Student-Athletes’ Perceptions About Abuse by NCAA Division II Tennis Coaches


Male and female NCAA Division II tennis players (southern region) were surveyed about their encounters with coaches’ abusive behavior, to see whether perceptions differed significantly by gender. The researcher discusses whether athletic departments should develop policies and procedures to educate all persons affiliated with them about abusive behavior and whether they should furthermore prosecute coaches who sexually harass or emotionally abuse student-athletes.

The survey instrument was adapted from instruments used in three earlier studies. It was used by the players to rank 20 perceived abusive behaviors. The survey was developed from a review of literature, an expert panel, and a pilot study using Cronbach’s alpha coefficient to gauge validity and internal consistency reliability. The survey was administered on-site to 140 student-athletes participating in NCAA-II’s southern region tennis tournament. All 140 student-athletes returned a completed survey to the researcher. A total of 134 surveys had been completed correctly and were utilized in the study (a 95.7% response rate).

Statistical analysis includes descriptive statistics analyzing ranking of severity of behaviors, along with factor analysis identifying behaviors that led to abusive situations. Frequencies, percentages, means, mean rankings, and standard deviations were the descriptive statistics utilized; the method of factor extraction used was the principal component method, with varimax rotation. Factor analysis investigated areas within perceived abusive behaviors, seeking clusters demonstrating a good degree of correlation.

Student-Athletes’ Perceptions About Abuse by NCAA Division II Tennis Coaches

The question of sexual harassment in university settings has received very little attention over the years. This research study was designed to provide insight into sexual harassment and emotional abuse in American university athletic programs, through an examination of student-athletes’ perceptions of a number of ambiguous behaviors. The study furthermore sought an understanding of the meanings student-athletes assign to sexually harassing behaviors exhibited by their coaches and was meant to contribute to the literature on sexual harassment. In addition, the study sought student-athletes’ views on the atmosphere within university athletic programs.

American athletic departments belong to the community mainstream, but they have developed their own relationships to such an extent that they function independently of the educational community. This fact does not diminish an athletic department’s legal and moral obligation to provide all student-athletes with an environment free from sexual harassment, nor does it take from student-athletes or athletic department employees the right to use community resources to resolve sexual harassment issues.

Subjects and Instrument

Male and female student-athletes from 14 NCAA Division II (southern region) tennis programs were the randomly selected study participants, numbering 140 in all, each team having roughly 10 players. All tennis players were given the opportunity to participate or not participate in the study; participation was strictly voluntary. The athletes who participated in the study were playing in the regional tournament for their university.

On-site face-to-face surveys were used to collect data from participants. The survey instrument, based on three earlier instruments, was adapted specifically for the male and the female student-athletes. They were asked to express their perceptions about various coach behaviors, using a 5-point Likert scale. Responses ranged from 1 (extremely inappropriate) to 5 (extremely appropriate). Preparation of the instrument had included testing by a panel of experts, who reviewed the questions and established the validity of the instrument. The procedure for reliability testing included Cronbach’s alpha reliability coefficient, confirming the internal consistency and reliability of the scores reported for the pilot study respondents on survey items covering coaches’ perceived competency and harassing behavior. Reliability was interpreted as a correlation coefficient utilizing Cronbach’s scale.

Statistical Analysis

The research design pinpointing the student-athletes’ perceptions comprised (a) order of the ranking of perceived coaching behaviors, (b) results of factor analysis determining the severity of perceived behaviors, and (c) investigation of existing literature. Descriptive statistics (frequencies, percentages, means, mean rankings, standard deviations) were used in analyzing rankings of perceived coaching behaviors. The factor analysis employed was the principal component method, with varimax rotation; it investigated the integration of two or more independent variables on a single dependent variable. Areas within the coaching behavior selection were identified for inclusion within clusters demonstrating a high degree of correlation. Factor analysis furthermore identified underlying variables or factors explaining the pattern of correlations within a set of observed variables and was used in data reduction to identify a small number of factors explaining the variance observed in a larger number of manifest variables. Examination of the scree plots supported the extraction of four factors with an eigenvalue greater than 1.0. Cluster titles were assigned to each factor.


Demographic information obtained from the respondents included gender (of player and head coach), race, age, academic classification, scholarship status, and position currently played on team. Demographic data was anticipated to affect perceptions concerning the severity of coaches’ behaviors, but this paper concerns itself with only one of the demographic variables, gender. Table 1 and Table 2 illustrate the total mean ranges, by gender, for the perceived coaching behaviors. Mean values were obtained for each of the 20 coaching behavior items. Among the male respondents, mean values ranged from an inappropriate high of 4.77 (for Item 20, “sexual favors could result in increased scholarship money or rank on the team”) to an appropriate low of 2.53 (for Item 6, “closed door meeting with a player”). Among female respondents, mean values ranged from an inappropriate high of 4.85 (for Item 20, “sexual favors could result in increased scholarship money or rank on the team”) to an appropriate low of 2.36 (for Item 13, “congratulatory hug after the completion of a match”).

Table 1

Male Respondents: Mean Range and Frequency for Survey Items

Mean Range Survey Item Number Frequency
> 4.500 9, 11, 17, 19, 20
4.000 – 4.499 16, 18
3.500 – 3.999 1, 2, 7, 12, 15
3.000 – 3.499 4, 5, 8, 10, 14
2.500 – 2.999 3, 6, 13
2.000 – 2.499 N/A
< 1.999 N/A

Table 2

Female Respondents: Mean Range and Frequency for Survey Items

Mean Range Survey Item Number Frequency
> 4.500 9, 11, 17, 19, 20
4.000 – 4.499 1, 2, 15, 16, 18
3.500 – 3.999 4, 5, 12, 14
3.000 – 3.499 3, 7, 8
2.500 – 2.999 6, 10
2.000 – 2.499 13
< 1.999 N/A

The top five perceived coaching behaviors considered most inappropriate for males (listed in rank order) are (a) implied sexual favors could result in increased scholarship money or rank on the team (Item 20), (b) coach’s use of pet names (Item 9), (c) coach solicits player in a personal manner (Item 17), (d) coach initiates contact with player by allowing player to sit on lap (Item 19), and (e) coach puts hands on player’s buttocks while giving tennis instruction (Item 11).

The top five perceived coaching behaviors considered most appropriate for males (listed in rank order) are (a) coach closes the door when meeting with a player (Item 6), (b) coach invites a player out to dinner in a public setting (Item 3), (c) coach gives congratulatory hug to a player after the match (Item 13), (d) coach compliments player on appearance (Item 8), and (e) coach touches player’s arm when giving tennis instruction (Item 10).

Factor analysis was employed to determine the perceived abusive behaviors and specific factors necessary for the implementation of policies and procedures. The factor extraction method comprised use of principal axis factoring and varimax rotation with Kaiser normalization, in order to analyze interrelationships and pattern correlations between observed variables and the perceived behavior items. This resulted in a four-factor solution. Examining the scree plots supported extracting the four factors (eigenvalues greater than 1.0).

The rotated four-factor solution accounted for 66.05% of the variance in respondents’ perceptions about coaches’ ambiguous behaviors. Cluster titles were assigned to each factor so that they could be grouped by degree of severity. To determine factor reliability, the internal consistency of each factor was assessed by computing Cronbach’s alpha coefficient. All four subscales indicated a good level of internal consistency, with coefficients greater than .85.

Four categories with 66% of the total variation for the perceived coaching behaviors were identified through factor analysis. Cluster titles were assigned to each of the four group items.

Table 3

Categorization of Behaviors

Category 1
Item 4
Item 1
Item 2
Item 5
Item 3
Invitation to coach’s house for tactical discussion
Invitation to lunch
Invitation for a drink after training session
Invitation for coffee in a non-public setting
Invitation to dinner in a public setting


Category 2
Item 13
Item 10
Item 7
Item 14
Item 11
Invasion of personal space
Coach gives congratulatory hug
Coach touches arm while giving tennis instruction
Coach sits or stands close when talking with a player
Coach gives a playful shoulder massage or backrub
Coach places hands on player’s buttocks


Category 3
Item 8
Item 9
Item 17
Personal compliments
Coach compliments appearance
Coach uses pet names
Coach solicits in a personal manner


Category 4
Item 18
Item 6
Item 19
Item 20
Inappropriate contact
Coach instigates frequent nightly telephone contact
Coach closes the door when meeting with an athlete
Coach initiates contact of player sitting on his/her lap
Coach implies that sexual favors could result in promotion


Item 16
Item 15
Item 12
Did not load
Coach attempts to rape a player
Coach attempts aggressive physical contact
Coach uses profanity when giving instruction


The study findings did not align with prior research results or with the researcher’s expectations. The surveyed university tennis players surprisingly rated the 20 behaviors as appropriate. Explanations for why athletes in this study perceived certain behaviors as appropriate could include the power coaches have over athletes to make decisions for them, or perhaps naiveté among athletes about the abuse potential in the coach-athlete relationship: athletes’ innocence regarding a coach’s power and presence in their lives. Moreover, coaches may be unaware of their power over athletes through implications of their language, jokes, and even their physical presence.

Earlier studies provided evidence of an alarming rise in sexual harassment and emotional abuse in universities and colleges. From these studies, it seems that student-athletes’ perceptions about possibly abusive coach behavior differ with the gender of the athlete, the gender and intentions of the coach, the severity and frequency of inappropriate behavior, judgment of the involvement of the victim, the status of the supervisory role, and personal experience.

Few American athletic departments work to educate either coaches or students about sexual harrassment or emotional abuse, although information about the phenomena can prevent misunderstanding and conflict between coaches and athletes. It is thus not surprising that many of the athletes surveyed for the present study seemed to miss the questionable implications of a coach’s inviting a player for drinks and even the extreme inappropriateness of a coach’s aggressively pursuing physical contact or even attempting to rape a player. Sexual harassment in the university community deserves our attention. To protect student-athletes specifically, it is essential that athletic departments implement antiharrassment and antiabuse policies and procedures. As the body of research on sexual harassment in the sport domain grows, there is hope that these can be instituted nationwide. Then, they must be evaluated and monitored by individuals outside the university setting.

Sexual harassment undermines the mission of sports, which is to improve the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of all participants. Harassment has debilitating consequences for its victims, and it is also potentially damaging to institutions. Failing to acknowledge that athletic departments are home to both harassment and emotional abuse puts universities and colleges in line for more and more lawsuits, which will be extremely costly and harmful to an institution’s reputation.


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Author Note

Vicky-Lynn Martin, D.S.M.