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Kids Playing Soccer

You’re Out! When Bullying Hits the Playing Field

Part 1 of 2 in a series on Youth Sports & Bullying

Read Part 2


Warmer weather is (finally!) here, and kids across the country are gearing up to hit the playing fields. Unfortunately, many will find themselves flinching not just from fast balls, but from bullying.

“Thousands of children are bullied in school each day,” says John Engh, chief operating officer at the National Alliance for Youth Sports (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.”

Of course, bullying in kids’ sports isn’t anything new. For generations, abusive behavior — name calling, hitting, taunting — was brushed off as “kids being kids.”

But now, that behavior has a name and more data behind it. We now know that students who are bullied are at an increased risk of depression, 2.2 times more likely to experience suicidal ideation, and 2.6 times more likely to attempt suicide.

We’re also starting to learn just how pervasive, and unselective, bullying in youth sports is:

  • 40-50% of athletes have experienced anything from mild harassment to severe abuse in their sport of choice
  • 8% of coaches acknowledged encouraging athletes to hurt opponents, 33% yelled at players for making mistakes and 20% made fun of a team member with limited skills
  • 4% of young athletes reported that a coach had hit, kicked or slapped them
  • Athletes are responsible for more sexual harassment of their peers than coaches
  • Abuse occurs in all sports, at every socio-economic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions, and at all levels of education.

A lot of times, the bullies aren’t the ones wearing the uniforms

Just like in the classroom, bullying in youth sports can take lots of forms — verbal, emotional/social, physical, cyber, sexual — and it’s not just fellow athletes who are doling out the abuse; plenty of parents and coaches exhibit abusive behavior along the sidelines aimed at young players. Team sports are supposed to be an opportunity for youth to learn how to support and encourage each other, driving hard toward a goal -- with character and heart -- but all too often these screaming, berating coaches and parents are exactly the wrong kind of role model.

“It was only a matter of time before (bullying) became an issue in youth sports, especially with the growing number of parent fights that break out at youth sports events,” Bridgette King, president and head coach of a Dallas-based girls basketball association, tells NAYS. “Kids mimic and receive reinforcement for what they believe to be acceptable behavior from those around them.”

There’s a kind of old-fashioned thinking around the idea that a coach’s abusive behavior is for an athlete’s own good, says Dr. Jennifer Fraser in her book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom. “Bullies, especially in sports, are quick to argue that their intent is to teach the targeted child a lesson about adversity or toughening up.”

Silence isn’t always golden

One of the biggest factors helping to perpetuate bullying in youth sports is silence. According to the Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, 64 percent of children who are being bullied do not report the abuse.

When the bully is the coach or someone in a position of authority, victims fear retaliation and also struggle with confusion with how to frame inappropriate behavior coming from a trusted figure.

One example of this insidious behavior made headlines recently when the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, Larry Nassar, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing female athletes — as young as six years old — under the guise of medical treatment. Many of his over 150 accusers reported they stayed silent because of Nassar’s position as a trusted authority figure.

Olympian Gabby Douglas has also spoken publicly about bullying from a coach and teammates when she was 14, behavior that almost pushed her to leave gymnastics and forced to find another coaching situation.

A safe, and anonymous, tool for reporting abuse

Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe for Athletes, a prevention initiative that promotes the well-being of youth athletes, reports that “a prime way to halt this potentially damaging behavior is to teach athletes across all grade levels to speak up against bullying in sports.”

That’s easier said than done.

Victims are often ashamed, embarrassed, and fear being seen as a “snitch.” They can also feel the pressure from teammates and other adults to remain silent and they worry that no one will believe them if they do speak up.

There is a solution that more and more schools, youth, municipal and corporate organizations are adopting, a tool that gives the power back to those who are targets of inappropriate behavior. This solution provides a safe, effective, anonymous way to take action, empowering youth to bring abuse, harassment and potential threats to the attention of those who can take the right actions to stop it.

STOPit is a simple, fast and powerful tool that gives young people a way to report bullying and other inappropriate behaviors anonymously and in real-time, using an app downloaded to their smartphones or through a website. With just a few clicks, users can send a message along with a photo, screenshot or video as additional evidence to designated authorities.

The STOPit reporting platform benefits both school and community sports teams by giving athletes the means to report bullying and harassment without putting them in jeopardy for retaliation and discrimination. Additionally, those who are already using the app in their organizations report that STOPit also serves as a deterrent for abusive behavior. When bullies and abusers know that potential victims can report abuse without fear of reprisal, incidents drop.

If it’s summer, there must be sports camps

Sports camps, including summer camps, are already accepting registrations as thousands of youth throughout the country make plans to spend weeks or months of their summer break practicing their athletic skills and building friendships on the field.

Summer camps can also benefit from implementing STOPit.

Eyes on Bullying, an organization dedicated to developing resources to help everyone successfully take action and prevent bullying, has developed a resource guide that speaks directly to the risks of bullying at sports camps and suggests several ways camps directors and staff can work with campers to create safer, bullying-free camp experiences.

In their own analysis of the problem, they assert, “It is important that counselors take action when they observe behaviors that may eventually lead to bullying. If counselors hear about or see bullying, they should intervene immediately. If an incident is ignored, it will escalate quickly. Counselors should meet regularly with directors to report and discuss issues that arise.”

Camp staff often see and hear instances of bullying and harassment but are fearful of losing their job and suffering other repercussions if they speak up. Camp directors can empower their staff to send an alert as soon as bullying behavior is observed and hopefully stop that behavior and prevent additional incidents. An app like STOPit gives these camp counselors and support staff the ability to keep themselves and their young athletes safer by making it easy to anonymously report inappropriate behaviors -- behaviors that surely damage morale and put youth at risk.

To learn more about how STOPit can benefit your athletic organization, contact us via email at sales@stopitsolutions.com or by calling 855-999-0932.

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