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Bullying: An Ongoing Problem In Youth Sports

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Recently, I received the following letter from a mother who had attended one of my talks to a group of sports moms.

"My daughter has just signed up for a 3rd grade travel soccer team after having never played soccer before.  But last week, she told me that her teammates were teasing and bullying her (telling her she's not a good soccer player) and telling secrets about her. I have stayed and watched all her practices and all her games except one. She is completely devoted in her practices, and seems to work at least as hard if not harder than the other girls. She pays attention and does what the coach (or trainer) says. She seems to be one of the more mature girls on the team, and has made amazing progress from the first practice, to now (practice #5). I am not sure she fully understands the game, nor the nuances of each position, but she is definitely participating in earnest.

My question really is what I should expect out of the coach in this regard? I have already sent him an email telling him about the behavior of the other girls, and I borrowed some language from your handout to say that I expected the girls to show respect to each other (i.e. no teasing or bullying). Should I really expect this situation to change? Should I pull her out in the middle of the season? She is telling me now that she never wants to play soccer again. I think that, other than the behavior of the other girls, she enjoys it. I have told her she needs to finish out the season. Help!"

Bullying is violent behavior

The subject of bullying in sports is one that is near and dear to me.  According to an about-to-be- released book from the United Nations titled Violence Against Children In Sport - The Right To Play Safe (a book to which I was honored to contribute) and Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, what her daughter's teammates were doing to her daughter actually constituted emotional abuse/violence.

It is sad, but true, that some kids think that one way to keep moving up the sports pyramid is to eliminate the competition and drive kids to quit, especially if they perceive them as competitive threats, through bullying or teasing that makes them so unhappy they see quitting as a better alternative than being abused.  In extreme cases, teasing in youth sports can even lead to tragic results, such as the teasing that led a thirteen-year-old California boy to beat a fifteen-year-old boy to death in April 2005.

Common problem

A recent study revealed that there is a high probability on most teams that one or more of the lesser skilled players will be bullied or teased by a more skilled teammate.  Good coaches are alert to the possibility of bullying and proactively seek ways to reduce it.

If the coach allows the bullying to go unchecked, the player being bullied may end up deciding that quitting the team is the only way to get the abuse to stop. I remember when my son, Taylor, was on a youth basketball team.  He had just gone through a big growth spurt and towered above the other boys on his team.  He was still trying to get used to his new body, but showed real potential as a basketball player, especially given his height (he is now close to 6 feet 6 inches tall).  One of the players on the team, who actually happened to be one of his closest friends, decided that the best way to eliminate Taylor as his competition was to tease him and so he did did everything he could to undermine his self-confidence by teasing him about his skills, especially at the offensive end of the court where, despite Taylor's height, he had trouble scoring over smaller opponents.  Unfortunately, because the coach did nothing to stop the bullying, the strategy worked: Taylor finished the season but decided not to sign up again.  There is no way of knowing how good Taylor could have been as a basketball player (he was definitely a late bloomer), but I would like to think that he would grown into his body and been pretty good.

Given my experience with my own son and thousands of emails on this subject spanning the tens years I have been running MomsTeam, I thought there was a pretty good chance that the daughter of the mother who wrote me was  being bullied because, despite having just started off in soccer, she was already showing real potential and was therefore viewed by her teammates as a competitive threat.  I wondered whether the coach's child was one of the bullies and when/where was the bullying actually taking place.

The bottom line, I told her, was that the her daughter's coach should have a zero tolerance for bullying and needed to do whatever it took to get it to stop. Easier said than done, though.

Here is what I suggest to parents who find their child is being bullied by his teammates:

  1. Find articles and information on bullying on MomsTeam, especially in sports, such as Quitting Sports: A Difficult Decision and Good Youth Sports Coaches Teach, Model and Demand Sportsmanship, Fairness and Respectful Behavior ;
  2. Print the articles and when handing them to the coach demand that he or she put an end to the bullying and teasing, because it is a violent activity, because teaching respect for teammates, officials and opponents is critical part of a coach's job, and because bullying is damaging to team spirit; and
  3. Teach their child to look directly at the kids who are teasing or bullying her and in a loud, assertive voice say something like, "I have had enough of your bullying. I just want to have fun. Stop it now!" (Repeat as necessary to get it to stop).
  4. Ask your child's coach to make a quick announcement prior to each practice or game along the lines of  "There will be NO bullying or hazing or teasing and anyone on the team who does will sit on the bench! This was something I did before each practice when I was coaching and there were no problems-ever!

November 4, 2013 update: As the sad story of alleged bullying of Miami Dolphin offensive tackle Jonathan Martin by teammate Richie Incognito, which led Martin to take an indefinite leave of absence and to the indefinite suspension of Incognito while the NFL investigates, bullying can happen on teams at every level of sports.   

Has your child ever been bullied? Please add your comments below--I am very interested in what worked to eliminate the bullying of your child. 

Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of the 501(c)(3) non-profit MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (Harper Collins), founder of MomsTeam.com, and producer/editor of the PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer. You can contact Brooke at delench@momsteam.com