When does sports practice crosses line into abuse?

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In the wake of the Northwestern University football hazing scandal, a striking but different sort of allegation nearly got lost in the shuffle.

A female volleyball player at Northwestern claims that her head coach punished her by singling her out for harsh drills in front of the team and coaches.

The drills in question are common. But in both cases, the player was the only one forced to participate as alleged punishment, while the rest of the team and coaches watched. The allegations raise questions about when hard or harsh practice drills cross the line into harmful or abusive behavior.

One prominent retired coach, former U.S. women’s Olympics coach Terry Liskevych, said it’s hard to judge the situation without knowing all the facts. But such drills are commonplace, he said, and typically, “It’s not a punishment.”

While the drills are common, the circumstances were not. The suit, which had not yet been filed in court Friday, came following lawsuits by football players claiming they were subject to sexualized hazing in the locker room that had gone on for years. Football coach Pat Fizgerald and baseball coach Jim Foster, who was accused of bullying, were relieved of their duties.

In the volleyball case, in February 2021, the player, identified anonymously in the suit as Jane Doe 1, was told to do a “coach on one,” in which coach Shane Davis repeatedly “blasted” balls toward her that she had to return.

The next month, in a punishment chosen by team captains, the player had to run “suicides,” grueling sprints back and forth across the court, while diving on the floor at every line.

Some researchers who study abusive behavior say singling out a player for harsh and dangerous treatment are key elements that make drills out of line.

The “suicides” were “punishment,” the player said, for her contracting COVID-19, forcing the team to pause the program, even though she said she followed the pandemic protocols. The running drills were said to be used against players for minor rules infractions.

In this case, the player said she got hurt while diving on the floor, requiring medical attention. She reported the incident to the school, which temporarily suspended the coach while investigating.

The suit also claimed that the coach threatened to withdraw the player’s athletic scholarship unless she improved, forced her to write a letter of apology to trainers, and no longer allowed the player to travel with the team.

In December 2022, the player “medically retired.” School officials concluded that the incidents amounted to hazing, the player said, but other than a team meeting to discuss the culture of the team in 2022, she did not know of anything being done about it.

Northwestern confirmed that a student alleged hazing on the volleyball team in March 2021. The school suspended the coaching staff during an investigation, which found that hazing had taken place. “Appropriate disciplinary action was taken,” school spokesman Jon Yates wrote. “Among other actions, the university canceled two games and implemented mandatory anti-hazing training.”

Athletic Director Derrick Gragg met with the student at her request last year, and the school plans to evaluate its accountability mechanism and to detect threats to the welfare of student-athletes. Officials also announced plans to examine the culture of Northwestern athletics and its relationship to the academic mission.

Davis, a former national champion coach with the Loyola University men’s team, was given a contract extension. He did not reply to requests for comment.

Former college and Olympic coach Liskevych is retired from coaching, but is a founder and CEO of The Art of Coaching, which provides sports clinics across the country. He said he knows Davis and described him as “a good guy.”

The drills described in the lawsuit have been common for years, he said. The “coach on one” drill is an effective way to get players to extend their range in hitting balls, while running and diving on the floor are ways to improve conditioning and learning how to hit the floor as in a game.

Usually, all team members take part in the drills. A player shouldn’t be singled out or scapegoated repeatedly, but sometimes one player will do the drills to work on certain skills, or occasionally as discipline, he said.

“This question is always asked at our clinics,” he said. “Where does one draw the line?”

“I’ve often said this isn’t anything personal, I love you, but I’m going to make you accountable,” he said. “Obviously, if it’s physical abuse or berating a player as a person, that’s out of line.”

“My biggest thing is, am I treating you with dignity and respect?” Liskevych said. “It can’t be a team culture of abusive behavior where people look the other way because my team is good.”

Hazing typically is defined as a group tradition used to maintain a power structure, such as football players or fraternity members forcing freshmen to undergo embarrassing or harmful rituals.

But the coach-versus-player volleyball allegations involving a one-on-one power imbalance seem more like bullying or harassment, said Susan Lipkins,cq a psychologist and researcher who studies those issues.cq

A bully typically wants something from the victim, often by exerting power over the person.

“Assuming the allegation are true, why was (the team) watching? Because it’s humiliating,” Lipkins said. “They are picking the same person and putting them in the position of feeling powerless and embarrassed.”

To avoid that, drills should not be used to single out players — everyone should take part equally, Lipkins said. And they shouldn’t be used as punishment — they should be used to improve skills and morale.

But if the victim reported the behavior and the school didn’t respond sufficiently, she said, that merely reinforces a coach’s power to mistreat players.

“Unfortunately, a lot of coaches have a tremendous amount of power, and nobody is watching,” she said. “Who is supervising the coach?”

The U.S. Center for SafeSport, which oversees the country’s Olympics program, made a list of recommendations to recognize and avoid such scenarios.

Emotional misconduct includes excessive verbal attacks for no productive reason, such as name-calling or ridiculing someone; being repeatedly or severely physically aggressive, such as throwing or punching objects; and ignoring or isolating someone.

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Studies show children who participate in sports gain many physical, social and emotional benefits. But many kids also experience some psychological harm or neglect, and some get physically hurt.

To prevent mistreatment, the Center for SafeSport recommends using respect, support and positive motivation to help kids, rather than fear or shame.

Some coaches and students say they need to be harder on newcomers to unify and discipline the group. Studies show participants are willing to sacrifice to be part of a group, but don’t want to be humiliated to do so.

One alternative, Lipkins said, is doing trust-building exercises together, such as trust falls, ropes courses or other activities in which group members work together.

Still, abusive behavior won’t stop until everyone from administrators to coaches to participants realize how harmful it is.

Elizabeth Allan, a professor at the University of Maine who directs the national Hazing Prevention Consortium, encouraged finding ways to maintain discipline that are educational and don’t involve shaming, saying, “It’s damaging and it’s not effective.”

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