Coach, or Bully?

The girls field hockey coach at my daughter’s high school recently resigned amid allegations of bullying. She was last year’s city Coach of the Year and won a Division One City Championship for a school that has never had one in any sport. Was she a bully who cared about winning at all cost? Or a tough coach who demanded 100% commitment from her players?

Society’s focus on bullying is at an all-time high, and for good reason. No child should be subjected to torture or abuse a the hands of someone bigger, stronger, or in a position of power. But what constitutes “bullying” and what passes for “tough coaching”? Where is the line? And is that line blurry, subject to interpretation?

The coach in question (I’ll call her Jessica) is also the school’s girls lacrosse coach, a position she continues to hold. When she stepped down she did so with the stipulation that she was not admitting guilt to any of the allegations. She had full support of the school administration and the School District. My daughter does not play either field hockey or lacrosse, so I have to disclose that I have never actually seen this woman on the sidelines. However she attends all of my daughter’s high school soccer games as a fan and supporter. She’s young, pretty, and about 5’4”, so not at all physically intimidating.

For three seasons my daughter’s high school soccer coaches have let players get away with, what I believe is, way too much. Girls would go skiing with their parents over spring break and miss games, (games against our rival school!) and there would be no consequences. Girls would not feel like practicing, invent excuses, but then be allowed to play in the next game. Meanwhile, we heard that Jessica told her teams up front that they better not even think about going out of town for spring break, concerts, etc. if they want to play for the team. Many times the comment has been made around our dinner table that we wished she was coaching our soccer team.

But, apparently about nine parents did not like her. They complained to the school administration. The Athletic Director rightly, in my opinion, backed the coach. So, not getting satisfaction, these parents invaded a School District meeting and levied allegations. Among them were that she “belittled” their girls, and sapped them of their love of the sport and will to play. Comments that were attributed to here were, “You don’t fit in on this team,” and “You’re not good enough.” Jessica denied making those comments, but even if she had, does that make her a bully?

Without intending to prejudice the reader, I should note that this high school is not known for its athletics. It is an academy, very focused on arts and academics. Many kids play varsity sports here who would not make a more competitive school’s team. And it is a very affluent high school. Your jaw would drop at the cars parked in the student lots. My guess is that many of these kids and parents are used to getting their way.

When the article came out about the accusations in the paper, I took the coach’s side in the online comments section. I got into it with a few of the disgruntled parents, asking if they’d gone to every practice and witnessed any “abuse” first-hand. They hadn’t. They’d gotten the story from their daughters. “But why would they lie?” they asked. I know many parents and players also came to Jessica’s defense saying that she was the best coach they’d ever had. The disgruntled parents rationalized this support by claiming that those girls were given preferential treatment because they played on her club team. It sounded to me like maybe those girls were also the ones who took the sport more seriously and didn’t look at it as something to do recreationally. I was told by one of the parents who supported Jessica that the anger was all about playing time. That when Jessica brought up some girls from JV and benched players who she didn’t think were giving their all, it boiled over.

Here was the point I tried to make to the furious parents. When does this parental involvement end? Five years from now, when your daughter is in the workplace and has a jerk for a boss are you going to storm into the CEO’s office and demand he be fired? Situations like this are how young people learn the skills they’ll need to cope later in life when, presumably, mommy and daddy aren’t there to save the day.

If your child isn’t playing, if the coach “doesn’t like” her, before demanding she be fired, maybe look in the mirror first. Ask yourself what you could do to make her “like you” more. Show up for practice a half hour early. Stay a half hour after. Work outside of team activities and improve. Ask the coach what you need to do to earn more playing time and do it. That’s my advice to the players. My advice to the parents? Unless this coach has physically assaulted your daughters, let her coach and let the girls toughen up. This is an opportunity for them to learn a tremendously valuable lesson that will serve them the rest of their lives.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at He can be reached at