Dealing With Bullying on Youth Sports Teams

Soccer Team Meeting

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When you sign your kids up for sports, you hope they will have fun, get some exercise, and learn new skills. As a parent, nothing is more heartbreaking than discovering that your child's sports activities are being overshadowed by bullying.

Whether it is the coach bullying your child or a teammate, the experience can be devastating for both of you. The good news is, there are some things you can do to help.

Bullying in Youth Sports

If your young athlete is experiencing bullying, they might lose confidence and start performing poorly. They might play tentatively and worry constantly about what others think of them. When they're bullied, kids can lose all enjoyment for sports and might even quit the team.

Bullying in sports can take a variety of forms. Common types of bullying include:

  • Ganging up on team members because a "leader" on the team does not like them.
  • Harassing team members when they make a mistake during the game.
  • Intimidating the most promising players in order to eliminate the competition for the best positions and the limelight.
  • Targeting someone because they get more attention and praise from the coach or because they appear to be the coach's favorite.
  • Targeting team members who do not perform as well as others.
  • Targeting, intimidating, and coercing new team members and forcing them to prove they belong on the team.
  • Threatening team members about doing well in games and practices because they might steal the limelight.

What You Can Do

If your children are dealing with bullying in sports, here are some things you can do to help.

Learn About Bullying

Start by reading about the different types of bullies, the risk factors for becoming a bully, and how to spot the warning signs of bullying. The more you know about bullying behavior, the better equipped you will be to help your child.

Listen to Your Child

When discussing bullying incidents, it is important that your child is the one doing the talking. Find out what is going on and how the bullying makes them feel. Be sure you also ask your child what they want to do about it.

The goal is not to take over but to allow children to become advocates for themselves.

Empower Your Child

Give your kids tools for dealing with bullying like walking away, telling an adult, or telling the bully in a firm voice to stop. For instance, your child could say: "I have had enough of your drama. I just want to have fun. Stop now!"

Caution your children not to be apologetic for their skills in the sport. Equip them with ideas on how to handle these difficult situations. Teach them how to defend themselves against bullies and how to stand up to a bully.

Telling a bully to stop takes courage, but sometimes it is the best action children can take when handling bullies on the field.

Involve Your Child in Resolving the Issue

It is always a good idea to ask for your child's opinion before you go straight to the coach. Your child might be afraid of retaliation. You will need to be sensitive to this concern when addressing bullying. You'll need to work together to come up with possible solutions.

Strengthen Your Child's Self-Advocacy Skills

Instead of going to the coach yourself, empower your child to approach them on their own to discuss the bullying they are experiencing.

When you teach your children to advocate for themselves against bullies rather than having you step in and provide protection, your children will develop self-confidence.

Reach Out for Help

If you do need to intervene on your child's behalf, ask the coach to meet with you in person. By holding a face-to-face meeting, you are demonstrating that you are committed to seeing that the issue is resolved.

It can also help to provide documentation of all bullying incidents, especially if the situation escalates and law enforcement or other outside sources need to be contacted.

Follow Up

Make sure that the coach knows that your goal is for your child to feel safe on the team. Ask what steps the coach plans to take to ensure your child's safety.

You also want to ensure that your child's coach realizes that even if the bullying stops, just being around the bully might cause your child stress and anxiety. Find out what can be done to support your child.

If the bullying has not been resolved, or if the coach is not taking the situation seriously, you might need to consider going to school administrators.

A Word From Verywell

If you've taken all of these steps and the issue is not resolved, you might need to take your child out of the situation. First, you'll need to ask yourself a few important questions. Is the bullying serious enough that you can involve law enforcement? Can your child play on a different team?

Your best bet is to give your children options rather than insisting that they "tough it out." In some cases, they might be relieved to leave the team. On the other hand, if they are determined to find a way to stay on the team, commit to working with them on strategies to deal with bullies.

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Article Sources
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  1. Vveinhardt J, Fominiene VB, Andriukaitiene R. Encounter with Bullying in Sport and Its Consequences for Youth: Amateur Athletes' Approach. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(23). doi:10.3390/ijerph16234685

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Warning Signs for Bullying. Updated February 7, 2018.