Abuse in youth sports can take several forms, but all involve a power imbalance, usually the power of the coach, athlete guardian or a parent over the athlete.

The following information should help you identify the different forms abuse or neglect can take, though it is not a complete list of behaviors that are considered abuse and neglect.

If you suspect abuse or neglect, read about what you should do here.

Emotional Abuse

  • Name calling
  • Insulting
  • Shouting
  • Belittling
  • Threatening
  • Humiliating
  • Scapegoating
  • Ignoring
  • Rejecting
  • Bullying
  • Taunting
  • Shunning
  • Isolating
  • Gaslighting
  • Quick oscillation between praise and criticism
  • Refusing to give corrections to the athlete
  • Promoting disordered eating

Physical Abuse

  • Slapping
  • Hitting
  • Shaking
  • Throwing equipment at or near a player
  • Kicking
  • Pulling hair or ears
  • Striking
  • Shoving
  • Grabbing
  • Hazing
  • Punishing “poor” play or rule violations through the use of excessive exercise 
  • Punishing “poor” play or rule violations by denying fluids 
  • Punishing by the denial of sustenance or food 
  • Rough physical corrections of position/movement

Sexual Abuse

  • Requesting sexual acts
  • Indecent exposure
  • Fondling genitals or breasts
  • Penetration
  • Rape
  • Sodomy
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Exposure to pornographic materials 
  • Creation of child sexual abuse materials

Neglect in Sports

  • Improperly treating injuries and forcing injured athletes to play
  • Inadequate equipment
  • Lack of supervision during overnight trips
  • Allowing bullying or hazing by teammates
  • Not having basic needs met such as food/water

Key points to remember:

  • Different types of abuse often occur at the same time; for example, while physically or sexually abusing a child, an adult often emotionally abuses them as well.
  • All genders can be victims of abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse, and coaches of all genders can be perpetrators.
  • There are no excuses for abusing or neglecting a child.
  • Abuse and neglect are NEVER the child’s fault. 

We urge you to discuss this information with your child in an age-appropriate way so they are aware of what counts as inappropriate treatment. Our Kids Reading List can help give you the tools to begin those conversations!

Signs of abuse in sports that can be seen in the abusive Athlete Guardians or abused Athletes

It is important to understand that athletes who have experienced long-term abuse may develop complex PTSD (C-PTSD) which presents differently than our “traditional” idea of PTSD (which can include flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, emotional hyper-reactivity). C-PTSD presents with emotional dysregulation, but symptoms also include shame and guilt, distorted perceptions of self, relationship difficulties, dissociation, and low-level paranoia. (Please see our resource “The Basics of Trauma” for more information on PTSD vs. C-PTSD)

There will be some trauma survivors who develop symptoms that spontaneously remit, and there will be some who never become symptomatic at all. This is especially true because sports culture encourages obedience and the suppression of emotions (Sinden, 2013). Athletes may struggle in ways that don’t mimic traditional clinical features. It’s important we are educated on trauma-informed care and athlete culture to maximize the likelihood of identifying symptoms the athlete might have ambivalence about sharing.

For purposes of this resource, we have defined “athlete guardian” as anyone charged with the safety of the athlete. This could be a parental guardian, coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist, sports doctor, physician, etc.

When the athlete:

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes which the child may be hesitant to talk about or try to keep them covered
  • Change in dress for practice to cover unexplained bumps or bruises
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after a practice or travel with the team
  • Seems frightened of any of the staff and protests or cries when it is time to go to practice
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults
  • Reports injury by a coach, teacher or any one else within the organization 

When the athlete guardian: 

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury 
  • Describes the child as “evil,” or in some other very negative way
  • Uses harsh physical discipline with the child
  • Has a history of abuse as a child

When the athlete:

  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Has injuries that are not cared for, or is forced to continue with training or competing with an injury 
  • Reports inadequate equipment for training or competition
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • States that there is no one at training or competition that is supervising the athletes
  • Alludes to a pattern of hazing or bullying within the team 

When the athlete guardian: 

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child 
  • Seems apathetic or depressed 
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner 
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs

When the athlete:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities 
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior 

When the athlete guardian: 

  • Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children
  • Is secretive and isolated 
  • Is jealous or controlling with family members
  • Is constantly watching the child and all their interactions

When the athlete:

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression 
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development
  • Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example) 

When the athlete guardian: 

  • Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child 
  • Is unconcerned about the child and refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems 
  • Overtly rejects or dismisses the child

Effects of abuse in Sports

  • Bruises that may be odd to the specific sports activity
  • Burns, cuts, broken bones
  • Longer-term effects of brain damage and permanent disabilities
  • Impaired physical development
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (sexual abuse specifically)
  • Lower academic achievement and poorer school performance
  • Emotional and psychological consequences:
    • Low self-esteem
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Impaired attachment
    • Eating disorders
    • Poor body image 
    • Mistrust of others
    • Poor peer relationships
    • Difficulty regulating emotions
    • self-harming behavior including cutting and suicide attempts
    • Suicide
  • Behavior consequences:
    • An increased risk of violent behavior
    • Antisocial behavior
    • Juvenile delinquency
    • Involvement in crime in adulthood
    • Substance use
  • Training effects: 
    • Changes in motivation and reduced enjoyment (possibly leading to burnout and quitting sports)
    • Impaired focus
    • Difficulties with gaining new skills
    • Diminished performance
    • Feeling obligated to continue with the sport
    • Looking forward to the end of the season (counting down days)

Trauma responses in child athletes who have experienced trauma

Trauma survivors have an overactive stress response. Because they have experienced prolonged, severe, or unavoidable stress in the past, their body is quick to transition to either the fight or flight mode, a numb state, or a people-pleasing state. Something relatively minor might cause them to shut down or blow up, because those responses have been necessary for them many times in their past, and quickly getting into that mode has been advantageous.

Overall, if you notice an athlete can’t tolerate when things don’t go their way, they may have experienced some type of trauma. Unexplainable headaches/stomach aches and difficulty with self regulation – being easily overwhelmed – may be other signs as well. 


Anger, aggression, reactive violence

  • Sudden changes in behavior or athletic performance 
  • A small mistake or minimal situation getting overblown
  • An extreme reaction to defeat like kicking or punching
  • Self destructive tendencies from missing practices to self-harm


Pulling away (emotionally or physically), closing off, not communicating, isolation

  • Always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Suddenly deciding to stop playing in a game based on a seemingly minor incident
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, or the team
  • Overcommitting, being extremely busy


Non-reactive, unemotional, numbness

  • Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes 
  • Zoning out during practice
  • Not paying attention when spoken to
  • Feelings of burnout


Avoiding conflict at all costs, people-pleaser, validation-seeking, un-opinionated

  • Overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • Trouble saying “no” 
  • Always answering “I don’t care”
  • Becomes anxious when minor conflict occurs

Source: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/signs.pdf, Abrams, M., & Bartlett, M. L. (n.d. ). #SportToo: Implications of and Best Practice for the #MeToo Movement in Sport, Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 13(2), 243-258. Retrieved Mar 8, 2022, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jcsp/13/2/article-p243.xml