Bullying in youth sports is, unfortunately, nothing new. Many of us who have played on a youth sports team at any point in the last 50 years can probably think of at least one instance where we were picked on, or we watched another player get teased/bullied. For many years, coaches and volunteers have dismissed bullying as just “kids being kids,” but in the last few years bullying (not just in sports) has gotten a lot more serious attention from our government, schools and communities. While good natured teasing has always been a part of sports, there is no room for bullying and it’s up to coaches and volunteers to ensure a safe environment for your players.
So what can coaches and volunteers do to prevent bullying in their sports organizations?
1. Establish a zero tolerance policy.
What starts out as a joke can easily turn into a cruel taunt, so at the beginning of the season you should make it clear to your players and their parents that there will be a zero tolerance policy for bullying. While it’s nearly impossible to outline every potential circumstance that counts as bullying, make sure they understand that if you feel players are cruel to one another, even if they meant it as a joke, their behavior won’t be accepted.
2. Recognize that you have the right to step in.
As the adult, you have the right and the responsibility to step in if you see one player (or another adult!) bullying another. Don’t assume that the kids will just work it out themselves, especially if it seems like a pattern of behavior. This is your team and you are partially responsible for the actions of your players. If you see bullying and don’t put a stop to it, then you are part of the problem.
3. Understand that your actions impact your players.
Be aware of that your tone, body language, and other nonverbal messages set the standards of behavior for your team. If you tease and yell at a player, you are giving your unspoken permission for their teammates to do the same. You may not mean to cause any harm, but you have to practice what you preach and be a role-model for your team. Be constructive with your criticism, don’t just criticize.
The worst thing you can do is turn a blind eye to bullying and dismiss your players’ behavior. Creating a bully free environment is the responsibility of every youth sports coach and league volunteer. You have the power to protect your players and ensure that everyone is respected and feels safe on and off the field.