By Liz Connelly
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / barr5557
Whether you are volunteering as a coach for a town league or a school, coaching youth sports is not easy. Finding the time between busy work schedules and family responsibilities to prepare practice drills and strategies and attend practices and games—although rewarding—can be overwhelming. Coaches also need to be sure their players feel safe and comfortable with teammates.
Good-natured teasing and competitive attitudes have always been a part of sports, and it has sometimes been easy for coaches and volunteers to dismiss bullying as “kids being kids.” But in recent years, bullying has become a more serious issue, and it is now a coach’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment for players.
“It is difficult for a parent or adult who is taking time out of their busy schedules to volunteer and coach a team, to have the same knowledge as an educator about preventing and dealing with bullying,” said Jill Spineti, President and CEO of The Governor’s Prevention Partnership in Connecticut. “Coaches aren’t expected to know everything about bullying prevention, but it is important for them to know the basics and the resources available to them so they can create a safe and bully-free environment for their players.”
How To Spot Bullying Behaviors
As a coach, have you seen players yelling at each other and brushed it off as competitive behavior? Have you noticed a group of team members being hard on a single player and considered it constructive criticism? These types of behaviors may seem innocent, but they are most likely bullying behaviors.
Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance; and the behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. When applying that description to sports, an imbalance of power may be players using their physical strength, superior athletic ability, or popularity to control or harm others. Coaches also need to be aware of any teasing or bullying that occurs repeatedly during games and practices. When “lighthearted” teasing continues, it becomes bullying.
Due to the nature of sports, distinguishing bullying from competitive behavior may be difficult. In general, it is important for the coaching staff to be observant and intervene when they see mean behavior from their players. Yelling and excitement are inevitable during a game, but it is important that players encourage their teammates rather than put them down. Addressing the mean behavior when it is first spotted will prevent it from escalating.
Be aware of these bullying behaviors:
Unwarranted yelling and screaming directed at a specific target
Continual criticism of the target’s abilities
Blaming the target for mistakes
Repeated insults or put-downs of the target
Denying or discounting the target’s accomplishments.
Bullying behaviors can also include targeting new team members by forcing them to “earn their spot” on the team; or teammates may belittle a certain player because they don’t like him or her.
How To React When Bullying Occurs
Coaches or volunteers need to intervene immediately when they see bullying occur. It is also important to stay calm and model respectful behavior to the rest of the team. Once the players have been separated, make sure that everyone is safe and, if necessary, attend to any medical needs.
After the initial intervention, steps should be taken so that a similar situation doesn’t arise in the future. This plan will depend on the child’s safety needs, and can be as simple as keeping the target and bully separated during practices and games. Depending on the severity of the situation, a coach can communicate with the parents of the aggressor(s) that bullying will not be tolerated, and can meet with the target’s parents to discuss a plan for the his or her safety.
Ignoring a bullying situation or assuming the kids can work it out without adult help is not a good idea. Once a coach intervenes, there should be time for emotions and tempers to calm down, then each player involved can be talked with separately. Forcing players to apologize immediately will not solve the problem.
How To Prevent Bullying Behaviors
Make your expectations clear. It is important for a coach to express the rules and expectations for the team and parents at the first practice. Be clear that you want to create an atmosphere of respect, support, and team unity. Players must understand the impact their behavior has on the rest of the team and that bullying each other or members of other teams will not be tolerated. Starting the season with clear expectations for the team will allow a standard to be set for everyone to follow.
Establish open communication. Coaches must establish open and honest communication among everyone connected to the team, including parents, players, coaching staff, and volunteers. Players should know that coaches are always available to talk if they have any issues or questions. In this way players will feel comfortable in reporting any bullying behavior. Build rapport with the parents by having casual conversations when they attend a practice. Parents then will be encouraged to talk directly to the coach and not other parents when they become aware of bullying behavior. This approach ensures that small concerns are discussed before they become bigger issues, and if conflicts do arise, they can be sorted out quickly.
Set a good example. To create an inclusive, safe environment for youth, it is important for coaches to set the standard for good behavior, and be a positive role model to their players. This includes the tone of voice, body language, and other nonverbal messages. Making a conscious effort to be constructive, rather than critical, will allow players to improve without feeling bad about themselves. If coaches tease or scream at a player, they are giving unspoken permission for teammates to do the same.
Liz Connelly is the Communications and Media Coordinator for the Governor’s Prevention Partnership. Reach her at 860-523-8042 x50, or Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org .
Celebrating more than 24 years of keeping Connecticut kids safe, successful, and drug-free, The Governor’s Prevention Partnership is a statewide, nonprofit, public-private alliance, building a strong, healthy future workforce through leadership in mentoring and preventing youth violence and bullying, underage drinking, and substance abuse. For additional tips and information about bullying prevention or to see what trainings are available to coaches and adults who work with youth, contact The Governor’s Prevention Partnership at 860-523-8042 or visit www.preventionworksct.org .