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What to Teach Young Athletes About Bullying

Helping kids combat bullying in sports.

Kristina V995/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Kristina V995/Wikimedia Commons

Bullying is a serious but not uncommon problem in youth sports. In the past, coaches and even parents often dismissed bullying as “kids just being kids.” But things have changed, and there is total agreement that bullying has no place in sports.

What is bullying?

Bullying is repeated, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Its purpose is to deliver physical or psychological harm to another person.

There are three main types of bullying. In youth sports, the most common forms of verbal bullying are name calling, taunting, rudeness, and threats of violence and/or harm to another athlete. Social bullying includes excluding another athlete on purpose, gossiping, hurtful trash talk, and embarrassment of an athlete in front of others. Physical bullying includes hitting, slapping, tripping, head butting, towel snapping, spitting, stealing, and making rude hand gestures.

What are the effects of bullying?

Regardless of the form it takes, bullying takes a terrible emotional and physical toll on children. Victims of bullying feel hurt, angry, afraid, helpless, hopeless, isolated, and ashamed. Victims of bullying are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Moreover, the scars inflicted by bullying can persist long into the future and can predispose a young person to develop psychological problems in adulthood.

Who are the victims of bullying?

Some factors put children at greater risk, but not all children with these characteristics will be bullied. Generally, young athletes who are bullied are perceived as different from their teammates (e.g., overweight or underweight, wear glasses, LGBTQ sexual orientation), and they are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves. They also tend have low self-esteem, are less popular than others and have few friends, do not get along well with others, and are seen as annoying or antagonizing.

Who are the perpetrators of bullying?

No single factor puts a child at risk of engaging in bullying. But some athletes who are more likely to bully others are well-connected to their teammates, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge of others. Others are more isolated from their teammates, have low self-esteem, and do not identify with the emotions or feelings of others. They tend to be aggressive or easily frustrated, have issues at home or school, have difficulty following rules, view violence in a positive way, and have friends who bully others.

What should coaches teach athletes about bullying?

As part of their sport safety responsibilities, coaches should take a proactive role in reducing the likelihood that bullying will occur. In my Psychology Today blog titled “Disciplinary Problems and Bullying in Youth Sports,” some guidelines are presented for preventing bullying. Beyond this, coaches should devote time and effort to educating young athletes about bullying. This includes teaching athletes (a) what bullying is, (b) what to do if they are the target of bullying, and (c) what to do if they are a witness to bullying.

Team meetings, which are typically short and held on a fairly regular basis, provide an excellent opportunity for education. In the meetings, coaches can implement the recommendations presented below to promote athletes’ understanding of bullying. This will ultimately help to sustain prevention efforts over time.

Provide an opportunity for athletes to express themselves. Fostering discussions about bullying can be accomplished by setting aside part of team meetings. Coaches can start conversations with open-ended questions like the following:

  • “What does ‘bullying’ mean to you? What does it feel like to be bullied”
  • “Have you ever felt scared to come to a practice or game because you were afraid of bullying? What have you done to try to change things?”
  • “Have you or your teammates left other kids out on purpose? Do you think that was bullying? Why or why not?”
  • “Do you ever see kids on our team being bullied? How does it make you feel?”
  • “What do you usually do when you see bullying going on?”
  • “Have you ever tried to help someone who is being bullied? What happened? What would you do if it happens again?”

In leading the discussions, coaches should assure athletes that they are not alone in addressing any problems that arise.

Encourage athletes to speak to the coach if they are bullied or see others being bullied. The coach can give comfort, support, and advice, even if they might not be able to immediately solve the problem.

Talk about how to stand up to bullies. Give tips, such as:

  • Look at the bully and say “stop” in a calm, clear voice, or
  • Try to use humor and laugh it off, which could catch the bully off guard.
  • If speaking up seems too hard or not safe, the victim should not fight back. Rather, they should walk away and go directly to the coach.

Talk about strategies for staying safe. The strategies can include:

  • Telling coaches about the problem, so they can help athletes make a plan to stop the bullying.
  • Avoiding situations in which bullying occurs.
  • Staying near coaches, as most bullying happens when adults are not around.

Urge athletes to help others who are bullied. The assistance can involve:

  • Letting the bully know that such behavior is a violation of the coach’s zero-tolerance policy.
  • Creating a distraction or focusing attention on something else.
  • Helping the athlete being bullied escape the scene.
  • Finding the coach, or asking a teammate to find the coach as soon as possible.
  • Simply being nice to the bullied athlete, which goes a long way toward letting them know they are not alone.

Do you want to learn more about coaching and parenting young athletes?

  • The Mastery Approach Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
  • To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.
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