When my wife and I got back to Salt Lake City with our young son last summer, I didn’t realize that we would be living right next to a little league practice field. Since Lincoln was only 8 months old, we would stick him in the stroller and cruise around the neighborhood on summer evenings, watching the teams practice as we walked. I was excited at first, but my excitement quickly turned to shock and then to anger. Some of the stuff these coaches were saying and doing to the pee wee kids on the field was unforgiveable. I couldn’t remember having ever actually seen abuse like that in person. Maybe my little league memories are somewhat faded after years of being out of the system. Position coaches were using a colorful assortment of profanities as they belittled the players. It was obvious that some of the kids on the team had checked out. They just wanted to be done and go home. This added to the coaches’ frustration, which was followed by more of the same abusive language. A few times I started walking across the road to lay into the coaches myself when my wife grabbed me and pulled me back onto the sidewalk. After a few of these incidents we avoided the practices all together (my wife’s call).

Listen, I get it. Football is a rough sport with a rough culture. I know and I love that culture. However, this kind of behavior has no place in our sport. Grown men who treat little kids like this have no place as coaches. They are a disgrace. It’s not coaching to call a 12 year old a piece of shit while there are tears running down his face. This is not teaching kids to be mentally tough. It’s not teaching them anything, except how to be an asshole. Obviously there are good coaches out there, and I salute them. In stark contrast to good coaches, stand these men I saw coaching last summer, not to mention the parents watching their kids being emotionally annihilated. What I saw going on during those practices last summer has stayed in my mind. This semester I began a class in Sport Psychology at the University of Utah and was reminded of the psychological abuse I saw going on with the little leaguers. I asked my professor if she would be willing to share some of her experience on the subject and she obliged to a Q&A about the subject of psychological abuse in young athletes. The following is a dialogue between Nicole Detling PhD and I.

JJ: Nicole, give us a little background about your sports career and your work in the field of sports psychology.

ND: I played sports from the time I could walk, but fell in love with basketball more than any other. I played basketball and ran track at the collegiate level in Ohio, where I grew up. I own a private practice in sport psychology consulting, HeadStrong Consulting. I have worked with athletes and performers for almost 16 years now, teaching mental skills training for performance enhancement. I work with athletes of all ages and ability levels, from youth to elite. I was at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics with the US Speed Skating Team and will be in Sochi 2014 with the US Ski Team. I have also worked with athletes in the MLB, MLS, PGA, etc. At the University of Utah, I am on contract with the athletic department to provide sport psychology services to all of the athletes at the U of U. I am also a professor in the Exercise and Sport Science Department where I teach sport psychology, sport sociology, promoting physical activity in the community, introduction to coaching, and other such classes.

JJ: For our reader’s sake, explain the difference between what you do in your practice and what a “clinical psychologist” does in theirs.

ND: I am essentially a mental coach, so I teach skills to impact anything mental that can affect an athlete’s performance such as confidence, concentration, composure, anxiety, etc. A clinical psychologist would be more concerned with emotional disorders and diagnose and treat those disorders where my specialty is performance enhancement through mental skills training. I often tell people “I am not a shrink, I am a stretch”.

JJ: Let’s get down to it. In class you have talked about consulting with young athletes, as young as 8 years in fact. As a strength coach I have had experiences with athletes of this age and I have found, in some cases, that the parents of these kids have unrealistic expectations for their child. For example, “How can we responsibly put 20 pounds on Johnny in the next three months?” Heavy pressure from parents to compete and practice year round at a young age, can cause a wide array of physiological problems such as overuse injuries like plantar fasciitis, high resting heart rate, and imbalances in the nervous system. Have you found, in your practice, that a parents expectations cause psychological issues in young athletes?

ND: It absolutely does. There’s a fine line between encouraging and pushing your kids. And each kid, even within the same family, has different needs. Most kids really want to please their parents and are afraid to tell their parents they don’t want to participate or that they are not enjoying a sport that is clearly very important to the parent. Psychological damage done at an early age can be extremely detrimental as that child grows into adulthood.


JJ: How does a Sports Psychology Consultant go about helping kids who are struggling with being pressured to perform?

ND: I would work with those kids on how to better handle the pressure, how to separate the message from the delivery, how to embrace their own identity, and possibly, how to have a difficult conversation with mom and/or dad.

JJ: What can parents and coaches do to help their athletes avoid psychological issues that would keep them from performing their best?

ND: Be vigilant. Watch for the signs your child is being pushed too hard. It can be fleeting as a facial expression or as obvious as multiple injuries. Remember, sport is about your child, not about you. If you are truly invested in your child, you will be aware of the signs and will be able to pull back when necessary.