Although one of the hallmarks of youth sports is its emphasis on fair play and character, that doesn’t mean youth sports is immune from the scourge of bullying. While some parents and coaches write off this behavior as the misguided actions of “kids being kids” or “boys being boys”—even though bullying can occur in all sports programs for both boys and girls—bullying is a serious offense that can include name calling, harassment, exclusion, physical violence, and a host of other acts. Furthermore, the definition of bullying on stopbullying.gov notes that it is a repetitive behavior, so children may be subjected to this kind of mistreatment again and again.
No child deserves to endure abuse at the hands of their teammates, especially when it can leave them emotionally scarred, prone to anxiety, lacking in self-confidence, depressed, and more. Since it’s the responsibility of parents and coaches to care for youth athletes, that means it’s also the responsibility of parents and coaches to work towards striking bullying out of youth sports. By the same token, the adults who make youth sports possible also have a duty to offer the proper care and support to players who are the victims of such cruelty.
Start with preventative measures. If your child’s team has been lucky enough to go without any incidents of bullying, talk to the coach and your fellow parents about the actions that comprise bullying and the symptoms that victims display, and encourage parents to talk regularly with their kids about bullying so that they feel comfortable discussing issues as soon as they occur.
It’s also essential to familiarize yourself with the signs of bullying. Look for changes in your son’s or daughter’s behavior: Bullied children often lose interest in their favorite activities, especially if they associate those activities bullying, so be wary if your child suddenly loses interest in playing their sport or spending time with their teammates. In addition, bullying can bring about physical symptoms as well, like stomach pain, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping, so be on the lookout for those. If you suspect that your child is the target of bullies, try asking them gentle questions, like who their friends on the team are, to get more insight.
When you encounter incidents of bullying or learn that they’ve occurred on the team, you’ll want to take action quickly. Talk to the bully—this can be one child or a group—and tell them that you won’t tolerate their harassment of a fellow teammate. Elaborate by explaining why their behavior was unacceptable and drive the point home by asking why they thought what their conduct was OK. Be aware that bullying is often a response to trauma or turbulence in the bully’s life, so you may want to make sure that there isn’t some trigger at home, at school, or elsewhere that fuels their bad behavior.
Of course, the bullying issues you come across on your own teams may require more creative or alternate solutions to those presented here, but the underlying premise remains the same regardless: In the same way that you tell your players to keep their eyes on the ball, as a youth sports coach or parent, it’s your job to keep your eyes on the players and make sure that they’re safe from bullying.