cannot confront the coach with years-old allegations, but you cannot morally allow him or her to continue to get away with it.

I'm open to suggestions on that one, because it has me stumped.


  1. A coach I know reduced a perfectly happy and normal 14 year old to tears on a patch session over a comment the skater made to her own coach which got repeated.

    Same coach has repeatedly bullied her colleagues to the extent that they leave the rink and therefore lose their income.

    Any complaints that are made come to this coach as she is the head coach and linked closely to rink management.

    She's not my coach, and I wouldn't let her teach me even if she was paying me instead of the other way around. But because she's not my coach there's nothing I can do.

  2. Bizarrely I was going to make exactly the same comment as anonymous above (you have to wonder if it happens everywhere) - I've seen really happy, confident 14 year olds refuse to skate on days when certain coaches were at the rink unless their own coach was there to protect them because of behaviour like this. I've seen (seemingly well regarded) coaches yell abuse at pre-teens across the rink - and then yell more at them for crying about it ("you'll have to toughen up if you ever want to compete"). I've seen them laugh at people who are crying after a fall (I cry when I fall - it's about adrenaline not upset). I've heard 3 of them together telling a (clearly upset) 12 year old that he was fat and should lose weight - yes, possibly he should have done but how about teaching him about nutrition/exercise rather than calling him fat. And then laugh at him for being on the verge of tears.

    And there is NOTHING that can be done because these are the head coaches/involved in rink management (and generally have convinced the parents that they are right and the child is wrong). Complaining to the governing body isn't an option as it turns into "he said/she said".

    I actually think emotional abuse to this (or any) extent is worse than physical abuse to identify and handle sometimes - it's very difficult to turn round to a senior coach and effectively criticise their teaching methods ("i've taught champions what do you know about teaching" or "you should try skating at xyz rink they all shout there")...at least if you see inappropriate touching there's no way of arguing that.

    I'm lucky - I'm an adult and I chose to change rinks to get away from this (it got to the stage where I was dreading every session in case these coaches were on the ice), but the teens don't have the option, and it's ruining their skating.

  3. "And there is NOTHING that can be done because these are the head coaches/involved in rink management (and generally have convinced the parents that they are right and the child is wrong). Complaining to the governing body isn't an option as it turns into "he said/she said"."