How to Handle Bullying
How parents can help if their athlete is being bullied
Unfortunately, we know that bullying is present in schools across the country and affects the lives of many children each day. When these aggressions cross into the youth sports environment, baseball fields can become places of intimidation and fear instead of safety, positivity, and growth. To maintain a suitable atmosphere in youth sports, everyone, including parents, should do their part to help make sure that a child’s experience is not negatively impacted by bullying.
“He’s just a tough, old-school coach”
What happens when your child comes home from practice and shares that his or her coach may be the one that’s doing the bullying? The coach/athlete relationship is inherently unbalanced, as there are differences in power, knowledge, and occupation, and this makes occurrences of this type of bullying complicated to handle. It can be a very difficult topic for children to bring up and talk about; therefore, if your child has experienced bullying, it’s important that you investigate it closely and reassure them that what they have experienced is not right.
Why It's Important to Recognize
If your child is experiencing this form of abuse, recognize that this type of bullying, while common, is not a normal part of youth sports and it is critical that you act. You are your child's advocate, and without your help and intervention, they are left alone to defend themselves in a situation in which they have little control.
Signs of a Bullying Coach
It can be far too easy to dismiss a coach’s bullying behavior. In fact, many parents overlook abusive behavior toward their child rather than ask the necessary questions. They accept that the coach is just “tough” or “old-school” and assume they shouldn’t intervene.
While it may sound difficult to tell the difference between the two, there are clear signs that can help parents and athletes distinguish a "tough" coach from a bullying coach. Here are some clues to look for:
1. Verbal Abuse
Verbal put-downs, mockery, and provoking from a coach, in front of others, are clear forms of verbal abuse. The coach may also shout, swear, or yell on a regular basis, as well as make offensive jokes at your child or another child's expense. Some coaches even engage in gaslighting.
If a coach intimidates your child (or other players) on a regular basis, this is a clear sign of abuse. Intimidating behavior may include threatening kids with severe consequences to maintain power and control over them. It may also include threatening gestures, frequent yelling or shouting, and/or making threats to harm them physically when they make a mistake.
3. Seeding Doubts
A bullying coach may exhibit control by questioning an athlete’s abilities or commitment to the team. A coach may question their players’ commitment if they miss practices due to school or family obligations. While you may empathize with a coach who wants to put the team first and requires the utmost commitment, keep in mind that even if your child puts in long hours and sacrifices personal time, it still may not be enough for a rigid coach with too high of expectations. In this case, belittling or making fun of their players is an unacceptable way for a coach to implement dedication.
4. Undermining Success
Bullying coaches also may undermine the success of a child. This is especially common among coaches who set unrealistic goals for their teams. Doing so increases the player's chance of failure. What’s more, this type of coach may bench your child if they know a scout is coming to watch or if you have a lot of family at the game. It's not that your child did anything wrong, it's simply a way for them to establish control and instill fear.
5. Trash-Talk or Gossip
If your child's coach trash-talks your child to other coaches or spreads rumors, open your eyes. Bullies often go to great lengths to make others look bad. As a result, they may gossip with others or spread rumors about your child’s performance, abilities, or future in the sport in effort to tarnish their reputation.
How to Respond
If your child has been bullied by a coach, you may hesitate to do anything out of worry that taking action will make you athlete’s life harder. As your child’s most dependable advocate, though, you have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right. If you’re concerned about speaking up, inquire about the level of concern other parents may have. Finding other families with similar concerns makes addressing the issue easier; however, if you are the only family experiencing this behavior, you still need to do something. Standing up for your child will not only let them know that you will go to bat for them, but also may spare other children from being similarly abused.
You can also help your child learn to recognize bullying for what it is, so that they don’t blame themselves for their coach's behavior. Remind them that bullying doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them or that they’ll never be a good player. Instead, discuss how bullying is a choice that is made only by the bully based on their own insecurities and shortcomings.
Listen deeply and respectfully gather more information. It is important to respond in a way that shows you care for your child’s safety and well-being. When they decide to confide in you, be sure to remain composed while asking thoughtful questions. It is also important that you begin a written account of what has happened with dates, times, and potential witnesses.
Stay calm. This is an opportunity to model thoughtful action for the child involved. Reacting quickly and out of anger will cause greater harm.
Ask the child’s opinion before acting. Remember, the child is the most at risk for further consequences, and it’s important to balance their concerns about the problem and allow them to be a part of the solution going forward.
Meet with the adult and their supervisor. Be prepared, respectful and clear. Before meeting with a coach and their staff or supervisor, be sure to reference the school/league handbook to determine if there is policy or code of conduct related to the observed behaviors. At the meeting, share what your child has reported to you and discuss how the behaviors relate to the policy. If the teacher/coach seems concerned, regretful, and apologetic, ask how they plan to follow up with your child. If your conversation and concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously, be prepared to take your concerns to the next level. Going to the league administrator or school board may be the best next steps to voice your concerns.
Remember, if it walks like a bully and talks like a bully…
The U.S. Council for Athletes' Health (USCAH) was founded upon the need for trusted, independent athletic health care partners with the experience and expertise to advise and consult with organizations regarding their healthcare delivery system. This is why USCAH is committed to providing independent and unbiased medical expertise to organizations and individuals dedicated to the optimal health and safety for the athletes they serve. You can find out more about USCAH at www.uscah.com or by reaching out to [email protected]