Damien Cox: Abusive coaching isn’t just a hockey thing. Maybe Peters-Aliu will help that discussion

It’s about hockey, sure. But not just about hockey.

The more we make the discussion about abusive practices in coaching just about hockey, the less potential for comprehensive change in sport we’re unleashing.

Hockey, after all, has more impact than any other sport in this country. Last weekend, Canadian tennis players competed for the prestigious Davis Cup, and the CFL held its annual joust for the Grey Cup. But almost before those contests were even completed, a dark discussion about coaching practices in hockey was overshadowing everything, starting with the revelation of Mike Babcock’s unique psychological approach to coaching Mitch Marner and including the derogatory vocal stylings of Bill Peters, as well as Peters’ alleged tendency to physically assault players as he coached them.

Actually, it started before that. The attention of the country was riveted earlier this month on Don Cherry, the voice of Coach’s Corner on “Hockey Night in Canada,” when he at long last surrendered his bully pulpit after angrily lecturing the country’s immigrant population on how they should behave on Remembrance Day.

Cherry wasn’t “coaching” per se, but his entire approach to broadcasting has been to speak from the power position of the coach, the man in charge, the man who believes you must do what he says. Or face the consequences. Or be mocked as unmanly and shamed as a sissy on national television.

That, folks, is the paradigm that still drives too much of coaching in all sports in this country. And if you think it just happens in hockey you are so very, very wrong. It’s swimming, lacrosse, gymnastics, tennis, soccer, skiing. It’s in every sport. Male and female.

Regardless of sport, victims are so traumatized by their experiences that only 15 per cent report their abuse, according to a national study — released in May, of 1,000 Canadian national team athletes — by researchers at the University of Toronto. Most bury their abuse and try not to talk about it, like Akim Aliu did for a decade.

“While recognizing the numerous potential benefits that sport participation has to offer, it is also important to acknowledge that for some athletes, sport is a harmful experience, characterized by various forms of maltreatment,” wrote Dr. Gretchen Kerr, a professor at the University of Toronto. “Although most of the attention to date has been focused on the experiences of sexual abuse, the findings indicate that athletes experience psychological abuse and neglect to a far greater extent than other forms.

“Most troubling are that neglectful and psychologically harmful behaviours such as the use of demeaning, threatening or humiliating comments, and denying basic needs such as food, water and safe training conditions, are accepted as normal practices in sport.

“We wouldn’t accept such behaviours in any other walk of life so why should athletes have to endure these?”

Ambition, of course, drives much of this. The ambition of the coach, and the behaviour he or she believes will help them climb the rungs of their sport. Also, the ambition of the athletes, depending on their age, and more important the ambition of parents, who are willing to either look the other way or actually accept abusive behaviour as part of the price to be paid if their child is to make it to the big time. Suck it up, right? If you disagree with the coach and the coach picks another player, then what?

Usually, the rage and shame is all kept inside the athlete. Until the rage and shame can’t be kept inside any longer, and reveal themselves through negative health outcomes such as suicide, self-abuse, drug abuse and eating disorders.

“Athletes rarely report, plain and simple,” says former national team skier Allison Forsyth, a member of AthletesCAN, the group that sponsored the U of T research.

Earlier this year, Forsyth filed a suit against disgraced national team ski coach Bertrand Charest over his treatment of her, and she says Alpine Canada also bears responsibility.

“(Athletes) are not comfortable (reporting) or feel safe doing so with anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome,” she said. “I reported and did not experience a positive outcome. It is not easy being the whistleblower.”

In Aliu’s case, he probably couldn’t imagine anyone in the hockey industry wanting to hear his story. Remember Cherry demeaning a group of former NHL enforcers as “pukes” on the CBC for saying they believed fighting in hockey exposed players to substance abuse? That’s what happens to whistleblowers, in hockey and other sports.

When the Marner/Babcock story came to light this week, my own reaction was to tweet that it obviously wasn’t that big a deal because Marner thrived under Babcock and signed a $65-million contract last summer. Basically saying that because Marner’s a star and rich, anything Babcock said or did to him, however humiliating or embarrassing, was OK. Which, as I re-examine my own words, makes me part of the problem too, doesn’t it?

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We all need to constantly examine and re-examine how we look at sports, not just at the professional level but with our kids. Do they really need to play for that elite team even if the coach yells at the kids a lot? Would we accept it if their math teacher punished them with the algebra equivalent of a “bag skate” when they couldn’t quite get it right?

At higher levels, where the focus is on results and money, the challenge becomes even more difficult. Everyone wants to get paid. Nobody wants to create controversy in their sport for fear it will scare off corporate sponsorship. So the silence continues.

Hockey can be the opener to a much broader conversation here. A “Let’s Talk” conversation about what we should expect and demand from coaches of all sports at all levels in this country.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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