By Nara Schoenberg, Chicago Tribune
When former U.S. Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu said her coach Martha Karolyi once slammed her face into a phone and that Martha’s husband, Bela, twice berated her for her weight in front of teammates, the sports world was shocked.
Other gymnasts downplayed the complaints of Moceanu, who was only 14 when she competed on the 1996 gold-medal team, and praised the Karolyis’ results.
“The thing is, the kids understand the Karolyis,” said Moceanu’s teammate Dominique Dawes. “No. 1, we had a choice. No. 2, we understood the political benefits to being a Karolyi athlete. The Karolyis have clout both at the national and international level.”
And therein lies the dilemma for parents of children who are seriously involved in sports and the arts. Many of the best coaches and instructors are disciplinarians who push kids hard and get results; a few are tyrants who push their players too hard or berate them cruelly.
How are parents of hard-driving kids supposed to tell the difference? And even if you know you have a tyrant on your hands, how much can you really do to contain the behavior of an adult with the power to bench your sports-loving son or derail your daughter’s college scholarship?
Identifying a problem can be challenging, in part because parents don’t always attend children’s lessons or practices.
Frank Smoll, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and co-director of Youth Enrichment in Sports, suggests keeping an eye out for signs of excessive stress in your child, such as headaches or stomachaches.
“When winning becomes more important than the personal growth and development of the young athlete, that’s when things are out of line,” he says.
Danger signs on the field include screaming and repeated name-calling by the coach, says Steven Danish, a professor of psychology and director of the Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“One time (name-calling) is probably going to happen,” he says. “But (not) ‘You are just a loser and I don’t know why this team keeps you on. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, but you are the biggest loser we’ve had on the team!’ That kind of stuff doesn’t go.”
Ditto for physical violence such as punching a child, Danish says.
In ballet, the lines may actually be clearer, because yelling and name-calling are rare, according to Anastasia Wovchko, principal of the children’s division at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School.
“It’s different than when I was young. It was much harsher,” Wovchko says.
And yet, tyranny can sometimes come via unspoken demands — such as unreasonable expectations regarding body weight that can create emotional and physical problems.
Once a parent knows a coach or teacher has stepped over the line, the next step is confronting the problem.
Wovchko suggests bringing your complaint to the ballet school director. Smoll favors starting with the coach. If he or she isn’t receptive, work your way up the chain of command.
“You can’t undermine the coach’s authority, but at the same time, parents have the right and the responsibility to oversee the welfare of their kids, so that if questions arise in their minds, they should communicate this to the coach,” Smoll says.
Danish says you should schedule a meeting with the coach outside of practice and ask questions such as “What are your goals for the season?” “What are your goals for my child?” “What do you hope he or she will be able to do?”
“You’re really seeing if you can get on the side of the coach and work with the coach,” Danish says.
If that’s not enough to modify the coach’s behavior, be more direct. Danish might say, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do for my child, but I don’t think the way you’re approaching him or her is going to be very helpful.”
Name the behavior you found unacceptable and, as politely as possible, inform the coach you don’t want it to happen again.
At this point, you may also have to take your concerns to the coach’s supervisor: a league director or athletic director, Danish says.
If you complain, retaliation by the coach against your child is a definite possibility. Smoll believes that’s a risk worth taking.
“This is an extreme example, but it’s akin to a situation where a child is being bullied at school,” he says. “Being bullied by kids, being bullied by coaches — same ballpark. To ignore it is totally wrong.”
Children may disapprove of parental meddling and in rare cases, the stakes can be high: college scholarships, letters of recommendation, an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.
But even then, Danish says, it’s important to send the right message to your kids.
“All the lessons that you learn are not on the field,” he says. “(Kids) need to know that no one should treat anyone like this.”
“There is stress in sports, and that’s going to occur in basically any achievement orientation, but there are certain signs that parents can look for that the stress is really excessive,” says Frank Smoll, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. These behaviors are red flags:
- Inconsistent performance, such as acing practice but falling apart under the pressure of competition.
- Disruption of eating habits.
- Sleep disturbances, such as problems falling asleep or trouble staying asleep.
- Stomachaches or headaches.
- Sudden loss of interest in the sport or activity.