Sports Law • Risk Management

August 31, 2010: Withholding Water as Punishment

Just yesterday I was told a surprising story by a woman recalling a childhood experience with a former coach. Her coach tried an unusual tactic to motivate athletes: if an athlete failed to perform, the coach would dump some of the contents from an athlete's water bottle. Thus, as punishment, the coach took away water, a critical element for an athlete's health and overall performance.

While this sounds appalling, the situation might not be unique. What other forms of punishment, or tactics to correct behavior, have coaches' used towards their athletes? For example, some coaches may delay access to a water break until an athlete perfects a manuever. Other coaches use running as a punishment for poor performance. Yet other coaches keep athletes out longer in extreme heat or cold until a particular goal is accomplished. At what point is a line crossed from appropriate to dangerous and abusive?

Although it may be difficult to decide if a punishment tactic is unnecessarily harmful, consider what a reasonable person would do in a similar situation. I would suggest, however, that dumping water out of water bottles is not an acceptable or reasonable method to correct athlete behavior.