No Room for Bullies

January 29, 2015
It's easy for bullying situations to arise in athletics. Preventing it can help teams more fully come together.
By Randy Nathan

Randy Nathan (Coach Randy) is the President/CEO of Project NextGen, a leadership, training, and professional coaching organization. The author of Bullying in Sports: A Guide to Identifying the Injuries We Don't See, he has coached baseball and softball at the middle and high school levels and currently serves as the Mental Training/Life Coach for the Rutgers University-Newark baseball team. Nathan offers presentations and workshops nationwide and can be reached at:,, and through Twitter @coachrandysays.

On our fields and in our gyms, there is an elephant in the room. Its presence is well known among athletes but rarely confronted.

Every now and again, the elephant is noticed. This past fall, it gained more attention than ever when Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin removed himself from the team following alleged bullying behavior from fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito and other teammates.

Bullying in athletics is real, occurring across gender lines, in every sport, at all levels, throughout the nation. It is often hidden behind the disguise of teamwork and the push for excellence, and its repercussions are not always taken seriously.

But attitudes around bullying are changing. A national discussion followed the Dolphins incident and many superintendents are focusing on preventing bullying school wide. Lawsuits have also started cropping up--last year, parents in Georgia sued their school district alleging their son was bullied on his middle school football team, and two veteran coaches in New Jersey recently had cases brought against them by parents with accusations of bullying, harassment, and intimidation. The elephant in room can no longer be ignored.

One of the difficulties in discussing this topic is the lack of understanding of what bullying actually is. Additionally, the overall culture within sports adds to the confusion.

When it comes to the athletic world, I like to use the description from the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a leading provider of anti-bullying education. It explains that bullying is intentional and unwanted behavior consisting of three components: It is aggressive, repetitive, and creates an imbalance of power. (In some occurrences, it can be a one-time incident, but this is not the norm.)

One reason bullying occurs in athletics is that those three defining components are often instilled into players to make them more successful. Coaches want their athletes to be aggressive, they preach the importance of repetitive practice, and they seek an imbalance in power over an opponent during competition.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such coaching tactics. However, young players often embrace these messages without having the skills necessary to disconnect them from other interactions with their peers. An athlete's competitive edge does not always subside when they leave the field, and it can become second nature to maintain an aggressive approach with others, repeat choices of behavior, and create an imbalance of power through intimidation and physical size.

Another challenge is the fine line that divides bullying and "horseplay." Horseplay allows for put downs and teasing that are often delivered in a joking matter. It is designed to build a sense of camaraderie and is not meant to be hurtful.

Sometimes, this teasing can go too far, and what begins with silliness can turn personal or be misconstrued as offensive or malicious. This can create a conflict between athletes that needs to be resolved, but since no one is seeking power over another, it is not bullying. Horseplay becomes bullying when the comments are no longer a form of bonding and instead an aggressive and repetitive manner of demeaning a teammate.

It should also be understood that bullying is very different than "normal" discord on athletic teams, which requires discussion or mediation to settle. Bullying is not a disagreement or misunderstanding but rather one or more team members victimizing another in an aggressive way.

On sports teams, the bully often hides in plain sight as a team leader. The common belief that bullies lack confidence is not the norm in sports. The bully typically has tremendous confidence that crosses over into arrogance. Their athletic ability is usually at the top of the spectrum and thus they are a favorite player. Coaches frequently lean on them to get the rest of the team motivated towards winning.

Bully athletes welcome the opportunity to be viewed as a leader, yet often lack the necessary leadership skills. They may scream at teammates following errors or resort to humiliating other players in order to motivate them to perform better. Often, the bully believes these tactics are appropriate, never perceiving the harm they cause.

The dynamics of a team make it easy for other players to follow the bully's lead--or at least not interfere with the behavior. Sometimes, it becomes part of the team culture year after year.

The taboo against reporting any bullying behavior is very strong among teens. Research has shown that 10 percent of those involved in bullying situations are targets, five percent initiate the bullying, and nearly 85 percent are bystanders. Members of this largest group do not begin the behavior but sometimes motivate or support it. However, most bystanders are uncomfortable with the bullying, yet feel helpless to stop it.

There are two strategies for stopping bullying on athletic teams: adult intervention and peer intervention. Because most bystanders consciously choose not to confront the bully or report the behavior, adult intervention is the more effective deterrent.

Athletic directors can take the lead by choosing to make bullying their business and starting a dialogue with coaches about the topic. Why should coaches care about bullying? To start, a team where every individual is valued is a stronger team--when even one player is bullied, the whole team is weakened.

Secondly, a bullying situation can disrupt a team in ways the coach is not aware of and can ultimately be the difference between a winning and losing season. Finally, because school districts have started taking a much harder stance against bullying on their campuses, failure to act could be grounds for a coach's dismissal.

Training coaches on what they can do to create an anti-bullying culture in their program entails education and discussion. Here are some areas to talk about:

Identifying inappropriate behavior: The various forms of bullying are verbal, social (exclusion or isolation), and physical. They can be divided further into direct and indirect formats. Direct bullying generally involves open attacks, usually in person, and can include derogatory comments, name-calling, racial or sexual harassment, hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, posting embarrassing pictures on the Internet, and hiding or stealing personal items.

Indirect bullying is concealed and subtle, which can make it more difficult for the bullied student to know who is directly responsible. Typical examples include social isolation (intentionally leaving someone out), spreading rumors, and several forms of cyberbullying.

Uncovering problems: In athletics, there is an unwritten rule that what is said in the locker room, stays in the locker room. When coaches aren't in the locker room with their athletes before and after practices, this can create opportunities for bullying that will go unreported. To reduce this risk, coaches should develop a presence there, so they can be aware of the banter that occurs among players. Questionable comments should be turned into team discussions or teachable moments.

Beyond the locker room, it's important for coaches to monitor the pulse of their team and their players' social interactions. To know whether bullying is going on, coaches should interact with athletes off the field and speak often with captains about team dynamics.

Role modeling: To promote an anti-bullying culture on their team, coaches need to model appropriate behavior themselves. This starts with not using offensive language, refraining from yelling at players, and never humiliating an athlete in order to motivate him or her.

Coaches can inadvertently promote bullying behavior in subtle ways, such as through nicknames. For example, let's say a male player is not running with the effort expected and a coach jokingly refers to him as "Prancer." It does provide the incentive he needed to raise his game on the field, but then his teammates and other students relentlessly tease him about it. Nicknames can quickly take on a life of their own and provide fodder for a bully.

Coaches should also evaluate how they teach their players. For example instead of saying, "I can't believe you would ..." or "What were you thinking when ...?," reframe the question in a more positive fashion by saying, "How did ... help you achieve the goal?" or better yet, "What lesson did you learn when ...?"

Another important area of role modeling is the manner in which coaches handle losing. The most important quality in a coach when it comes to losing is perspective. The win-at-all-cost mentality creates a mindset that transfers to relationships and situations off the field. Players can take on this mentality, and it can get directed towards others, creating bullying situations.

Team traditions: Rewarding positive behavior can often be an effective method for preventing bullying. One way to do this is through team traditions that call out players who exhibit positive off-the-field behavior. For example, there can be a specific time set aside at the end of team meetings for both coaches and players to identify teammates who have been great role models. The coach could even hand out a type of small award, such as a wristband with a team slogan, to these upstanding team members.

Playing favorites: It's natural for coaches to have favorite players. But when an athlete is a coach's "favorite," an unspoken dynamic can arise in which that player is seen as untouchable--anything he or she does is not to be questioned. That makes it much easier for this athlete to bully others.

Setting expectations: Along with fostering the right atmosphere, coaches must be very clear that bullying will not be tolerated on their team. Written team guidelines prohibiting bullying are needed, with specific consequences spelled out. Coaches must communicate these policies to the athletes in a way that resonates with them. Athletes must understand that eradicating bullying is important to the coach and will be emphasized.

Another tactic is a team pledge. Have players sign a contract to help them take a stand against bullying. It can include the following statement: "I will not bully others. I will help students who are being bullied. I will include anyone who is being left out. I will let the coach know if someone is being bullied."

If team members are caught acting as bullies or participating in such behavior, the coach needs to follow through with penalties. The only way to help players understand the importance of this issue is to hold them accountable regardless of their athletic ability. Athletes must clearly see that bullying will never be tolerated.

In athletics, we often talk about our best athletes being "game changers." In bullying, the game changer is the player who chooses to become an "upstander"--someone who has the ability and willingness to stand up to bullying behavior.

Research puts the number of upstanders in a school at less than one percent. It is extremely challenging for high school and college-aged students to stand up to bullying. They often fear that the bully will turn toward them or they doubt they can change anything. Many students do not want to be viewed as a tattletale, and others worry it will only make things worse.

However, athletes already have an upstander mindset that has been engrained into their personality for years. They know how to stand up for a teammate during competition and sacrifice for the greater good. With some time and effort, coaches can motivate more of their athletes to be upstanders.

There are three steps needed to teach players to become upstanders. These activities can be done in one preseason training or as small discussions at the end of practices.

The first step is teaching athletes to recognize that a situation is inappropriate. Coaches should explain what constitutes bullying and the difference between horseplay and bullying, allowing for questions and answers. Next, coaches can set up role playing, followed by a discussion. Some of the effective topics to role play are weight issues, sexual identity, and ethnic and homophobic slurs.

The second step is to motivate players to be responsible for themselves and their peers. The most important ingredient here is learning empathy and what it is like to live in another's shoes.

One exercise to enforce this involves having team members create two lists. One list identifies all of the differences (physical, social, ethnic, racial, age, etc.) of teammates. On the other list, have them identify all of their similarities. It is very likely the list of similarities will be longer and more compassionate. Once they realize they are more alike than different, athletes will be more empowered to care about each other.

Teaching empathy should also include a discussion on the difference between acceptance and tolerance. Tolerance is negative in nature, implying a sub-par athlete can be on the team but can be belittled. Acceptance promotes respect to everyone.

The third step is empowering athletes to do something, and the key is for coaches to create an environment of trust. Since most young bystanders are hesitant about going to an adult, coaches must provide a safe atmosphere for them. Creating trust is one of the most challenging aspects of any relationship with young athletes. Try this basic three-step process:

Attitude of Gratitude: Accept where the athlete may be in terms of trust and then appreciate his or her willingness to come in for guidance.

Acknowledge and Validate: Take the time to acknowledge the young person's thoughts and situation. Regardless of whether you believe what the athlete is saying, they are entitled to their own thoughts. When you acknowledge what the student-athlete is saying, they are confident to continue. The next piece is vital, which is to validate their feelings. When a player is validated, it enforces that what they are feeling is reasonable.

Plan of Action: Let the athlete know what you will do next to address the situation. Make sure there is no miscommunication and guarantee to the upstander that you will fulfill your end and follow up afterward. Discuss their courage and reinforce their decision to come to you as being the right choice. End the conversation with a genuine, "Thank you."

In addition to creating an atmosphere where athletes feel safe to report bullying, coaches must provide direction on what their athletes should do when they see bullying occurring. Specific strategies include the following:

Using assertive statements: When an upstander shows confidence through assertive statements, a bully is more likely to back down. The words can be as simple as, "Hey, what's going on here?" or, "Hey, someone's coming." Bullies do not want to be caught and will often walk away.

Fogging: This strategy asks the upstander to take on the same characteristics of the student being bullied in order to deflect what is being said. For instance, if an athlete is being bullied about his or her weight, an upstander can simply acknowledge his or her own size, joke about getting something to eat, and walk the target away.

Swarming: Two or more players approach the bully. In most situations, upstanders have the ability to get others to join them by just suggesting it. Since a core component of bullying is creating an imbalance of power, when players join together, the balance of power is flipped away from the bully.

Acknowledging: An upstander identifies the perpetrator as an outright bully and calls them out for their negative behavior. When someone is brave enough to speak the truth, it is often a sign for others to do the same. Most students are looking for that one person to confront a bully before becoming upstanders themselves.

Regardless of the initial strategy used, upstanders should also try to remove the target from the bullying situation. If there's no target, the athletes who bully have no place to focus their negative behavior. This can be challenging, so practice and role playing are important.

Some further talking points to encourage athletes to be upstanders include courage and confidence. Athletes should know they will be praised for having the courage to stand up to a bully. And they should be confident they understand the difference between tattling and telling--tattling is about getting someone in trouble, telling is about taking action to support a target of bullying behavior. Finally, athletes must have the utmost confidence that their coach will have their back.

As the leader of the athletic department, you will play a big role in eliminating bullying on sports teams. Along with educating coaches and helping them motivate players to be upstanders, consider putting community strategies in place.

When an athletic director approaches the school principal with a desire to provide anti-bullying training specifically designed for coaches and players, they will likely be welcomed with open arms. It is also something that upper-level administrators can often find funding for.

Another idea is to create a task force of coaches, parents, and student-athletes to coordinate bullying prevention activities. This facilitates buy-in from many angles and can lead to new ideas.

The task force can also involve members of the broader community, such as local leaders, business professionals, and clergy. Sports can provide a unifying opportunity for many respected individuals to address bullying behavior. In addition, when athletes know they have a responsibility toward their community, they will be more likely to step up to those expectations.

After enacting anti-bullying measures, you may want to evaluate if the climate in your school is changing. Offer an anonymous survey at the beginning of the season to allow players to express their perception and opinion at the onset. Then, give them a follow-up survey during the season and another at the end.

No school in our country is immune from bullying. Players must have coaches who openly acknowledge this reality and are willing to address negative behavior head on. When coaches invest their time and energy into preventing bullying, they are strengthening their team while creating leaders who understand empathy and acceptance.

When every player is valued, a team becomes stronger and its members are less likely to bully. One of my favorite team-building activities is "Hoop Hysteria." You need five Hula-Hoops, 60 to 70 small beanbags, and an open area. The goal is to demonstrate the power of the team over the individual effort.

Step One: Distribute the Hula-Hoops so they make a large circle, then place the beanbags in the center of this circle. Divide the group into five smaller teams, asking each team to sit around one Hula-Hoop.

Step Two: Explain that the goal for each team is to have all of the beanbags that are currently in the center of the circle in the center of their Hula-Hoop. Only one person from the group is allowed to touch the bags, and no one is to stop anyone else from collecting bags. Provide no further instruction except to spell out that the activity is not a "competition" among the five groups.

Step Three: Blow a whistle or say, "go" and let the mayhem begin. Once all of the beanbags have been removed from the center, regain order and tell the teams to sit back down around their Hula-Hoop. It's very likely the beanbags will be randomly distributed among the five hoops. Tell the players that for the next round, all team members are now allowed to leave their Hula-Hoop and pick up beanbags from the other teams.

Step Four: Hopefully, someone will figure out the solution, which is for all the groups to stack their Hula-Hoops on top of each other then have each team return their bags to the center of the pile of Hula-Hoops. The only way to fully achieve the goal is to have everyone work together.

From there, begin discussion, which can include the following:

- What does this exercise have to do with teamwork?
- What was it like to have every team win?
- What did we learn about leadership?
- What did we learn about communication?
- What lessons can be learned about bullying behavior?
- What can be learned about being an upstander?

In 2011, Daniel Cui was a freshman goalkeeper on the varsity soccer team at Crystal Springs Uplands High School in Hillsborough, Calif., who struggled with a rough start to the season after a series of blown saves. Some students began to post negative comments and photos about him on the Internet, and he became the butt of jokes and the scapegoat for the team's losing record. Daniel became sullen and depressed to the point that he didn't want to return to school.

What transpired next was unexpected and truly inspirational. One of his teammates changed his own profile picture to a photo of Cui making a save, and then more than 100 other students did the same. The posting went viral, with supporters saying, "We are all Daniel Cui."

With newfound confidence, Cui returned the next season to play the game of his life and lead his team to a win. Consider sharing this story with your own student-athletes, which they can view by searching "We Are All Daniel Cui" at:
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