Playing a Sport Where Nobody Wins

Behind all the smiling team photos, in-action shots, and glimpses of sportsmanship, some experience a dark side of sports.

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This article contains quotes from interviews conducted with current Stuyvesant student-athletes on various PSAL teams, all of whom have requested to stay anonymous. They are each referred to by a random letter and not their name in order to protect their identity.

“You suck bro, how did you miss that?” “Bro, you’re trash.” “You keep missing shots and that’s why we lose. Let me get that one next time.” These are the things I hear my 11-year-old students say while playing doubles in tennis, where one newer student is learning from a more experienced one. Training environments like these are not uncommon in sports, but sometimes, they turn into disasters, ones filled with toxicity and negativity.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality in sports at all levels and ages. At Stuyvesant, I had always thought that the only reason why some students grew away from sports was because they were busy studying or doing other extracurriculars, which is true—for the most part. However, for some student-athletes, the problem is far deeper than that. Behind all the smiling team photos, action shots, and glimpses of sportsmanship, there’s a dark side of sports that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough—a world where some of our athletes not only have to block out reckless actions and words from opponents but also must battle their very own coaches and teammates, while still being expected to perform at their highest level.

With 42 PSAL teams at Stuyvesant, there are approximately 30 coaches, some coaching multiple teams. Coaches, who are expected to be the team’s mentors, are extremely crucial to a team’s success; but if they are unable to provide a safe place for their athletes, the players pay the price. In a study of youth dropouts from sports and physical activity, Iker Saez, Josu Solabarrieta, and Isabel Rubio from Spain’s University of Deusto determined that the dynamic between a coach and an athlete is directly correlated to team commitment. “Athletes who enjoy a positive relationship with their coach have higher adherence rates compared to those who report more negative dynamics,” Saez, Solabarrieta, and Rubio’s report said. “In this study as well as in previous research, a high number of participants reported dropping out because of problems with the coach.” Coaches are the backbone of the team, and sometimes, they fail to embrace that role. 

In Stuyvesant, when examining the select “negative coach-athlete dynamics” mentioned in the study, there are striking similarities between the results and adherence rates to that student’s sport. The effects are amplified in individual sports, where criticism and unhealthy comments are directed at an individual athlete. In an anonymous interview with junior A, who plays an individual sport on a Stuyvesant sports team, they speak to how their team has been affected by a recurring toxic dynamic with their coach. “One of the girls that quit couldn’t stand [the coach] anymore; I always saw him yelling at her and poking fun at the fact that she had a boyfriend. There was one time she wasn’t feeling well, but he put her in to play anyway. When she didn’t perform as well as she could, I remember hearing [the coach] belittle her condition, saying stuff like he could still [perform] well even if he was sick,” junior A said. Following these incidents with their coach, the team saw commitment immediately drop. “Just from last year, I know three girls that quit and some others [that] decided to skip practice.” 

Oftentimes, the negative relationships between coaches and students involve the coach taking the enjoyment out of the sport and replacing it with more unneeded pressure for the student-athlete. In a similar study examining dropout rates in youth sports, Dr. Anthony Vincent Battaglia found that coaches who emphasize the results of games over the athlete’s personal health increased the number of athletes dropping out of their team. “Coaches may negatively impact youth athletes’ sports experiences and their willingness to continue in sport by enforcing performance success at all costs,” Battaglia said.

While it is normal for a coach to give criticism towards their athletes and push for their success, in some cases the criticism is unreasonable, even including threats toward team members. Anonymous sophomore B, who plays a team sport on a Stuyvesant sports team, noted some of their coach’s demoralizing comments on the team’s struggles. “They would make at least one person cry every game because [they] would call out specific people in a group setting and criticize their playing but not specify what to do to get better,” sophomore B said. “[The coach] said things like, ‘You guys are playing like trash today; you’re playing like last year’s team.’ He threatened to kick us off the team every time we did something wrong or weren’t playing as good.” 

However, the problems go beyond coaches. For a team to achieve success, not only are positive coach-athlete dynamics crucial but also a positive dynamic between teammates. Battaglia’s studies also speak to these dynamics and how they influence drop-out rates in the sport. “Participants often referred to positive versus negative interactions with athletic peers, the loss of peer connections in sport, and pressures from peers outside of sport,” Battaglia said. “A lack of peer acceptance and friendship quality are associated with athletes’ lower perceptions of competence … [and] also more likely to drop out of sport.”

Yet again, these negative dynamics are also apparent in some of our own teams. Many of our competitive teams hold tryouts, where spots on the team are reserved for players with a lot of experience playing that sport, while inexperienced players are often left in the dark. Furthermore, within the team, a hierarchy emerges amongst the players that leaves many less-skilled and inexperienced players feeling isolated from their teammates. Anonymous junior C, who plays an individual sport on a Stuyvesant sports team, talks about the noticeable divide in socialization within their sports team. “On the team, I’ve seen that socializing has a lot to do with skill. [My teammates] generally gravitate toward those who are better at the sport. They get more respect and have a sort of status,” junior C said. “They generally get away with a lot more than they should… people are put down constantly by [them].” 

Skill-based social hierarchies within each team create a toxic environment. These implicit social patterns cause some team members to develop inferiority complexes, since the players with more experience and success separate themselves from the rest of the team. In this type of environment, the perceptions of competence of those members are likely to decrease. “I think the disconnection I feel when coming across experienced players oftentimes is just my inferiority complex and the belief that I am a burden to help,” junior A said. 

On paper, negative social dynamics within teams from both coaches and teammates might seem to only lower commitment rates, but in reality, they also have a lasting impact on athletes, shaping their personalities and lives. “Developmentally, an inability to maintain meaningful peer interactions not only fosters negative self-views but also results in rejected individuals avoiding social interactions,” Battaglia said. In my time observing both youth and high school sports, individuals who are left out from groups of other players, or grow up playing by themselves, tend to become more introverted and reserved. Not only do negative social dynamics in sports result in athletes avoiding interactions both on and off the field, but it is also the reason behind many lasting negative self-views and negative views of the sport. “[I started] hating the sport because whenever I would be at practice or games I’d leave unhappy all the time. It also destroyed my self-confidence and I just started doubting my abilities all the time,” sophomore B said. 

Yet amidst these select cases of negative experiences within Stuyvesant teams, the general sentiment of Stuyvesant sports remains positive. Many of our students thank sports for helping them get past school, meeting new people, and giving them time to hang out with their friends every day. There’s no reason why we can’t provide that same experience to every single one of our student-athletes. 

Make the right choices, use the right words, build healthy relationships, and we get to see the full potential of Stuyvesant sports—our teams become families, our players can use sports as an escape from the stress of school, and new banners are raised every year. However, when our coaches and players fail to build positive relationships with one another, team commitment drops, players quit, and teams fall apart. Coaches and teammates are leaving athletes doubting themselves, and athletes are leaving their coaches and teammates, with a bitter taste of team sports. With many hesitant to speak out against their toxic experiences, we may never get to know the true scale of how these toxic environments in sports teams impact players. Our own athletes are left alone in the dark to face an uphill battle against their own teammates and coaches, playing a new, unfamiliar match where nobody wins.