When I was 16, I played for and captained my region’s U17 girls’ team at the 2017 Youth Club Championships. After training hard for weeks with teammates I loved dearly, I should have been looking forward to what should have been a weekend packed with spirit, competition, and joy. Instead, I was filled with dread.
At the root of it was Coach A — in his thirties, good humored, and charming. He had a quick tongue, a keen eye, and an air of confidence. He knew how to hype up a huddle with just a few sentences and he was succinct and honest with his criticism. All these qualities should have made him a perfect fit to be the head coach of my youth club team.
But he was not.
His charisma and eloquence disguised his manipulative behavior to everyone around him. His wittiness and casual disposition led to inappropriate conversations with players. His overconfidence, stubbornness, and arrogance twisted his “compassion” into something detrimental, not nurturing. He destroyed trust quicker than he built it and his critiques were demoralizing, scathing, and screamed with all the spittle in his mouth.
What scares me most is how he has blended into the community unchallenged as a “well-meaning but tough” coach. It makes me wonder, how many more abusive coaches are out there who get away with their actions because their behavior is normalized?
I chose to keep our identities anonymous, but not because I want to protect our abuser. It is because my intentions are not fueled by a desire for revenge, but to catalyze productive conversations about an undiscussed topic in the ultimate community. If you know me, it will be easy to guess the following but I ask that you respect the anonymity of Coach A, my teammates, and my youth program.
You can find a link to the individually written accounts about Coach A here. I urge you to read through these before reading my call to action. My teammates and I have nothing else to share for the time being and anything we decide to pursue is personal. I have reached out to my youth program to discuss next steps and I will continue working with them to guarantee that matters are being dealt with appropriately.
After you read this, please take it upon yourself to take concrete actions for your own teams, programs, or local communities. My hope is these conversations about abuse and misconduct are destigmatized so we can establish safer spaces within youth ultimate.
A Call to Action — Creating Safe Spaces for Youth Ultimate Players
I have recently seen great pushes for more inclusivity in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Some of those efforts include increasing diversity in the youth ultimate community. As important as these actions are, it is essential that we are introducing young players to intentionally safe spaces; otherwise, it feels like we are pushing for inclusivity for the sake of being diverse, nothing more.
My solutions come from the perspective as a player and are by no means perfect. However, I hope my suggestions are at least a starting point. Throughout this section, I have cited articles from Without Limits and Girls’ Ultimate Movement’s High School Girls’ Resource Manual, which were written by members all over the ultimate community. The articles I have chosen provide insight and nuance to my suggestions and I definitely recommend reading the manual in its entirety.
1) Reflection -
Obviously, the first thing to answer is what coaches themselves can do more as individuals. As seasons have been cancelled, right now is a great time to reflect on who you are as a coach. I came up with a non-exhaustive list of questions that I would ask Coach A that you can ask yourself:
- Do you genuinely care for the well-being of your players?
Are your words and actions for the benefit of the players or the benefit of winning a game? Do you care beyond their physical health and about their emotional and mental well-being as well?
- Are you doing all you can to build trust between yourself and the players?
What are you doing to maintain that trust? Are you making it transparent that players can trust you to come up to you about concerns?
- Is the way you are communicating with all players during and outside of practices and tournaments appropriate?
What sort of language are you using? Are you having conversations with players over social media? Are you having one-on-one communication without the presence of another coach or chaperone? What are your reasons?
- Can the whole team truly be successful if there are members whose needs are not being properly acknowledged and met?
Have you been sacrificing the emotional, mental, and physical health of individual players for the success of the whole team (e.g. coercing veteran players into playing through injuries)?
- Can you say with certainty that there is no abuse or misconduct on the team or program you coach for?
If no, how have you been complicit in their actions? How will the situation be confronted?
If yes, have you been following proper protocol to report to USAU and/or law enforcement? Have there been any explicit conversations with the players about any potential concerns?
- After thinking about these questions and doing further reflection on your own, how will you change as a coach? What will you do to better your team, league, organization, etc.?
What amends need to be made? How will you ensure accountability?
I acknowledge that some behaviors that can be perceived as abusive may not be intentional (for example, neglecting the needs of a quiet, shy player because they are not on your radar), but that does not excuse or justify the potential damage done. Being a tough coach to “weed out the weak” indicates being unable to be more versatile as a coach — retention of players should be treated just as importantly as other aspects of the sport.
Being a perfect coach is something you can only work towards because with every new player you roster, you will have to learn and adapt since each person is unique in how they learn and grow. This requires a coach’s behavior to always be intentional and in favor of every player’s success.
Of course, reflection and pursuing self-improvement are only the bare minimum — concrete actions must be taken as well. Abusers thrive on using manipulation, gaslighting, and victim-blaming and their narcissism prevents them from accepting any accountability for their actions. Sometimes it is not enough to make amendments. Instead the removal of these coaches, bringing them to justice, and making reparations is necessary for players to have closure.
2) Recognizing Abuse
The way that my teammates and I have interpreted Coach A’s behavior are based on the US Center for SafeSport’s definitions of abuse and misconduct. SafeSport is a non-profit organization that teaches emotional, physical, and sexual misconduct to sports communities to create safe environments for athletes. The training they provide is required by USA Ultimate to become a coach or a chaperone at their sanctioned events. More information can be found on the USAU website.
However, learning about what abuse is through a webpage or video is impersonal compared to reading about actual experiences because it is too surface-level to spark productive conversations. This is why I have compiled the accounts written by my teammates about their experience with Coach A in a separate article (the same as linked above) to provide realism and a sense of urgency.
Still, SafeSport training is extremely valuable to help identify, report, and remove toxic members of our community. Unfortunately, this training has only been required since February 2018 (so after Coach A headed the U17 team) and is exclusively meant for coaches and chaperones.
This is not enough.
Shouldn’t the players, the ones at risk of being abused or treated inappropriately, know how to recognize abusers too? I am certain that if my U17 teammates and I had been taught what abuse and misconduct looks like in the sports community, a lot of what happened with Coach A could have been avoided.
As a result, I insist that everyone, regardless of coach or chaperone or player status, should be mandated to take Safesport training each year by USA Ultimate. This will not be an inconvenience as it costs no money in addition to membership fees and does not take an egregious amount of time. It may also be beneficial to provide educational webinars sponsored by USAU or some other credible organization to players about abuse and misconduct.
3) Being Reactive: Response and Accountability
In order to successfully respond to an incident of abuse, we have to empower youth voices. Even if the players can recognize a behavior to be abusive, often they are scared they will not be believed or that they are blowing things out of proportion. Some of these fears and insecurities are because conversations about potential abuse is a topic that is rarely talked about. Treating this topic like taboo perpetuates the assumption that the ultimate community is excused from abusive coaches.
However, the reality of my experience and my teammates’ experiences invalidates that assumption. We must normalize talking about what behavior is and is not acceptable. Instead of wondering why a player did not speak up about abuse or misconduct before, ask yourself if you have created a safe space for them to speak.
I also suggest having in-season and post-season feedback forms that can be submitted anonymously. Avoid having questions that vaguely allude to dissatisfaction. Instead, explicitly address the topic of abuse and misconduct. For instance: “Have you witnessed or experienced any instances of abuse and/or misconduct?”
Additionally, build a more cohesive and formal institutional structure within your program or organization, if you do not have one already. On top of having a board that includes a president, secretary, treasurer, etc., it will be valuable to designate a position for responding to and reporting abuse and misconduct. Some specific functions could include being the point-person when cooperating with civil authorities and working with players to open up avenues for healing. Having better infrastructure will help ensure accountability for all coaches and board members.
Of course, all of those in leadership must learn how to keep their colleagues accountable and to also accept accountability for their own actions. In youth ultimate, only the adults have the responsibility of ensuring the safety of their players — a child should never be blaming themselves for any incident that occurs. It is also important to remember that “ignorance is not an excuse” (quoted verbatim from USAU’s athlete protection page) and that SafeSport trained adults must comply with mandatory reporting policies.
Coaches and mentors are role models to their players — if their wrongdoings are not acknowledged and appropriately penalized, it teaches the idea that abusive behaviors are okay and destroys trust.
4) Being Proactive: Preventing Abuse
Being proactive is even more important than being reactive because it helps create an environment in which abuse and misconduct cannot manifest.
A key way to be proactive is to have an increased awareness of what grooming may look like. Grooming is commonly thought to only be a lead up to sexual abuse or misconduct, but it can also be used by any type of abuser to manipulate the people around their target as well — this manipulation is often what creates speculation that someone could possibly be abusive because they present themselves to be a considerate, sympathetic person. It is important to keep your eyes peeled for red flags, such as gift-giving, one-on-one interactions, or communicating with minors on social media, to prevent any escalation of inappropriate behavior.
Another way to approach this is encouraging more women and non-binary players to coach rather than defaulting to (white) men. My youth program has been implementing a lot of positive changes, especially in favor of girls’ ultimate. One of those included recruiting college womxn players to help out as coaches in this summer’s virtual season. Other teams and programs should follow suit by gauging interest and opening up opportunities. Having more women and non-binary coaches in girls’ ultimate can help increase player retention and foster more confidence in young girls because there is a decreased perception of a power imbalance.
I firmly believe that having more people of color in leadership positions is also essential to leveling the power dynamics between coaches and players. This may also mean appointing veteran players of colors in captainship positions to help bridge the communication gap between coaches and rookie players of color. Deliberately striding towards equity will inevitably result in safer spaces for our youth players — representation matters!
Building environments that encourage transparency and assure accountability is also essential to being proactive. This requires establishing a positive team culture centered around trust — one of the most helpful things I have found in my experience to build trust is listening exercises. These can and should be integrated into practices, before tournaments, or other team meetings. Strengthening relationships between teammates, players, and their coaches makes confrontations or serious conversations feel more approachable so that situations can be addressed before they worsen.
Overall, everyone can make individual changes in the way they behave and those with more authority/positions of power (e.g. heads of programs, coaches, governing bodies) can make structural changes that will guide the growth of ultimate.
However, the most crucial thing is to empower youth players — help them recognize abuse and misconduct, listen when they speak, and internalize feedback you get from players. Not only will this help create safer spaces, but it will increase retention in youth players and create better pathways to success for everyone.
Final Reflections and Acknowledgements
I would like to acknowledge that my inspiration to refer to our abuser as Coach A was from the Netflix documentary Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and John Shenk. It highlights Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse and emotional manipulation of hundreds of gymnasts in the United States. Just as Maggie Nichols, the first to report Nassar’s abuse, was one of many, I believe that Coach A is unfortunately also one of many. It is definitely a tough watch but I highly recommend it.
Thank you to everyone who has read and shared what I wrote. Thank you to my teammates new and old, to all the other coaches and mentors I have had, and to everyone I have met or have yet to meet in this special community. Thank you to my youth program for evolving these last couple years in order to create and maintain safer and healthier spaces for their players.
Beyond all, thank you to my U17 teammates and to everyone I have talked to throughout this writing process. No one was obligated to talk about a wound I reopened three years (give or take) after the fact. I have an infinite amount of gratitude for everyone’s bravery, support, and encouragement!
I hope this sparks important discussions and conscious efforts to better our youth ultimate community. We must continually look out for those who have been marginalized not just in society outside of ultimate, but within our own circles as well, in order to leave a positive impact on every player. We are not excused from racism, misogyny, or homophobia. We are not excused from abusive and manipulative people.
But for every person like Coach A, there are hundreds of good people in our community. I have hope that you are one of those good people, that you read what I have to share, and take a piece of what I wrote with you.
- Link to individually written accounts about Coach A
- USA Ultimate Athlete Protection webpage- check out the different tabs at the bottom of the page: SafeSport, Background Screening, Concussion Safety, Health & Safety, Codes of Conduct
- USA Ultimate SafeSport Training (log in with paid membership to access)
- Without Limits and Girls’ Ultimate Movement: High School Girls Resource Manual
- Womxn Coaches: Why Representation Matters by Libby Cravens
- Designing Athlete-Centered Drills and Practices by Candace Yeh
- Three Keys to Building Team Culture by Rachael Romaniak
- Representation and Equity by Anraya Palmer
- Accountability in Leadership by Khunsa Amin
- Creating the Next Generation of Strong, Lifelong Leaders by Jen Pashley
- Become more educated on grooming here
- Bonnie Cohen and John Shenk: Athlete A