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Stockholm Syndrome in Athletics: A Paradox

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Abstract

While it may, at first, appear absurd to associate Stockholm syndrome with situations other than those involving kidnapping or hostage relationships, it is quite tenable to do so. In fact, research has shown that a variety of different psychological issues and forms of captivity are best explained as instances of Stockholm syndrome. Originally, Stockholm syndrome was typified as a disorder resulting from situations involving negative face-to-face contact between captors and captives. The resulting environment is one of extreme fright or terror to victims, rendering them helpless and, over time, totally subservient to their perpetrators. Typification helps to shed light on the connection between abusive athletic coaches and consequential victimisation of young athletes, which can lead to Stockholm syndrome. This correlation supports the view that Stockholm syndrome relates to victimisation of young athletes in a paradoxical, but very real way. This concept paper addresses the potential for domain expansion of Stockholm syndrome into the area of youth athletics. It develops the theory that once youth begin to rationalise the actions of abusive athletic coaches, they begin to sympathise and defend the actions of the abusive coach leading to a pattern of events which can be labelled as indications of Stockholm syndrome.
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Commentary
Stockholm Syndrome in Athletics: A Paradox
Charles Bachand and Nikki Djak
University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida
While it may, at first, appear absurd to associate Stockholm syndrome with situations other than those
involving kidnapping or hostage relationships, it is quite tenable to do so. In fact, research has shown that a
variety of different psychological issues and forms of captivity are best explained as instances of Stockholm
syndrome. Originally, Stockholm syndrome was typified as a disorder resulting from situations involving
negative face-to-face contact between captors and captives. The resulting environment is one of extreme
fright or terror to victims, rendering them helpless and, over time, totally subservient to their perpetrators.
Typification helps to shed light on the connection between abusive athletic coaches and consequential
victimisation of young athletes, which can lead to Stockholm syndrome. This correlation supports the view
that Stockholm syndrome relates to victimisation of young athletes in a paradoxical, but very real way.
This concept paper addresses the potential for domain expansion of Stockholm syndrome into the area of
youth athletics. It develops the theory that once youth begin to rationalise the actions of abusive athletic
coaches, they begin to sympathise and defend the actions of the abusive coach leading to a pattern of
events which can be labelled as indications of Stockholm syndrome.
Keywords: coaching, psychology, education, abuse, hostage
Introduction
A multitude of different types of victimisation have used
Stockholm syndrome as a description of the paradoxical re-
lationship between victims and their aggressors following
harmful interactions or happenings. Though the feelings of
loyalty and sentiment initially appear irrational and conflict
with conventional wisdom, they nevertheless are present
as evidence of the consequence of victimisation (Cantor
&Price,2007). Stockholm syndrome is a manipulation of
power and trust by the captor and, as such, it has been
theorised that this syndrome relates to other forms of cap-
tivity and relationships beyond the traditional association
with kidnapping (Adorjan, Christensen, Kelly, & Pawluch,
2012). In athletics, Stockholm syndrome is the resulting
condition of victimisation of young athletes, affecting them
in an enigmatic, yet very real way.
Conceptual Theory
Typification, or creating social constructions based on com-
mon postulations, is often used by claims-makers in social
contexts to depict the characteristics of various problems.
Furthermore, the notion of domain expansion has been
used to support the explanation of certain syndromes in
a method other than its original intent (Best, 1995). To-
gether, typification and domain expansion help support the
assertion that victimisation as explained by Stockholm syn-
drome has been prevalent in the youth athletics hierarchy
for decades.
The idea that Stockholm syndrome is relevant to the
continued victimisation of young athletes is paradoxical,
appearing absurd at the surface level, but proving highly
on-point upon further inspection. In fact, given the ratio-
nal link between the actions of athletic coaches and the
victimisation of young athletes, it is perhaps reasonable to
assume that continued victimisation of youth athletes is not
only plausible, it is obvious. Figure 1 shows the connection
between elements of Stockholm syndrome and the pattern
of victimisation of young athletes by coaches indicating the
potential for domain expansion. This conclusion will be
validated with research that can be applied to each of the
identified levels that coaches influence.
What is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome was typified by psychiatric and crim-
inological research as a condition resulting from circum-
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE: Charles Bachand, University of
Central Florida, 112 Rock Lake Road Longwood, 32750 Florida.
E-mail: charles.bachand@knights.ucf.edu
1
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Charles Bachand and Nikki Djak
Symptoms
of
Stockholm
Syndrome
Internalizes
Vicmizaon
Believes to
Have No
Control of
Situaon
Athlec Coach
Athlete
Trust
Promises
Praise
Abusive
Acons
Time In
Contact
Acceptance
Apologies
Success
Athlete
Becomes
Coach
FIGURE 1
(Colour online) Map of Link to athletes and Stockholm syndrome.
stances in which there is face-to-face contact between
captors and captives, with captors causing extreme fright
or terror in their victims which renders them helpless, pow-
erless and submissive. Victims see no means of escape and
fear for their lives and, under such circumstances, any act
of kindness on the part of the captors or even the absence
of beatings, abuse or rape leads victims to see their cap-
tors as “good guys” (Symonds, 1980). Farley (1987)later
added the condition that for victimisation to be designated
as Stockholm syndrome, it needed to result from a social
problem triggered by the action (or inaction) of individuals
or cultures.
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological term used to ex-
plain the bond that develops between captives and captors.
This syndrome is often explained as a two-part develop-
ment: unconscious and conscious actions. Unconsciously,
victims begin to identify with their captors after prolonged
time spent with them; consciously, it is a coping strategy
meant to provide victims with hope in a situation where
there is little hope to begin with (Jameson, 2010). Stockholm
syndrome provides a way to make sense of a situation that
would otherwise be considered by many as incomprehensi-
ble,including situations of sexual assault and abuse, verbal
or physical harassment, and threats to wellbeing (Adorjan
et al., 2012). Research has indicated that young athletes are
vulnerable to experiences of physical, sexual and emotional
abuse, which supports the likelihood of these athletes suf-
fering from Stockholm syndrome (Kirby, Greaves, & Han-
kivsky, 2000).
Unlike a single traumatic event, repeated trauma can
only occur when the victim is in a state of captivity and
under the captor’s control. ‘The psychological impact
of subordination to coercive control has many common
features, whether it occurs within the public sphere of
politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic
relations’ (Herman, 1992, p. 377). In its application to the
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Stockholm syndrome in athletics: a paradox
sports world, coaches may use acts of emotional abuse
– including verbal berating and denial of attention – in
an ongoing way with young athletes. In fact, as many as
75% of athletes reported being victims of some form of
emotional abuse by coaches while playing sports (Stafford,
Alexander, & Fry, 2015). By nature, emotional abuse is an
ongoing, repeatable behaviour (Smullens, 2007), which
correlates it to the concept of repeated trauma resulting in
the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome.
Finally, it is important to note that there is no single,
clear, concise definition of Stockholm syndrome. Even ex-
tensive reviews of the literature and available case studies
indicate that there is extreme ambiguity in criteria and defi-
nition of this condition (Vecchi, 2009). Furthermore, many
criteria do not hold true across all identified instances of
Stockholm syndrome. However, ‘One assumption that has
been supported in the present cases is that the hostages
and the hostage-takers must maintain a reasonable level of
interpersonal contact’ (de Fabrique, Van Hasselt, Vecchi, &
Romano, 2007,p.33).Withon-goingaccessto,andrepeated
periods of time with, young athletes, coaches have this level
of interpersonal contact.
Relevance in Athletics
As stated by Herman (1992), it is not necessary for the act
ofcaptivitytobeinaprivatedomain;itcanalsobeinthe
public view. With this in mind, one important characteristic
of Stockholm syndrome – power imbalance – creates con-
trived emotional bonds between captor and captive. Under
this definition, some claim-makers imply that Stockholm
syndrome is not limited to situations involving abduction or
hostage-taking. Rather, Stockholm syndrome encompasses
‘a host of situations and conditions not immediately recog-
nisable as manifestations of the syndrome’ (Adorjan et al.,
2012, pp. 454–455). Although Adorjan et al. (2012)never
said so directly,their research implies that instances of power
imbalances may be occurring in public view without anyone,
including the young athlete, realising that the coach–athlete
relationship possesses characteristics reflective of Stockholm
syndrome. With the power to provide or deny playing time,
require certain drills or physical exercises, cut players from
the team, and determine the starting lineup, coaches possess
immense power over young athletes. They are also given a
fair amount of freedom by these athletes’ parents, who en-
trust their children to the coach’s decisions and behaviours.
Ifacoachchoosestopushthelimitsorappropriatenessof
power over young athletes, the coach–athlete relationship
could quickly manifest into one reflective of captive–captor
tendencies.
Stockholm Syndrome and the Hierarchy
of Athletics
Stockholm syndrome centres on the dynamics of the re-
lationships that develop between captor and captive. The
paradoxical development of positive emotions by the cap-
tive for his/her captor’s feelings are frequently reciprocated
by the captors (Auerbach, Kiesler, Strentz, Schmidt, & Se-
rio, 1994), which is a standard condition for Stockholm
syndrome to be present. In the athletic world, athletes often
face difficult situations and are asked to complete seemingly
impossible tasks. Given that de Fabrique et al. (2007)state
that the victim develops symptoms of Stockholm syndrome
as a coping mechanism to increase the likelihood of sur-
vival, it is plausible that the Stockholm syndrome theory is
relevant to athletics.
The Captor
Head coaches, or the captors, are in control of youth athletes
in competitive sports. They have their own set of interests
and internal visualisations of what it means to be a coach and
how coaches should act. Furthermore, coaches feel immense
pressure to obtain winning results to justify their position
of employment, and often relate their professional futures
to successful game outcomes (David, 2005).
People excuse—or even celebrate—such behavior as a pas-
sion.But,letscallitbyitsrealname:abuse.(CharlesM.Blow,
New York Times, April 2013)
Emotionally and psychologically, abusive behaviour has
historically been excused as passion or even as a necessary
component of competitive athletics. In fact, many coun-
tries have recently recognised the mental violence and psy-
chological abuse present in sports. Yet these incidents of
coaches abusing their power over young athletes are rarely
documented by public and judicial authorities and are often
excusedaspartofthegame,particularlywhenwinningre-
sults are achieved or when athletes do not speak out (David,
2005). This has allowed bullying and poor treatment of ath-
letestogoundetectedandunchangedfordecades.
Similarly, head coaches have a supremacy over athletes
based on their age, gender (i.e., male coach/female ath-
lete), knowledge and access to resources, authority to make
choices and ability to reward or discipline (Tomlinson &
Yorganci, 1997). In studying athletes’ desires, Stirling and
Kerr (2009) found that holistic development was as impor-
tant to young athletes for developing their athletic abilities.
Conversely, coaches reported that the holistic approach to
coaching was detrimental to athletic performance. This be-
lief among coaches can result in ignoring athletes’ desires
and focusing solely on winning at any cost, which has the
potential to create an asymmetric, captor–captive relation-
ship between coaches and athletes. Similarly, coaches may
physically abuse athletes in ways not immediately recognis-
able as an imbalance or misuse of their power, such as by
denying proper hydration or over-training them (Pinheiro,
Pimenta, Resende, & Malcolm, 2014).
It is important to note that there is an inherent imbal-
ance of power in the coach–athlete relationship because the
very nature of the coach’s role gives him/her authority over
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Charles Bachand and Nikki Djak
TABLE 1
Athletic coach to Hijacker/Kidnapper comparison.
Athletic coach Hijacker/Kidnapper
Are in control of competitive sports environment and all those
involved.
Are in control of a hostage situation and all those involved.
They have their own set of interests and internal visualisations of what
they are and how they act.
They internalise their acts as what is best for their interests (Gongol,
2004).
Must justify their involvement and often must relate their professional
futures to successful results.
Benefit to undertake the act of hijacking/kidnapping is comparable to
the impact of the act (Gongol, 2004).
Emotional and psychological abusive behaviour. Emotional and psychological abusive behaviour.
Supremacy over athletes based on imbalance of power. Supremacy of captives based on imbalance of power.
Coaches reported that the holistic approach to coaching was
detrimental to athletic performance; Win at any cost (Stirling &
Kerr, 2009).
Rely on legitimisations to justify their strategy and actions (Holbrook,
2010).
young athletes (Swigonski, Enneking, & Hendrix, 2014).
This imbalance of power leaves the captives – the athletes
– fearful of reporting incidences, excusing them as part of
the commitment they made or a shortcoming on their own
part. Instances such as these are not isolated. In fact, Stirling
and Kerr (2009, p.232) interviewed an adolescent athlete
and found that this athlete’s sentiments conveyed findings
of helplessness: ‘She was the best technical coach around
soIhadtotoleratetherestofit[theabuse]...Ihadtobe
tough and just “suck it up”.’
As already indicated, victimisation is based on an imbal-
ance of power (Stirling, Bridges, Cruz, & Mountjoy, 2011).
Asyoungathletesareexposedtothisvictimisationoverpro-
longed periods of time, they begin to accept their treatment
as par for the course and, often, even begin to support the
controlling coach, justifying his or her actions based on the
positive athletic results. Such rationalisations of abuse are a
manifestation of Stockholm syndrome.
Coaches, to develop successful athletes and win athletic
competitions, justify their abusive behaviours using win-
ning records as evidence of the payoff of such treatment. In
fact, despite many coaches coming to the United States with
coaching records marred by abusive coaching behaviours,
the number of complaints towards the coach’s abuse of
power significantly decreased if the coach was successful and
able to produce elite athletes (Ryan, 1995). Consequently,
young athletes often feel immense pressure to tolerate ac-
tions that would normally be unacceptable because they
fear negative repercussions. Collectively, this lays the per-
fect foundation for the captor, or head coach, to create an
environment in which Stockholm syndrome exists.
Tab l e 1 displays the comparison of coaches and their be-
haviours to those that have been accepted as being involved
in situations of Stockholm syndrome: Hijackers and Kid-
nappers.
The Captive
An element of Stockholm syndrome is a change in the cap-
tive’s regard for his or her captor, shifting from negative
feelings to positive ones as time wears on in a stressful en-
counter (Auerbach et al., 1994). Similarly, Kuleshnyk (1984)
hypothesised that the longer the siege, the more likely the
development of the symptoms of the syndrome. Other re-
searchers, such as Freud (1936), equate this phenomenon
to identification, explaining that captives involuntarily con-
nect with their captors or with those invoking feelings of
anxiety as a means of protection from potential abuse by
the captor.
It is important to note that there is a clear distinction
between athletes and true hostages, such as those in kid-
napping situations. In the context of athletics, the term
“captive” is meant to signify that the young athletes are
inferiors, falling victim to the head coach in physical (in-
cluding age), mental and financial capacities. As a result,
they become “mental captives” and “financial captives” to
head coaches. These forms of captivity, though not actual
physical confinement, appear to be widespread and result in
similar responses to those of hostages. Tabl e 2 displays char-
acteristics of athletes that potentially suffer from Stockholm
syndrome and the similarities they have to cases involving
Stockholm syndrome in hostages.
Reluctance to report inappropriate coaching behaviour
enhances the risk of abuse in an athletic situation (Stirling
et al., 2011). Contrary to the common belief that certain
abusive behaviours predominately come from strangers,
children know their abusers 90% of the time and the ma-
jority of them are in positions of authority in the child’s life,
like a coach (Finkelhor & Ormrod, 2000). Athletes, as the
captives, often hesitate to report emotional, psychological
or other abuse by the head coach because they fear reper-
cussions. As youths, the victimisation to which the athletes
are subjected is often a new experience. These athletes may
also be unaware of the extent of the abuse, unfamiliar with
how to handle it or confused as to if it is even truly abuse.
A coach’s words and actions greatly affect the physical and
emotional welfare of the athlete, making the head coach
position one of potential abuse if unregulated (Ryan, 1995).
However, decades of abuse by head coaches have not evoked
change, leaving athletes feeling that this is just part of
thecommitmenttheymadewithathletics.Overtime,the
captives begin to justify the coach’s actions, internalising
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Stockholm syndrome in athletics: a paradox
TABLE 2
Athlete to hostage comparison.
Athlete Hostage
Powerless to the athletic coach. Powerless to the Hijacker/Kidnapper.
Reluctance to report inappropriate coaching behaviour enhances the
risk of abuse in an athletic situation (Stirling et al., 2011).
Often feel immense pressure to tolerate actions that normally would
be unacceptable because they fear negative repercussions.
Begin to accept their treatment as par for the course and, often, even
begin to support the controlling coach, justifying his or her actions
based on the positive athletic results (Stirling et al., 2011).
Shift from negative feelings to positive ones as time wears on in a
stressful encounter (Auerbach et al., 1994).
Begin to justify the coach’s actions, internalising it as a shortcoming of
their own or as the proper way to behave.
Begin to identify with their captors after prolonged time spent with
them; consciously, it is a coping strategy meant to provide victims
with hope (Jameson, 2010).
it as a shortcoming of their own or as the proper way to
behave, particularly when winning results are achieved
under the coach’s supervision. This is how the cycle of abuse
and creation of Stockholm syndrome in athletics continues.
Conclusion
Based on the information found in past research and the
asymmetric power in the hierarchy of athletics, it is both rel-
evant and important to consider the domain expansion of
Stockholm syndrome to athletics. The proposal that coaches
could be creating a situation of captivity for their athletes
is not necessarily the traditional form of Stockholm syn-
drome, but is supported by the close resemblance to other
types of victimisation to which Stockholm syndrome is also
considered relevant.
The domain expansion and application of Stockholm
syndrome has potential due to the way the syndrome is de-
fined. However, as stated in this paper, there is a lack of
research because of the nature of the problems connected
with the original definition. The potential for research re-
lated to Stockholm syndrome in athletics is extensive due
to the wide-ranging sports environment. The environment
of athletics, and the access coaches have to young athletes,
provides a rich context for the development of studies likely
to support this domain expansion.
After evaluation, and assuming further studies support
domain expansion, it is important that ideas associated with
Stockholm syndrome are applied to athletics. Though these
authors have argued the connection, it is also understood
that using this term in the wrong context can create unin-
tended consequences. The potential for crossover diagnosis
with other acts such as bullying, battery and harassment
is valid, though potentially linked to Stockholm syndrome.
The argument that other types of victimisation are needed
for the effects of Stockholm syndrome to exist is also valid.
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... The external signs of the syndrome are the victim's paradoxical behavior in relationships, when the victim justifies the aggressive behavior of the partner, defends him or her against external influences, interprets their aggression as manifestation of love, supports their interests to the detriment of their own, maintain relations with a cruel partner despite the domestic abuse toward the victim which consists in emotional, physical and sexual insults. Also, it is the choice of partners (friends, bosses) inclined to aggression and domination [13][14][15]. Researchers refer this phenomenon to a variant of the posttraumatic stress disorder, because, as a rule, these persons have an anamnesis of a long-term traumatic impact, threatening the very existence of a personality, for example, in the cases when parents systematically committed physical and emotional abuse of a child, limited his or her freedom, interpreted cruel punishment as doing good to a child, and in the cases when there was no equal partnership between parents but domination of one parent over the other, and the child perceived this as a model for partner relationships [16,17]. ...
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