Guest Essay by Mitch Lyons, Founder of Campaign to End Abusive Coaching: ‘Public School Athletics Are Negligent and Neglected’

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Why Concussion Inc. Will Publish a Guest Essay Tomorrow by Mitch Lyons, Founder of the End Abusive Coaching Campaign
April 1, 2024
U.S. Center for Safe Sport Tries Marginal Changes to Head off Recommendations of Congressional Commission
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“Why Concussion Inc. Will Publish a Guest Essay Tomorrow by Mitch Lyons, Founder of the End Abusive Coaching Campaign,” April 1,


by Mitch Lyons


“He told me I was nothing. He said I was dumb – I’m not going to go anywhere in life. He’d use words that degrade LBTQ and us as girls with obscenities in practices and games.”

This hard-to-read text taken from an email, one of many that have come to us at, is from a high school junior concerning her basketball coach. The abuse of children takes many forms, but that it is widespread in sports is not seriously up for debate. Most everyone who plays or has played sports has an example of abuse that they have experienced, witnessed, or heard about.

The U.S. Center for Safe Sport says, “The numbers are staggering. According to Courage First Athlete Helpline, studies show that between 40% to 50% of athletes have experienced some form of abuse.”,experienced%20some%20form%20of%20abuse.

A simple search on social media reveals hundreds and hundreds of stories and comments about the abuse suffered at the hands of coaches, but also anger toward game officials and epithets directed at coaches by parents. Students, coaches, and referees leave sports because of the negativity they experience.

It is fair to say that the 19th century team model of all-powerful coaches and voiceless students is out of date. When high school athletics was started back in 1903 in New York City, corporal punishment was accepted; child labor laws had not been passed; workplaces had no suggestion boxes; eugenics was considered “science”; misogyny, homophobia, and racism were commonplace; and people in offices felt that those who worked with their hands were not as intelligent as they were. Most importantly, they felt that athletics was a good place to train children to work in factories or join the army, because in sports they learned how to be obedient. Is blind obedience something that employers are looking for in the 21st century?

An entire body of science has grown up around sports called sport psychology, and the educational process called social emotional learning (SEL) has shown the same skill sets found in sports psych to be effective in improving performance, not only in school but in sports as well.

While we are given to citing noble aspirations that students learn from sport like teamwork, effort, focus, goal setting, and sportsmanship, but when asked “How do you exactly teach each of those skills?”, there is no answer forthcoming. Some young athletes do learn these, but only some. How can we learn sportsmanship if we don’t teach how to manage our emotions and make ethical decisions? How can we learn to focus, as many coaches tell their players to do, if we don’t explicitly teach them how to focus? We teach sport-specific skills explicitly, meaning teachinh exactly how to do something. But we assume, without intent, that kids will grasp on their own the deeper concept of how to build long-lasting relationships with teammates.

A school and youth sports delivery system is bound to fail where coaches have rudimentary training without a written curriculum to guide them, where there are no clear and unambiguous outcomes to be reached (except to win the contest) by all teams, and where an institutionalized power imbalance between coach and player exists that invites abuse. Toxic cultures, misogyny, hate, homophobia, racism, and abuse fester in an uncontrolled environment where every coach is free to do as they wish.

It has become an axiom in education circles that people perform better and learn faster in a safe and supportive school environment. Yet in that same school, coaches, but not teachers, are allowed to negatively yell at children. Why is this? When all of school is trying to teach up-to-date knowledge, athletics are stuck in an era not relevant for today’s children.

This represents a systemic failure on the part of school systems where athletics is not aligned with the educational mission of the school district. The Office of Safe and Supportive Schools of the U.S. Department of Education says “safe and supportive schools are critical to the well-being of the whole school community as well as the academic success of students.” The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Schools, Office of Safe and Supportive Schools,

If so, why are sports teams exempt from this worthy mission?

In Massachusetts, there is legislation (An Act to Remodel Public School Athletics through Social Emotional Learning S.247/H.616) before the Joint Committee on Education, which contains an alternative to the 19th century model that would align sports with the rest of the school. It would require the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to “publish guidelines for the implementation of a social emotional learning curriculum for sports teams.” The curricula would include explicitly teaching students and coaches how to: (1) create safe, supportive and bias-free team cultures; (2) provide students age-appropriate leadership roles in making decisions and carrying out responsibilities; (3) formulate lessons that address hate, bias and negative behaviors to foster healthy, responsible norms on sports teams; (4) build and sustain positive relationships with others; and (5) develop such other skills such as emotion management, conflict resolution, ethical decision-making, and problem-solving.

Nelson Mandela famously said that sports “speaks to youth in a language they understand.” A written sports curriculum that provides explicit instruction in the many skills that sports participation fosters, as contained in the Massachusetts model, would make sure that children, coaches, and parents are speaking the same positive, constructive language.

Mitch Lyons is founder and retired president of, the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts, and the Campaign. He has been a basketball coach and an educational advocate, and authored proposed legislation to remodel public school athletics through Social Emotional Learning.

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