Bullying or competitive play? In sports, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the two apart.
While intimidation can be a natural part of competition, studies have shown that kids who are teased in gym class or sports are less likely to participate in physical activity one year later. As athletes and parents of athletes, how do we spot real sports bullies and what should we do about them? Since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, it's a good time to address this very important topic.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines bullying as "unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time." Bullying can take on various forms, including everything from teasing, to name-calling, and even to taunting.
In sports, this type of bullying can be seen as simply trying to gain a competitive mental advantage over another player or team; however, it can have equally negative effects. As a trainer for the Positive Coaching Alliance, I don't believe negative, abusive or "shaming" behaviors of any kind, at any level, should be a part of competition. I believe as parents, coaches, and athletes we should provide a positive, character-building experience, regardless of the sport or circumstances.
Three Pro-Active Anti-Bullying Strategies
We can prevent bullying in today's hypercompetitive world of sports with open, honest conversation, and by using the following three proactive strategies.
1. Instill Self-Confidence & Self-Respect
As not only a mental training coach, but also a mother of two young boys, I believe parents have a responsibility to teach their children self-reliance, self-worth, and self-confidence. Those skills should be also be coupled with self-respect, a strong moral compass and humility. I've observed children on the playground and in camps as young as four years old who can still be educated on how to behave. At this age, all children should be taught that they are important and valuable, even if someone else is better at a specific physical skill.
2. Model Positive and Compassionate Behavior
Parents need to be role models and show their children that they do not deserve to have a sense of entitlement if they have superior strength, speed, or fine/gross motor skills than their peers. Being good at a sport should be celebrated, but not at the expense of everyone else. By treating all kids the same as they walk on and off the field, children should be taught at an early age not to compare themselves to others; therefore, they will not overly criticize others who they perceive are better or worse than them. And, they will learn the finer nuances and subtleties of compassion in a primarily competitive environment.
3. Teach Inclusivity
Parents must teach their children who are more naturally competitive how to be inclusive and appreciate their peers' strengths. Parents should reframe that playground experience by saying, "Your strength may be in sports, but David plays the piano really well." Teaching inclusivity teaches kids that all strengths should be celebrated, even those that don't show up on a sports field.
As for young athletes who might find themselves the object of a bully, I encourage them to know that bullies exhibit poor behavior because of their own desire to make themselves feel superior. Kids should either ignore their bad and unsportsmanlike behavior by tuning them out, disengaging or standing up to them. A simple, "That's not cool" or "That's not fair" can sometimes be effective in giving the bully a chance for self-reflection and to set things right. Always be authentic and build everything that's good about you as an athlete and as a human being.
K.C. Wilder, Ph.D., is a former college cycling All-American, two-time national masters short track cycling champion, and professional cyclist, certified sports trainer, performance consultant and author of the book, Tour de You. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two sons. You can follow K.C. on Twitter @KCWilder, or visit her website and Facebook page.