Parent Worried About Coach’s Behavior


Dear Stop It Now!,

My son is 12, and he’s so excited to be going to football after school. It’s been a great source of growth for him, and he’s made some friends too. Typically my partner takes him to games and practices, but he wasn’t available yesterday. I took him - and now I’m worried. I saw the coach doing things that made me deeply uncomfortable: making adult-like jokes, oversharing about his personal life, touching the kids in ways that didn’t seem necessary - I’m not talking about adjustments - I saw him pat a few children right around their lower hip area, almost at their buttocks. Is this normal? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Is this just him trying to bond with his youth athletes?

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Dear Worried Parent,

Your instincts are telling you something is off, and I’m so glad you’re asking these questions. You’re not making a big deal out of nothing. When you see something that makes you uncomfortable - especially when it involves an adult’s interactions with youth (and even more so when that individual is in a position of power over kids), it’s always a good idea to follow up.

Identifying Unsafe Behaviors

What you’re describing isn’t safe or okay even if this coach’s intentions are just to bond with the athletes in his care; this is concerning. Crossing boundaries like this is one of the Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children. That’s not to say that this coach is planning to or will sexually abuse these kids. Sometimes someone may be young or inexperienced, and not know how to interact with the youth they are responsible for; they may not realize what they’re doing could set up an unsafe environment. This isn’t to excuse the behavior and it is important to learn more and take actions to help keep a safe environment for these young athletes.

We can’t always know someone’s intentions - but recognizing behaviors that could put kids at risk and then following up so these behaviors don’t continue is critical in order to protect youth. When we allow loose boundaries to go unchecked, we are giving messages to children that it is ok for adults to do unsafe things - like talk about mature topics and touch them in uncomfortable ways. Allowing these types of poor boundaries absolutely make kids vulnerable to people who are looking to harm youth.

You may want to sit down with your partner, share what you’ve seen today, and take a look at the above warning sign tip sheet as well as this one on Signs an Adult is At Risk to Harm a Child, and see if there’s anything else that pops up in what either of you have noticed in the way this coach behaves with the youth athletes in his care. And also, if you know anyone else whose child attends these practices, you may want to check in with them too. We’re not suggesting you make accusations, but if there are other parents you feel comfortable with, you can talk to them about what you saw and ask them if they have ever had any concerns. Many times people do see something but feel alone in their concerns - so bringing this up with others may help you find allies in the next steps you take.

Understanding Protective Policies

It may help to know that all USA Football coaches go through abuse prevention training to ensure that they know how to recognize, respond, and prevent the abuse of children. And there are policies that support these protective practices too - like their Sexual Misconduct Policy (see USA Football’s SafeSport Policies for more information) that helps outline what interactions are boundary violations and will not be tolerated. 

In fact, if this person were slapping your child’s - or any youth’s buttocks - even just as a joke, that would be a violation of this policy. Similarly, if this coach made a joke about their sex life, or was asking about a youth’s sex life - this would also be a breach of this policy. Even if neither of things have risen to this level of a policy violation, now is an important time to follow up as this gives this coach a chance to correct their behavior so these children have safe, supportive adults to look up to. And certainly, having these concerns on record will make sure that protective adults can take the necessary steps afterwards if this behavior continues or progresses.

Informing USA Football

Whenever you have a concern about something going on in your child’s league, you can reach out to a USA Football Consultant or your league leader. You can also reach out to abuse [at] too, if this is about an adult’s risky or abusive behaviors towards kids. You don’t need proof to follow up - and USA Football takes these concerns seriously.

Letting USA Football know what’s happening ensures that any and all next steps are taken swifty. You can explain what you saw, and share your concerns for the youth in your care - and they can make sure they address this with this coach. This may mean that he needs more guidance or support, or if he continues to push boundaries or violates important policies, this may mean that he isn’t suitable to be a coach for kids.

Talking to the Coach

You can also - if you feel comfortable - choose to have a conversation with this coach after talking with USA Football. I know addressing these concerns directly can feel scary, so do what feels best to you here - and what feels safe. If this seems like something that you’d consider, I can walk you through some potential ways to do that. First, consider the “when” - you may want to let the coach know that you’d like to follow up with them after (or before) practice; a time you can talk alone and without being overheard - and you might want to do this along with your partner. Then, when you talk with the coach, start with an opener that helps get you both on the same page - like, that you’ve watched this person coach, and it’s clear that they do this because they care about these kids. Next, clearly state the behaviors you saw, and why this isn’t okay - but leave out any inflammatory language or opinions. Then, let the coach know what you’d like to see next - and thank them for being willing to have this difficult conversation.

This can look something like, “Hey coach, I’ve seen how much my son has grown since he’s started football, and I know that you’ve had a hand in that - so thank you! It’s clear that you do this because you care about football - and these kids. I wanted to talk to you about something important - about safety. When I picked my child up from practice the other day, I saw you making jokes that seemed more appropriate for other adults with my child and other kids, and you were sharing personal things about your life that weren’t so appropriate. And also I was concerned that you patted a young person near their butt. I’m not saying that you mean anything by these examples but this type of behavior isn’t okay because the kids look up to you - and the way you treat them will inform them how they should expect other adults to treat them too. It’s important to keep healthy and respectful boundaries with all kids, especially those in your care. Actually, USA Football has policies that state what is and is not acceptable with youth - and I’m asking that you check them out and follow them. There are other ways you can bond with these youth athletes that don’t put their safety at risk. I know this may be hard to hear - but I thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

If you’d like to talk more about having a conversation like this, including anything that may get in your way or anything you’re worried about, feel free to reach out to our Helpline, and you can also look over our Let’s Talk guidebook for more conversation tips.

Talking to the Child

You will also want to have a conversation with your son about how his coach was behaving. You can let him know that you saw some things that made you worried about how his coach was interacting with him - and that when he made these adult-like jokes, that was actually against your family’s Safety Plan. Safety planning are the rules that you have in place for your child - and you ask all adults to follow too - that serve as a guide around consent, respect, privacy and other important boundaries. You can let him know that that doesn’t mean that the coach is a bad person, but that it’s your job to speak up whenever you see something that isn’t okay happening to him - and you may want to let him know that even though he may look up to his coach, you always want him to tell you (or another trusted adult) if this coach (or anyone else in his life) ever does anything that makes him feel uncomfortable or that he has questions about. Our page on Safety in Sports may also help guide these talks with your son, as though this incident is a great conversation starter, talks like these should be ongoing.

It’s fantastic that you’re such an involved and loving parent, and I’m so glad you are willing to speak up. 

Take care,

Helpline Staff

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Last edited on: September 7th, 2023