Toxic Coaching Can Kill Young Athletes' Confidence — and the Effects May Last For Years

Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez still shudders when she thinks about how her childhood coaches talked about her body. "As a young teen, I remember that any comments my coaches made about my body stuck with me — both the 'compliments' and the critiques," she tells POPSUGAR. "One that comes to mind is being called 'boxy' during my pubescent years. I remember not thinking anything of my body, until I heard this. Unfortunately, to this day, it's something I tend to catch myself thinking when I look in the mirror."

Similarly, Alyssa Larsen of Tampa, FL, still thinks about the day her youth dance coach pulled her up in front of her fellow ballerinas and compared her body to another dancer's. Larsen was shorter than the girl beside her who she recalls had noticeably long legs and was a very graceful dancer. "The coach lined us up next to each other, and — in front of everyone — she said something like: See how Alyssa has that stalkier build not made for ballet, and her movements are more heavy. And see how this girl has the body type for ballet, and it looks like she's walking on water," Larsen says. "It was around middle school when everyone was going through puberty, and we were already feeling awkward in our bodies," she recalls. Comments like these didn't help and were pervasive for Larsen growing up, eventually discouraging her from trying out for her college dance team.

Both Larsen and Hernandez have spent years unlearning the narratives their coaches taught them. And they're not alone. As authority figures during a pivotal time in our lives, our coaches' words can have lasting impacts on our future relationships with fitness — and our feelings about our own bodies, research is showing. "Comments made by coaches can impact self-perceptions, confidence, body image, motivation, self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and more," says Nicole LaVoi, PhD, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota.

"For girls 11 to 17, coaches — and other significant adults and peers — are the primary social influences," Dr. LaVoi tells POPSUGAR. "Girls' perceived competence, or how she thinks another [person] thinks about her, is the biggest predictor of staying in sport and continuing fitness." We all remember the time in our lives when we felt self-conscious like everyone was watching us, even if they weren't (some of us still feel that way at times) — and this "perceived competence" can be exacerbated based on what our coaches say, Dr. LaVoi notes. This can be extrapolated to all young athletes of any gender, and this is true whether a child joined a soccer league just to hang out with their friends (and for the orange slices, of course), or they're competing at the highest level like Hernandez.

That's not to say that coaches can only have a negative influence on young athletes. They can also be part of what inspires any young person to stick with sports and feel more confident in general. For example, Morgan King, a 25-year-old in New Jersey, looks back fondly on how her youth soccer coach encouraged her and her teammates to play for fun and how her tap coach preached that King should believe in her own strength: "That, just because I didn't look a certain way, I was still a strong dancer who was valuable," King says. Although she had other negative, even toxic, experiences with different coaches throughout the years, she's thankful for the good ones. These positive interactions have helped to inform the way she coaches today with The Volo Kids Foundation, a national organization that exists to allow kids access to sports for free and was founded in response to the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD.

King says her positive early experiences helped undo some of the more negative associations with fitness that other coaches (as well as media and society) preached — including that working out had to be all about aesthetics or peak performance.

Dr. LaVoi confirms that the coaches who have the most helpful and lasting impact are the ones who encourage athletes to have fun and just do their personal best. They teach their athletes not to compare themselves to others, that mistakes are part of learning, and that it's best to "focus on what you can control, improve, and grow in comparison to yourself." They're the ones who help you appreciate what your body can do — not how it looks. Ultimately, this approach can "instill a lifetime of enjoyment" when it comes to movement, rather than fear or shame.

However, Dr. LaVoi notes that we do tend to remember the upsetting or harmful experiences more than the heart-warming ones. "We have a negativity bias, where we focus on the negative things coaches say rather than positive, which is why in coaching science we teach communication and feedback should be 90 percent positive and constructive," she notes.

Coaching is changing — for the better, if slowly.

For a long time, the stereotypical depiction of a coach was an old dude in a headset yelling from the sidelines. But in recent years, there's been a shift in what we perceive a coach to be — in part thanks to pop culture and shows like Ted Lasso, but also because of work like Dr. LaVoi's.

"I think the best thing coaches can do for an athlete's body confidence is to remind them and show them what their bodies can do, rather than focus on how they look."

For instance, a recent campaign from Nike and Dove, known as Body Confident Sport, partnered with athletes like Venus Williams and Hernandez, as well as Dr. LaVoi, to help guide coaches toward more body-positive coaching styles. The hope was that this would help more young folks stay in sports and improve their mindsets. As Williams said at the launch in October, which POPSUGAR attended, "Sports changed my life. [They] taught me every single thing I know today, resilience, how to win, how to lose, how to be confident . . . and how to deal with it when you don't feel confident."

The campaign offers free resources and coaching steps that are scientifically proven to improve body confidence in young folks, per clinical trials with more than 1,200 girls. One of the top things it teaches, Dr. LaVoi notes, is that "body talk" should be off-limits — there shouldn't be any comments from coaches about what young athletes look like, either positive or negative.

Hernandez agrees. "I think the best thing coaches can do for an athlete's body confidence is to remind them and show them what their bodies can do, rather than focus on how they look," she tells POPSUGAR. "The process of self-acceptance begins with our gratitude for what our bodies are capable of — and if athletes are shown this at a young age, I feel that it would affect everyone in a positive light, especially when it comes to life after sports."

Meanwhile, at operations like Volo, leaders like King make sure they're training coaches and volunteers on working with kiddos in ways that bring about better associations with fitness. For example, when I attended a Volo coach training this fall, King asked volunteers what they thought they should do if a child was misbehaving. When someone raised their hand and suggested punishing them with laps around the track or crunches, King was kind and clear to steer them to a different approach. "We never want to punish anyone with more fitness," she told POPSUGAR on a later phone call. "My gym teacher used to make us run laps in the freezing cold if we messed up, and I hated running until three years ago because of that reason." King's goal is to stop other kids from learning that negative association. "Our approach is more so: 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder.' We might pull them aside and talk to them, or have them sit out for a drill," she explains.

Undoing the damage a coach has done

Although the movement toward more thoughtful coaching is important, it's not always helpful if you've already had negative coaching experiences or you come across a coach today who's careless or cruel. Dr. LaVoi knows what this is like.

"I dropped out of basketball because the coach told me I had 'Herschel Walker thighs' — which, as a young girl, that was not a compliment that made me feel good about my body; it reinforced dominant narratives about how a girl's body 'should' look," she remembers. This type of commentary stuck with her for years, eventually leading to nearly a decade of disordered eating behaviors and choosing tennis as a sport, which she believed was more "feminine and appropriate."

Later on, Dr. LaVoi learned to flip the script her basketball coach tried to write for her. Today, she's led research to help combat the stigmas that harmed her in her youth, and has developed some strategies for overwriting the narratives coaches can create. "Focus on the joy of moving your body — how it feels and what it can do," Dr. LaVoi suggests. "Ask: What do you enjoy? Do not compare yourself to others. Find active role models that do what you like to do . . . [But know] your perception of your body should come from within, not from others."

King also sought out information to help untangle the beneficial lessons from the "toxic" ones that coaches taught her over the years. For example, she devoured ideas from the book "Homo Ludens" by Johan Huizinga, dedicated herself to the concept of "play for the sake of playing," and is currently getting her master's in sports business at Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport at NYU.

All of these choices and shifts in thinking helped King to heal her relationship with running; now she doesn't focusm on going super fast or a mile goal, but on "feeling like a kid again." She also felt seen by the book "Good For a Girl" by Lauren Fleshman, which made her feel less alone looking back on her negative dance experiences during puberty. "I thought I was alone for more than 20 years in how I felt about sports, and finding someone else with a similar experience provided representation that I didn't know I needed," she says.

Dr. LaVoi adds that implementing positive affirmations regarding movement can be helpful in healing your inner child athlete. Larsen, now 28, notes this approach has helped her as she's tried to undo the damage her coach caused, starting with comparing her to another athlete. "For years, I wanted to work out because I wanted to be the best or I wanted to be skinny," she says. Today, she's been practicing gratitude for what her body can do and shifting her mindset so that it's not about appearance. Instead she prioritizes just having fun, feeling energized, and telling herself, "Good job." She hypes herself up with affirmations whenever she has a win, like upping her weights in the gym or increasing her pace in the mile — but it's more about cheering herself on than about the goals themselves.

Hernandez, like Larsen, is still slowly working to repair their relationship with fitness, and wants others going through the same journey to know they're not alone. "I get it — for the longest time post-gymnastics, I avoided going to gyms and thinking about diets because all of it felt like punishment, or like I was somehow betraying my body even though exercise is really good for us." Her biggest piece of advice: start small. "To get back into being active, you don't need to make a beeline to your local gym," Hernandez says. "You're allowed to go for long walks in the neighborhood (if you can), or go swimming, rock climbing, dancing, cycling, or something else. Working out is not solely dumbbells and treadmills; it's a celebration — every time — of what your body can do, and the freedom to let it do these amazing things."