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Abusive Coaching in Collegiate Athletics

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Unless you were there, it may be hard to understand how much influence our coaches exerted over us. I mean, we were kids. Eighteen year-olds leaving home for the first time, diving into a sea of changes and trying to compete athletically at an elite level. "Abuse" is a strong word, one I hesitated to use until I realized that the insidious and duplicitous nature of abuse often gaslights victims into accepting it, thereby perpetuating its existence.

Psychological abuse is not a new concept, and once I give you the definition you may understand that you've experienced or witnessed this at some point. Psychological abuse: involves the regular and deliberate use of words and non-physical actions with the purpose to manipulate, hurt, weaken, or frighten a person mentally and emotionally; and/or distort, confuse or influence a person's thoughts and actions or change their sense of reality.

The problem with my coaches and dozens of other collegiate athletic programs underscores an even larger problem that could be called systemic racism or sexism. I'm going to say it's that plus the capitalization of sport as well. Collegiate athletics is a system that is built not around athlete well-being, health, or even long-term success, but rather around short-term success so that the people in charge can get paid. For myself and the women I trained alongside, the people in positions of power were men. And during formative years of our lives, their coaching tactics put our long-term health at-risk in favor of short-term gains that were more an illusion than anything. The culture of collegiate athletics is broken. Therein lies the heart of the problem.

The men who coached me didn't know anything about women's bodies and didn't care to learn. They normalized the absence of menstrual cycles, "inspired" us by shaming our bodies, and praised/perpetuated disordered behavior. It was abusive and sick. Full stop.

I experienced toxic (and just plain bad) coaching at a time of my life when my coaches were the people I trusted most. They had recruited me, hard. One drove 8+ hours to my tiny hometown to watch one of my sectional race- the race that determines which runners and teams make it to State. The coaches met my parents and offered me a scholarship that ultimately paid for my college education. They asked me, and my family, to trust them and then slowly but surely exploited that trust. Made me question myself. Made me question my body. Pushed me further into an eating disorder until my body literally broke and my mental health collapsed. I sought therapy as a 5th year senior while teetering on the brink of a mental break. I was taking diet pills, using laxatives, throwing up, starving myself, anything to reach the thin ideal they'd cemented into my brain. They never explicitly told me to do all this, but they heavily praised the results of this behavior. What was I supposed to think?

The first therapist I ever went to was the first person to tell me that my coaches were in the wrong. That the words they said and the actions they took were damaging. That it wasn't actually my fault that I couldn't discern the truth from their lies. Thus began a years-long process to heal my body and my brain and learn to trust myself again.

Let's back up a moment and explore exactly what they did though. They, like many coaches, placed undue emphasis on our weight. They weighed us weekly and checked our body fat with calipers in the weight room, in front of everyone. My roommate went home one summer and came back to campus looking like a skeleton because they told her she'd be faster if she slimmed down (she was already slim). My coaches pulled me aside and told me that her starvation was really "dedication" and that runners need to "look different" in order to perform well. They advised me to lose 10-15 pounds too, which I did and then some. Then, they praised me for how "fit" I looked. They blamed poor races or training sessions on weight instead of examining a multitude of other, more realistic, factors.

They hand-picked runners who they were concerned were too heavy to receive personalized dietary counseling from a non-licensed senior dietetics student. We didn't know it at the time, but the coaches orchestrated the whole thing. At the beginning of my Junior year, they praised someone on the men's team for how fit he looked and asked him how he trained. He said he skipped lunch and their response was, more or less, "that's great!" Keep in mind that we were running 50-80 miles a week, cross training, and lifting weights. We fucking needed lunch.

One year, I was nominated for an "Athlete of the Year" award and didn't win, the award going instead to a woman from the golf team. She was a badass golfer and entirely deserved the recognition, but my coaches were enraged. "She doesn't even look like an athlete" one of them said. "She's disgusting." I cringed internally when they said that, but was silent because I had too much invested in my team, my sport, and these coaches to give up my belief in what they told me.

My senior year I red-shirted due to a hip injury (laberal tear, right side) and my coach warned me not to gain weight while I was injured because that would make coming back more difficult. I was barely a healthy weight to start. His words made me fearful of gaining any extra pounds so I did the opposite and lost another 20 while trying to rehab my injury. My body was barely functioning. At the same time, I was taking a poetry workshop with IL poet laureate Kevin Stein and began writing poems about my eating disorder. His kindness as I grappled with my eating disorder was one of the bright spots of my time at Bradley.

Many of my teammates have since bonded over our shared experiences. One wrote to me, "On multiple occasions, my teammates and I were stared down and subject to snide comments if we got ice cream after a team meal (while the men were allowed to do whatever they wanted in the same exact instance)." Our bodies were under a microscope, while the men's team seemed largely free of this particular type of hostility. My teammate was also correct in pointing out that all of these comments and incidents may seem minor in isolation but the accumulation of them was intensely damaging, resulting in disordered behavior that compromised not only our bodies but our minds. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

One of my teammates was a journalism major and, toward the end of my 5th year, interviewed myself and a few other women about our experience with these coaches, who had since fled to damage other women on other teams. The coaches caught wind and threatened legal action if their names were included. I am so damn sick of this charade.

So many of us have had negative experiences and so many athletes continue to encounter the same, tired, toxic shit. The system we are slowly trying to unravel makes it possible for coaches like mine to continue to damage young women. The problem isn't as shallow as body shaming or fat-phobia, though those are both valid. The problem is that these coaches had real power over us. They could take away scholarships. They could exclude us from competition. I went to Bradley to run because these coaches offered me a scholarship. I entered college hopeful, excited, and with so much potential. I left with a broken body, a broken mind, and almost zero self-esteem. My eating disorder existed before Bradley, but there is no way above or below Earth it would have escalated the way it did had my coaches not shamed or judged my body nearly every time they saw it.

I have grown tired of explaining why this is abusive and how. I have healed and moved on, finding a renewed joy in running along the way. But this week, my ex-fiancé sent me this post on Instagram, from a University of Alabama Birmingham runner coming forward about the same coach who tore down myself and many of my teammates. Her claims uncover another ugly side of him that I never saw because I'm White: racism. And I believe her. Because if a man can cut down a group of women for having thighs he deems too big, he would not hesitate to cut down other women for the color of their skin. I am truly angry and truly fucking tired.

I am unhappily not unique in my experience. I've met dozens of women from across the U.S. with experiences that mirror my own. The solution is multi-faceted. We need more women coaches, yes. But we also need to hold coaches accountable for the actions they take and the words they say. It is one thing to make a mistake and own it. It is another thing entirely to deny the existence of a mistake in the first place, to hide behind a system that allows racism and sexism and xenophobia to exist. He is not the only culprit, I am sure. But he needs to be held accountable.

Some of you might think I am out to ruin my coaches, but that isn't even possible. If they are "ruined" in any way, they brought it on themselves. I hold no hatred or spite for them, either. After all, someone taught them how to be the way they are. But I also couldn't live with myself if I remained silent any longer, especially after the beautiful UAB athletes came forward. Abuse of any kind is not okay. That is a hill I'm willing to die on.

It's also important to point out that these coaches were not equally abusive to all athletes. That isn't how abuse works. Some of us fared better than others. Some of the athletes under these coaches will likely defend them too, either because they weren't the ones being mistreated or because they've been gas lit into believing that all of this: the racism and body shaming, isn't abuse. This is a deeply troubling reality.

I hope that these coaches recognize their mistakes and work to rectify their behavior. I hope that student-athletes continue to speak up and speak out when they are mistreated. That is the only way this system will ever, truly, finally, change.

P.S. I feel inclined to emphasize that despite these coaches, I have many wonderful memories of being a Bradley Brave. My teammates are still some of my closest friends. The friendships and connections I formed in the English department have only deepened over time. And I'm forever grateful to the staff in the athletic department who extended my scholarship to encompass my Master's degree as well. Much love to all of you.

P.S.S. To report abusive coaching to the NCAA call 317-917-6222. Sign UAB's petition here, or watch Mary Cain talk about her experience under abusive coach Alberto Salazar here. Read more about abusive coaching at Global Sport Matters or read this expose by Insider regarding three separate universities and the abuse that took place.


Sarah Rose

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