Breaking down bullying

Breaking down bullying


Every day an alarming number of children are bullied in schools across the country, and yes, these appalling behaviors are becoming increasingly common in youth sports, too. Everyone – coaches, parents, officials and league administrators included – has a responsibility to help make sure that no youngster’s sports experience is ruined by being bullied.

By Linda Alberts 

Bullying has long been written off as a rite of passage: repeated incidences of heckling, name-calling and isolation that young boys and girls must endure at some point during their childhood to make them tough enough to survive in an unfair world. Generations of bullied children have been fed similar adages to solve their bullying problems, like ignoring the bully will make them go away, or that even learning to fight will stop the bully from picking on them.

But, as we’re seeing, it isn’t working.

“Bullying has always existed. What we may have thought as teasing or name-calling, that was actually bullying,” said Dr. Priscilla Boerger, an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. who specializes in bullying education and teaching techniques that can be used to deal with, and prevent, bullying. “The difference is that today the outcomes are so severe. So many young children are taking their own lives and we’re losing our youth. That’s where the difference is.”

The numbers are startling: One in seven children in grades K-12 is a victim of bullying, or is a bully themselves. That means on a youth football team of 25 players, chances are pretty good that bullying is affecting the childhood of three players on just one team alone.

“I believe that bullying is a major issue across the country,” said Brian Benton, recreation supervisor at the Town of Jupiter in Florida. “Bullying can threaten children’s physical and emotional safety; therefore prevention is the key to every child’s success.”

To help prevent bullying in its youth sports program, the Town of Jupiter, along with the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association, is offering bullying prevention training developed by the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). “We want to foster a safe and fun environment for all of our program participants,” Benton said.


The training was created by NAYS in response to increasing occurrences of bullying in youth sports.

“Thousands of children are bullied in school each day,” said John Engh, chief operating officer at NAYS. “These events often cross into the youth sports environment and make the fields, courts and rinks places of intimidation and fear instead of the positive, safe outdoor classroom that they should be.”

The NAYS bullying prevention training gives coaches and parents the knowledge they need to recognize bullying situations and the confidence to intervene and correct the problem. The training is broken down into several sections that cover what bullying is, what roles kids play in bullying, how to prevent and respond to bullying and how to avoid unknowingly becoming a bully, as well as providing additional resources for more information. Dr. Boerger is featured in the training as well as Roy Williams, the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina.

The bullying prevention training supports the information coaches and parents learn as members of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association (NYSCA) and Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS), respectively, and can be added to their memberships for free. 

Did you know…

  • More than 160,000 students stay home from school each day because of a fear of being bullied
  • 8 percent of students miss one day of class per month due to a fear of bullies
  • More than 280,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools each month
  • 43 percent of students fear harassment in the bathroom at school
  • Every seven minutes a child is bullied on a playground

“The bullying prevention training services a critical area that is a major factor in the lives of our youth across the country,” said Benton. “This training complements the current programs that NAYS offers.”

Children not only witness or experience bullying among their peers, but may also receive misleading messages from the coaches, parents and other adults they look up to. Unfortunately, parents and coaches shouting complaints about plays, spewing hateful words to one another and breaking out into full-on melees is not an exaggerated description of many youth sports events across the country.

“Bullying is a large problem in America’s schools. It was only a matter of time before it became an issue in youth sports, especially with the growing number of parent fights that break out at youth sports events,” said Bridgette King, president and head coach of the Lady Panthers Girls Basketball Association in Dallas, Texas. “Kids mimic and receive reinforcement for what they believe to be acceptable behavior from those around them. After taking the training, I feel that I am more capable to handle bullying within my youth sports program regardless of who is trying to do the bullying – a parent or a child.”

For Stan Jenkins, taking the bullying prevention training affirmed his belief that knowledge is power. As a baseball coach for the Skyway PONY Baseball League in Tampa, Fla., Jenkins has worked with kids ages 4-8 throughout his four years of coaching. “My experience with this age group has been positive,” he said. “However, I can imagine that as I start to work with older kids it’s something I may run into.”

There’s a fine line between competition and bullying in sports. Players may want to exert their strength and prove their value to the team and to do so may target another player they believe to be weaker than themselves.

“I think that bullying in sports is not really seen as bullying,” King said. “I think some may view it as a rite of passage to joining the team, or just something that happens among the players.”

However, these behaviors are dangerous when the intent of the child doing the bullying is to dominate over another player through hurtful actions.

According to the Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, 64 percent of children who are being bullied do not report it.

“I don’t have a problem with competitive play,” King said. “But I do have a problem with players that bully and coaches and parents that let it happen.”


Seventy percent of children quit sports because they say it’s not fun anymore. There’s a myriad of reasons a child can feel sports aren’t fun anymore, including being bullied.

2012 Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas reported that she was on the verge of quitting gymnastics when she was 14 years old after years of bullying from a former coach and team members. She said they made her feel isolated and that she didn’t fit in. After telling her mother that she would rather quit the sport she loved than stay with a coach that made her feel this way the family moved to Iowa where the aspiring Olympian could train for her dreams under a new coach.

So how many children’s athletic dreams are derailed by traumatic incidents of bullying? How many kids suffer in silence throughout a season, never disclosing to a parent or coach that they are being bullied, and then bail on the sport for good?

According to the Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, 64 percent of children who are being bullied do not report it. Bullying can be overlooked if coaches and parents do not know the signs that they should be watching for and this could have long-term effects on the child’s health and mental status., an online resource managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, reports that bullying can have negative consequences for everyone involved: the child being bullied can suffer from depression, anxiety and decreased academic achievement; the child doing the bullying is likely to engage in violent and other risky behaviors, like drug and alcohol use into adulthood; and bystanders of bullying incidents can also suffer from anxiety and increased chance of using drugs and alcohol.

As a member of law enforcement for 14 years, patrol officer Brian Donohue may have seen the long-term effects of bullying in action. “I’m aware of the bullying problem that is somewhat prominent in today’s society,” he said.

Donohue is also a coach with the Elwood Park Little League and Hasbrouck Heights Junior Football League in New Jersey.

“I learned how important the parents, coaches and other players are in the bullying process and how they can break the bullying cycle,” he said. “I found that this training not only assisted my education for coaching, but also as a police officer.” 

Signs of bullying

Too often bullying behavior is passed off as “just a part of the game” or “kids being kids,” but it’s much more serious than that. Coaches, parents and league administrators must be on the lookout for the following indicators – both obvious and not-so-obvious – that bullying is taking place:

  • Hitting or slapping with intent to hurt
  • Calling players by unwanted nicknames
  • Setting another player up to look foolish
  • Tripping another player
  • Repeated exclusion of another player
  • Taunting another player
  • Taking others' possessions
  • Gossiping about another player
  • Physical harm, including illegal use of legs and arms on the field
  • Heckling other players
  • Trash talking with ill-intent
  • Verbal threats to hurt another player
Abuse Bullying Fighting Training

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