Dealing With Bullying on Youth Sports Teams

Soccer Team Meeting

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When you sign your kids up for sports, you expect them to have fun, get some exercise and learn some new skills. But 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 one of his teammates, the experience can be devastating.

For instance, your young athlete may lose confidence and start performing poorly. He also may play tentatively and worry constantly about what others think of him. Kids can lose all enjoyment for sports and drop out altogether when bullying on the team occurs.

Bullying in sports can take a variety of forms. Some common examples include:

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

What You Can Do to Stop Bullying on Teams

If your children are dealing with bullying in sports, here are some things you can do to help bring an end to the situation.

Learn everything you can 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. 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 him feel. Be sure you also ask what he wants 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!"

Also, 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.

Make a commitment to help resolve the issue, but pay attention to your child's wishes. It is always a good idea to ask for your child's opinion before you go straight to the coach. Sometimes your child will be afraid of retaliation and you need to be sensitive to this concern when addressing the issue. Work together to come up with some solutions.

Turn the bullying into an opportunity to strengthen self-advocacy skills. Encourage your child to talk to the coach about the bullying (rather than doing it for him). 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 to the coach. Ask the coach to meet with you in person to discuss the bullying. By holding a face-to-face meeting, you are demonstrating that you are committed to seeing this issue resolved.

You may also want to provide documentation of all bullying incidents to demonstrate what is going on. It will also be helpful in case the situation escalates and law enforcement or other outside sources need to be contacted.

Ask the coach how the bullying will be addressed. Be sure the coach knows that your goal is for your child to feel safe on the team again. Ask what steps the coach plans to take to ensure your child's safety. Make sure the coach realizes that even if the bullying stops, simply being around the bully may still cause your child stress and anxiety. Find out how this situation will be handled.

Follow up with the coach to ensure that the bullying has been resolved. If the bullying has not been resolved, or if the coach is not taking the situation seriously, you may want to consider going above the coach's head.

If this still does not resolve the issue, you may need to remove your child from the situation. Is the bullying serious enough that you can involve law enforcement? Can your child play on a different team? Giving your children options rather than insisting that they "tough it out" is always the best approach.

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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.