Bullying in Youth Sports – What Can We Do?

Bullying has been around forever, unfortunately.  More light has been shed on this issue in recent years, however, as more stories are shared by those who have felt the brunt of bullying, specifically among our youth.  Looking further, however, we see that bullying permeates not only schools and classrooms, but can be found in workplaces, offices, and board rooms among adults, as well.  Furthermore, those bullying issues do not go away when kids head out the door and onto the playing field.  It has become a growing concern among players, parents and coaches alike as they see and feel firsthand the impact it has.

Unfortunately, kids who are the victims of bullying in sports start to lose their love for their game.  The enjoyment they used to have starts to fade and they become more  insecure.  Worse yet is that when the bullying gets bad enough these kids start quitting completely.

Research shows that this is not simply a male issue either.  There is a tendency to equate sports with toughness and bravado, which can also be stereotypically seen as predominantly masculine.  However, the bullying issues arise on both boys’ and girls’ teams.  Hearing from some former female athletes reminds me that bullying is equally nasty for both genders.

Bullying can come from a variety of sources.  It can come from other players, of course, but it can also come from coaches and even parents.  It cuts a wide swath, but can have equally devastating effects on kids.
Many different types of kids are victims, as well.  Typically we would think of the player who may not be as talented or may not be as physically strong as others on the team, who may be the victim of taunts, teasing, physical abuse or  exclusion from the group.  However, when players are competing for spots on a team or they see others as a ‘rival’, things can get out of hand here, as well.

There are various forms that bullying can take.  Of course there are the physical and verbal forms, where a player can be physically intimidated, or yelled at, made fun of or teased beyond reason.  This is done either one on one or in front of other peers.  Unfortunately, in this age of instant messaging, social internet sites and so on, it is not uncommon to see sports bullying played out in cyberspace, as well.

Pointing fingers, blame, consistent criticism and yelling are all signs of potential bullying happening on the field of play.  Again, these all can come from various groups, not just other players.

I grew up in a sports environment where, as a coach, raising your voice and getting into a player’s face was a regular occurrence.  Being singled out if front of your teammates for making mistakes can be a common practice but can be hugely demoralizing and demeaning for a player.  I never felt bullied as a player by a coach; however, that environment can sometimes be fertile ground to take that next step.  Therefore, now that I am a coach (baseball), I try and take those experiences to heart as I work with my players.

I also want to be more aware of issues that might arise that can lead to, or be considered, bullying among the players.  As a parent or a coach there are various signs that we can look for when seeing if there might be a situation going one with our child or player.

If you start to find a youngster starting to lose interest in the sport that they really enjoyed, it might be time to talk with him or her to see what might be happening.  Are they more anxious and nervous as it comes closer to practice or game times (more so than the usual ‘pregame’ jitters)?  Do they express reasons, not expressed before, of why they cannot get to practice or have to miss the game?  All these can be signals that the young man or young lady might be facing more than the normal performance related anxiety issues or nervousness.

As a parent we need to be in constant communication with our kids, be their support and also empower our kids to speak up to someone they trust if they feel something is going on that is just not right.

As adults, both coaches and parents need to realize that they are the role models.  The kids are looking to us.  We set the tone.  If we model that bullying behavior, it is not going to be surprising that the behavior will be modeled by the kids on the team, as well.

In addition we need to realize that we need to let all the players and parents understand that bullying is not part of the team and will not be accepted.  Clear and consistent communication from coaches to players and from coaches to parents is key here, as well.  This includes not only clearly mapping out practice and game schedules, rules, regulations and consequences, but also communicating what you, as a coach, are trying to accomplish.  Between my administrators and I, we try and put together all of this information to our players and parents.

Understanding this issue also empowers all of us to react and intervene regardless if we are the victims of bullying or if we witness any of it going on within our sport.  Those not the direct victims but who witness bullying happening can be a force for good, too, and help produce a more positive environment for all, by intervening,

There are many issues and components to bullying and all of us can play a part in ending bullying on the playing field and making the experience as enjoyable as possible for all of our kids.

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