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Bullying in youth sports can take many forms, from openly refusing to root for a teammate, to excessive teasing and physical confrontation. It isn’t limited to boys, either. In a culture that often promotes a “mean girls” mentality, bullying in softball is often ignored. Victims are reluctant to speak out, fearing retaliation. For high school teams, the problem can carry over from the school hallways or cafeteria to the ball field.
Coaches sometimes contribute to this atmosphere without realizing it, particularly at the competitive level. Players are put under tremendous pressure to win and produce near-perfect results. Kristina Clevinger, a consultant and counseling psychology student for the Center of Sports Psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton, says this can cause coaches to favor some players and neglect others who aren’t performing as well or are less talented.
“One of the things we focus on is the type of environment a coach is creating,” Clevinger explained. “Is the coach, in a sense, pitting athletes against each other, is it all about the competitiveness, fighting for your spot? Or, is there that greater community, family kind of feeling?”
Some coaches believe their only responsibility is to teach the game, not babysit. Others simply don’t understand how to handle bullying. As a coach, here are six tips you can use to help prevent bullying on your team
1) Take it seriously. Don’t automatically assume bullying doesn’t or won’t occur on your team. John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), a leading advocate for promoting positive and safe sports for children, says it’s important to get out in front of the problem from day one.
“Kids today are so much more educated on bullying,” Engh said. “Set a good example. Bring it up at the beginning, and be a positive role model for the kids, and they’ll follow your lead.”
2) Don't allow your team to become cliquish. It’s easy for players to form tight-knit groups if they have been together for a while. When a new player joins, she can feel left out or intimidated. Engh recommends coaches actively bring new girls into the group. Pick an experienced player to buddy up with her. This will make her feel more welcome, and minimize the possibility of cliques forming.
3) Make sure all players are valued. Be clear about everyone’s role on the team, and don’t treat the stars more favorably than the backups. “Setting those expectations and that kind of culture creates a standard for how athletes need to view their team,” Clevinger said.
4) Set clear policies and enforce them. Whether it’s sitting out a game or extra conditioning, let your team know there are repercussions against any form of bullying. If your league or organization has guidelines in this area, Engh advises to communicate them to both players and parents.
5) Engage players in the solution. Players can also play a key role in prevention, as long as the coach gives them the power to do so. If a girl knows her coach has an open door policy about reporting incidents, she may be more likely to come forward.
“Creating a space where a player can bring up concerns is really important, because that can be very difficult to do if you’re the one person who’s not engaging in bullying,” Clevinger explained.
6) Use Parents As Your Eyes and Ears. Parent-coach communication is critical to solving problems before they fester, Engh said. Coaches should encourage parents to keep their eyes and ears open.
“If you’re driving your kids home, and they tell you something, or if you hear something, bring it to (the coach’s) attention,” he said. “Parents are partners. With so many sets of eyes it should never be an issue.”
NAYS offers a free course on bullying prevention to any coach or parent, along with links to other resources. Find out more information by clicking here.
From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr.