Good Hit, Bad Hit: Abuse of Girls in Sports

2013-06-27 T21:00 Post has been updated to add missing links.


Guest Blogger Bio: Miranda Freawine is a student studying obscure Medieval texts.  She’s a long-time Feministe lurker and occasionally publishes feminist-themed screeds in her campus newspaper, for which she has received much (usually entertaining) hate mail.  She’s begun, tentatively, to tell her own story of abuse at The True and Entirely Disrespectful Confessions of a Former Teenage Black Belt.  She now competes in Olympic-style Tae Kwon Do for a local university.


I might not remember what it felt like learning that I had passed my black belt test, but I do remember the first time my instructor asked me whether I had the ‘hots’ for another student.

I told him I didn’t want to discuss it.  So he put me in a headlock so that I couldn’t breathe and told me that good Tae Kwon Do students always do what “teacher” says.  When he released me, I said, “Yes, sir.”

I was twelve years old.

I was a good student.

*****

My story is rarely told but depressingly common.  Studies of female athletes indicate appallingly high rates of bullying, sexual harassment, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse at the hands of (usually male) coaches.  The problem starts in local pick-up leagues and reaches its grimy hands into elite international competition.  Some studies even suggest that the higher one climbs in the sports world, the worse the problems get.  Terrible abusers can be wonderful coaches.

*****

If I can’t take away the fact that my instructor was an abuser, I wish I could take away the fact that he was good.  He taught me the hip tuck just like that, the lifting of the knee just-so that still evoke compliments today.  Even when the PTSD is gone, my body will remember him in other ways.  I had good training.  The man who trained me was a child abuser.  They can’t both be true.  They are both true.

*****

Why does it happen?  For every reason and no reason.  Human cruelty.  Oppression.  The intoxication of privilege and power.  The hyper-masculinization of sports.  The devaluation of female athletes.  The close relationship between coach and athlete, Sensei and student.  The trust, the connection, the belief (sometimes warranted) that you must put up with anything, anything if you want to win.

Lack of oversight is tremendously damaging.  In my story, neither the police nor CPS were able to do anything: CPS, because a privately owned club doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction in my state; the police, because the county prosecutor wasn’t interested in borderline things that happened years ago.  What else can I do?  There is no board of Tae Kwon Do Players to appeal to.  None that would care about my story, at least.  Yelp reviews open me up to lawsuits and retaliatory harassment.

Then, the ignorance: a wholesome-looking ex-military officer couldn’t possibly hurt children.  Child abuse doesn’t happen in leafy suburbs.  The warning signs were all there, gruesomely bright.  No one saw.  No one wanted to see.

There are also problems unique to contact sport: how do you distinguish between a good hit and a bad hit? What is discipline and what is damaging, exploitative hyper-obedience?  What is training and what is some creep’s fantasy of violent control over girls?  I am a survivor of the latter, and I have had plenty of the former.  Even I can’t explain the difference.  Why should I expect a cop to?

*****

Whenever I write about this topic, I feel old and sad.  The anger left long ago.  I’m weary of people telling me to take sports to empower myself; sports destroyed me.  I’m weary of victim blamers telling me to learn martial arts to defend myself; my abuser was my martial arts teacher.

I’m weary of listening to men deprecate the state of female athletics.  Do you want to know one of the reasons why girls don’t do athletics or martial arts or drop out of elite sports at record levels?  Because (usually male) coaches are driving them away, as they do in every other sector of society.  Hitting them, humiliating them, harassing them, raping them, abusing them.  Us.


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30 Responses to Good Hit, Bad Hit: Abuse of Girls in Sports

  1. A4 says:

    Thank you so much for this.

  2. jemand says:

    I wish I could tell my old coaches how much I now appreciate what they did, and *didn’t* do.

    I wasn’t in the baseball team because I wanted to be, my parents wanted me there, and I was the only girl on the team. The coaches were unfailingly patient even given my occasions of bad attitude from not wanting to be there, or frustration from the work.

    I wish I could look them up and tell them how much I appreciated it, how much I learned about being in male dominated spaces from that which I now can use in my male dominated work field…

    I hope nobody I interacted with held my sometimes poor performance against women in general. I don’t think the coaches do, given their respectful treatment of me at the time, but maybe some of my once team mates.

    I don’t even remember the details necessary to even start looking them up to say thank you.

  3. taz says:

    Maybe we shouldn’t hype sports! Because you are not alone! It happens each and every day. To both sex’s! Maybe if we turnned down the sports hype some of it would go down!
    We turn on TV and what do we see. Sports hype. Football, basketball, baseball and everything else! Our schools are full of it. Who’s on the football team! Oh they can’t do anything wrong! Those people in charge wouldn’t do that! BS! Yes they can and yes they will!
    From a very young age its pushed. And boy is it! My oldest son played T-ball. Some of the teams coaches acted like these kids were adults! Screaming at them. These were six year olds! It was T-Ball! Needless to say, after two years he didn’t go back!
    Our higher schools are full of it! Can you say Football rape! And the coaches cover it up. Our colleges are more known for their sports then their non-sports programs!
    Maybe if all of the hype about sports would be turnned down, just maybe there would be less stories from girls (boys to) about this abuse! Just maybe!

    • Tim says:

      Yes to this. At the very least, we could drop the sports-as-war metaphors.

    • A4 says:

      My problem with competitive physical sports is that the situation uses a fake reward as a movement motivator. All of the movement is geared towards a state of “winning”, which is a pretty arbitrary state of affairs in all cases. If ten people play a soccer game and then eat lunch together afterwards, you won’t be able to pick out who is a “winner” and who is a “loser” unless they emblazon it on their chest.

      You will, however, be able to pick out the person with a sprained ankle.

      The situation creates a false reward, and encourages the participants to sacrifice real things to it: positive emotions, self worth, and actual flesh and blood (“Walk it off!”)

      The result is that physical education creates a lot of injury, but not very much actual knowledge of one’s own physicality. It also teaches people that movement outside the normal class (walk stand sit point) must be justified by competition, rather than creativity, or the joy of experiencing your body, or just your own subjective needs that don’t have to do with anyone’s scoring system.

      • Miranda says:

        @A4,

        Wellll…I agree with you to a certain extent. On the other hand, in terms of my own experiences…

        The vast, vast majority of traditional martial arts is based on a ranking system, in which personal growth is prioritized over winning. Right now I’m in an entirely competition-focused style and club. I’ve seen focus on rank and so-called “personal growth” do terrible, terrible, toxic things to clubs; in the martial arts world, competition creates a way of objectively measuring oneself against someone else of equal experience and weight, and honestly that objectivity, built-in fairness, and the fact everyone is training towards a concrete goal (competition) actually cuts down on an awful lot of BS. Just my 2 cents.

        But I agree with you when it comes to sports culture in general.

      • A4 says:

        Thanks for the ha’ penny!

      • A4 says:

        And your blog is amazing and I feel super lucky that you are sharing your perspective online like this.

      • Tim says:

        Yes, the emphasis on winning and the winner-take-all mentality are certainly problems, and the insidious effects are in evidence in sports but in places like the vile “reality” shows and it is toxic and corrosive to society.

        But my real problem with competitive sports in the school system is that they have nothing to do with education, with physical education, health education or any other subject. Nothing to do with physical fitness, certainly not for the great majority of students and nothing to do with preparation for lifelong fitness. The system has everything to do with identifying the 10 percent or so who are athletically promising, starting in kindergarten, and tracking them into the sports programs and everybody else can just rot.

  4. elfabla says:

    I actually left my tae kwon do club because of the misogyny of my coach and male class mates. I remember one incident where our instructor instructed all the female students, all teenagers, to go the the end of the hall to do press ups. I overheard the instructor talking with a male student, also a teenager, about how they should be able to see down the top of our loose fitting convential martial arts suits. I am sure I wasnt the only girl that was fully aware of their intentions but we all walked down and did as he said because we had been trained to be obedient above all. All the male students gathered at the top of the hall, all in on the joke, all waiting for a show.

    • Miranda says:

      Elfabla,

      That kind of petty, misogynistic power-tripping sounds incredibly familiar. For many years, I also just put up with it, because “obedience.” I’m sorry that happened and that you had a bad experience. And, I’m glad you walked away. One day all these juvenile “masters” will realize how pathetic they are.

  5. Kathleen says:

    What were the warning signs? I’m asking because I have a small daughter who shows a lot of interest in athletics. What should parents be looking for?

    I am sorry this happened to you, and I am glad it sounds like you are again finding away to enjoy the sport you love.

    • A4 says:

      The warning signs are ideas that minimize the importance of personal comfort and safety. This often comes in the form of constructing obedience as a virtue “Don’t defy your coach” , constructing a lack of self-care as contribution to a team “you’re letting everyone else down”, constructing pain as both virtuous and a sign of strength “walk it off” “pain is weakness leaving the body” “no pain no gain”.

      Those are low level warning signs that are not very conclusive because those mentalities, while harmful, are also very widespread in competitive physical disciplines.

      The next progression of these principles is requiring activities whose only goal is to inflict pain because pain supposedly is good and leads to toughness. Examples are: Arduous exercise to the point of injury. Verbal abuse. Anything where the coach pushes someone (often literally) past their physical limits.

      Also look at the level of parental involvement. Are you encouraged to come and watch practice? Are you consulted about your child’s athletic development? Does the coach seem to want an involved parent or see you as an obstacle in the “coach-athlete” relationship?

      These would be the things I would look at first.

  6. Miranda says:

    I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, some of which are martial arts- specific. With J*******, the biggest warning signs were things that only the other instructors were seeing or would have been able to see: patterns of complaints, witnessing similar styles of bullying over and over, a bad temper, picking out certain (often skinny young/minor female) students for “special” treatment. J******* was also a bit delusional–he believed he had psychic powers, which he told his “favorite” students and the other instructors. The other teachers just blew him off–that’s J******* being stupid again! But the problem is that vulnerable ten year olds might not understand that special tae kwon do master powers don’t actually exist. Because J******* wasn’t stupid, he disguised his bad behavior well enough that only students who had been there for a long time or the other teachers were really seeing the truly gross stuff. But of course, these were people who are already really invested in the club and felt unsure about what they could do; typical bystander effect type stuff. I know all of this–what the other instructors had seen, for example–from going back and talking to several former staff members, whom I recently looked up on facebook. (Boy, my message to them was shocking!)

    If your kid is doing a martial art, unfortunately there are all sorts of landmines to watch out for; there are a lot of schools that, while not actually abusive, will more or less rip parents off and teach nonsense. Martial arts politics can get pretty bad too. Googling “McDojo” should turn up plenty of information.

    In terms of general sports–well, I’m not an expert. Some questions I would consider asking: are there are other females in the club? Are their advanced, high-ranking, or older females? Is there a pattern of female students or certain types of students leaving? Does the teacher/coach have a “win at all costs” attitude? Does the teacher/coach ever lose patience or control? Do they yell or hit? Do they ever place their hands on a student/player in a way that is not purely instructional? Do they seem to bully any particular students? Are parents allowed to watch practice or discouraged from it? If they are not allowed to watch class, are there other adults present during it? (J******* was often the only adult in the building, and parents were strongly discouraged from watching; when a parent did watch, J******* was a very different person indeed.) Does the coach ever use gender-based put-downs (“don’t hit like a girl!” “you look like a bunch of ladies!”) or attempt to shame the boys by comparing them to the girls? Are the coaches power-trippy: do they ever seem to enjoy their power over their charges just a little bit too much? Do the coaches go on over-night trips with the players or on movie nights and, if so, are they ever alone with particular students? Do they ever comment on a player/student’s appearance, in both positive and negative ways, (“you look fat”/”you look sexy”) or try to control the player/student outside sports practice (“go on a diet,” as distinct from cutting weight, or “your boyfriend needs to be approved by me”)? Do they make any -ist remarks: sexist, racist, ableist, et cetera?These are just some questions that come to mind.

    Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s often the talented, charismatic coaches that you have to watch out for–because it is much easier for abuse to hide under a bright smile and good coaching.

    [Moderator Note: name of instructor redacted]

    • tigtog says:

      A talented, charismatic dance coach was recently arrested here in Sydney for multiple offences, including sexual assault of a minor and possession of child pornography. The dance studio he ran with his sister (who alongside his wife reported him to police after compromising photos were found on his computer) was one of the most successful in Australia. His arrest has left the dance industry/community here reeling, because his reputation was stellar and his students adored him.

      • Miranda says:

        Oops, that post was meant to be a reply to Kathleen. Sorry. :(

        “J[redacted]” isn’t his real name, no worries! It’s a pseudonym. On my personal blog, I’ve been very careful to make sure my old club can’t be identified.

        In the martial arts world, similarly, there was huge scandal when a really great BJJ gym turned out to harbor some rapists. Ryan Hall, a big name in BJJ, talks about it here.

    • Kathleen says:

      Thank you, Miranda. This is really specific and helpful.

      One of the things that must keep this stuff “under wraps” is what you said about departures — just that a lot of people might simply drop out (or withdraw their kids) instead of making a fuss, and if the facility isn’t tracking that (or decides that means their coach separates the wheat from the chaff, or something like that), then parents and kids will have no way of knowing when they show up as newbies.

      Everything else — I’m going to make a note! Many many thanks.

    • wanttobeanon says:

      I ask this respectfully but – are we not allowed to name our abusers now? Can someone please explain to me why this guy’s name (which was a pseudonym anyway) was redacted here?

  7. Sierra says:

    I’m a long-time lurker to this site too, and I was really happy to discover your site a while ago (I sent you a message on Google+ to that effect, but I don’t really know how to use that site and I may have done it wrong, so I’m commenting here), and to see you posting here. As someone who’s been involved with combat sports for over ten years (wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, grappling and MMA), I’ve seen abuses like this over and over, of male and female students, of young kids and high school kids and university students as well. I don’t think there’s enough education out there about the abusive potential in a coach-athlete relationship, about the dangers of the way athletes are conditioned to listen to their coaches.

    I really love that someone’s writing the things you are about these issues, and I’m very sorry all these things have happened to you. I think you’re very brave for sharing your story publicly (as seen by the fact that I tried to private message you my feelings on the subject, and didn’t want to put them in a comment on a public forum), so thank you for writing your blog.

    Also, I swear I’ve seen the exact scene you describe at the beginning take place on a wrestling mat, with a (male) fourteen-year-old’s (male) coach making sexual jokes about him and a thirty-year-old woman.

    • Miranda says:

      Sierra,

      (For some reason this commenting thingie isn’t letting me embed my reply in your comment. Sorry. :( )

      Thank you so much for your response; I really appreciate your kind and supportive words. I wish I had received your message; I just wanted to say that I hadn’t ignored it, I just hadn’t received it (or haven’t sufficiently figured out google+). If you want, message me at confessionsofablackbelt@gmail.com. On the one hand, it’s sad to hear that you’ve seen the same horrible situation play out over and over again in combat sports. On the other hand, it’s a relief to know that I’m not the only one who seems to see abuse everywhere in our sub-culture. I wish I knew what to do to make it stop, but the problem just seems too big and too expansive and too multi-faceted.

  8. Eleanor says:

    In a horrifying coincidence – the man who ran a youth basketball league (ages more less 5-10) all the years both my sons played in that league has just been charged with sex crimes with a minor and posession of child pornography.

    Ew. ew. ew.

    And no. No signs. At all.

    In fact, he was like the opposite of everything on A4’s list above. Patient, all about fun, comfort, skill development in a supportive atmosphere, parents everywhere all the time (he relied on parents to coach most of the teams, actually – only so many places one man can be at once….) But, reminiscent of the whole Penn State horror – it was a Salvation Army league and it sounds (from the few paragraphs in the news) like he targeted a boy from a family recieving other assistance from the organization.

    Just ew. And he has kids of his own too…..

    • A4 says:

      Ugh that is awful.

      And I’m glad you pointed out that he wasn’t anything like my list. Sometimes there are no warning signs.

      My list is much more useful for recognizing how competitive sports creates a culture that allows for open and accepted abuse. Abuse where the perpetrator knows that everyone will think it is unacceptable and works very hard to keep it a secret is by definition very hard to detect from warning signs.

      • Eleanor says:

        Absolutely. This particular guy was hiding his abuse, consciously. Though his fellow SA workers eventually got creeped out and brought in the authorities…leading to the arrest that made the news this week.

        Youth sports culture in general right now is extremely competitive. Most sports encourage club as well as school team participation so you’re looking at year round committments, four to five days a week – even for kids who are still in middle school. Sometimes even younger. All in an environment that pushes kids very hard to improve/excel/win. Should the family has more than one kid, intense parental involvment gets hard, even if the program welcomes it. (And boring. And unpleasant. Slacker parent confession – I hate watching swim practices. Loud, hot, humid, reeking of chlorine…. migraine incubator to the max. I don’t stay.) Creates very intense, very hot-house like environments for kids and their coaches.

        My older son has continued to play basketball competitively into highschool and some coaches are truly horrible, screamy people. I have no reason to suspect anything untoward, but the whole scene encourages abusive behavior, sexist behavior, grossly misogynist behavior, bullying behavior – all excused with a shrug and a handwave about how this is the nature of ‘sport’ today.

        With sports that focus on individual competitions and a very close coach/athelete relationship, like Martial Arts — the potential for that sliding over to what the OP describes is so easy, and so hard to see if you aren’t actively looking for it.

      • Alexandra says:

        I was at a local park a few weeks ago exercising my dog, and there was a Little League team practicing. The coach, a middle aged man in a ball cap and shorts, was absolutely bellowing at these kids, non-stop yelling. He wasn’t insulting them or telling them they were doing it wrong; he was just giving deafening, constant feedback about every single thing every child did. It was stressing me out, and I’m an adult woman who’s never played baseball voluntarily (high school gym doesn’t count ;-D ).

        Well, no – let me take that back. When I was eleven and twelve, my father taught my brother and I the basics of catching and hitting, and we played pickup games of pickle and so on in our backyard with the neighborhood kids, with our babysitters, etc. Neither my brother or I were very good, but it didn’t matter, because the game was about bonding with friends and family… no yelling involved, just gentle ribbing the fifth time I failed to catch a slowball. I miss it, really.

  9. This is one of the reasons why if the coach doesn’t allow parents to be present as observers during the activity, my kid doesn’t participate. I don’t need to be an active part of the lesson, and I’m happy to sit quietly so as not to disrupt. However, I will be within sight/earshot at all times and I am happy to make as large a scene as necessary to curtail bad behavior.

    I’m lucky that I have a job that allows me to do this, and a couple times I’ve taken video on my phone to show parents who can’t be there for lessons so that they know what is going on.

  10. wanttobeanon says:

    Really great post. Being the non-athletic can’t-get-the-volleyball-over-the-net type I’ve never even considered the potential that exists for abuse in extracurricular sports situations. Thank you.

  11. pillowinhell says:

    I wonder if they’ll ever put this post in a dove ad supporting girls atheletics.

  12. eksnewyork says:

    Thank you. I’m currently getting ready to testify at the parole hearing for my former dance coach who is serving a 10 year sentence for sexual abuse of his underage students. I was one of so many i can’t even count it. This isn’t talked about enough.

    • Miranda says:

      Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that this has happened, though I would be lying to say that I am surprised. I wish you luck and strength and healing.

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