How to Deal With a Sports Bully

Annette McDermott
Sports bullying

A Penn State study on peer mistreatment showed less than half of moderately to severely bullied kids at school tell an adult. The urge to keep quiet may be more powerful on a sports team where kids are afraid of the consequences of telling because they don't want to appear not to be a 'team player,' and the desire to fit in is intense.

If you notice changes in your child, it's important to keep an open dialog. Ask your child about friends on the team, if they enjoy being on the team, and if they've ever seen a team member being bullied. This opens the door for your child to start talking.

Dealing With a Sports Bully

In sports, bullying may be written off as just part of the game or that a child needs to be tougher. This can make sports bullying more challenging to address than bullying in other settings. In a perfect world, other team members or coaches step in and deal with a sports bully. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen and parents may need to intervene.

Meet With the Coach

It's possible that the coach is unaware of the bullying. Schedule a meeting with your child's coach to discuss your concerns and enlist help. When you meet with the coach, be specific about behaviors that you've witnessed, rather than accusatory.

  • Ask the coach to be present and look out for bullying not only on the sports field but in the locker room and during unstructured time.
  • Ask the coach to document your concerns.
  • Find out what the punishment is for bullying and whether it is enforced.
  • Find out how the coach plans to help avoid your child being targeted for "tattling."

Keep in mind some parents and coaches may become defensive or feel you're concerns are exaggerated. If this happens, or if the coach is not supportive, contact the sports organization's president or a member of the board of directors.

Schedule a Meeting With the Bully

In some cases, you can work things out with a bully directly. If comfortable, schedule a meeting between your child and the bully. Bullies often become different people in one-on-one situations where they're not trying to impress their peers or get attention. Try these tips:

  • Role-play with your child how to talk to the bully.
  • Have your child talk to the bully with confidence.
  • Though bullying is never funny, if your child confronts the bully with humor, it may diffuse the situation.
  • Have your child project courage and tell the bully to stop.
  • Bullies thrive on making their victims mad or upset; tell your child not to show anger or fear to the bully.

Encourage Friendships

The more friends a bullied child has, the less alone they'll feel. You can encourage your child's friendships by:

  • Keeping your home open to your child's friends as much as possible.
  • Plan a sleepover or other fun event; help your child find other activities they enjoy outside of sports where they can make new friends.
  • Offer to carpool with other families on the team so your child can spend more one-on-one time with teammates.

Listen

Listen to and acknowledge your child's experiences and feelings. Do not tell them to "suck it up," "just walk away:"

  • Make sure they know they have your support and are not facing the problem alone.
  • Teach your child that although bullying is hard, it doesn't define them.
  • Remind them that many famous people such as Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Jackie Chan were bullied and went on to become hugely successful.

Address Problems With Your Child

Do not blame your child for the bullying; however, recognize there may be another side to the story. Sometimes a child's aggressive or obnoxious behavior to others triggers bullying. In some cases, being bullied may trigger a child to become a bully to others. If this is the case, address it by:

  • Teaching them to empathize with others.
  • Find out if they're having difficulty playing sports or at school.
  • Contacting a mental health professional for help if needed.

Teach Self-Defense

Consider enrolling your child in a self-defense class. While violence is never ideal, your child's safety is the most important thing, and there may come a time when they have to defend themselves. A self-defense class also helps boost empowering self-confidence. Types of self-defense include martial arts or practical self-defense. When choosing a self-defense class, Kid Power recommends asking the following:

  • Is the content positive and appropriate for the child's age and life situations?
  • Is the teacher respectful, in charge, enthusiastic, and clear?
  • Is the approach more action-oriented than talking-oriented?

No matter what type of self-defense class you choose, teach your child to listen to their gut. If a situation feels dangerous or uncomfortable, they should walk away.

Use the Buddy System

Kids Health from Nemours (Nemours) suggests kids who are bullied stick to the "buddy system."

  • Do not go to a locker room or other places alone.
  • If possible, board buses a few minutes early with a friend so you can choose a seat and not be forced to sit with a bully.
  • Stand your ground against bullies, especially with other team members to send the message you aren't afraid.

Use Reverse Psychology

Reverse psychology may work on some bullies. According to Nemours, bullies are looking for attention, trying to fit in, or make themselves feel important. It may be harder for the bully to mistreat someone who is complementing them. Kids can practice reverse psychology by:

  • Encouraging a bully on the sports field.
  • Congratulating the bully when they make a nice play.
  • Taking the high road and refusing to bad-mouth the bully with other kids.
  • Role-playing bullying scenarios with parents or friends.

When the Bully Is A Coach

Sometimes the team bully isn't a kid but a coach. This is particularly stressful for a bullied child who wants to please the coach and looks to them for encouragement and support. According to Nancy L. Swigonski, MD, MPH, of Children's Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine in a Mom's Team article, coach bullying is difficult to identify and deal with because it is often subjective and the line between criticizing and bullying may be blurred.

Coaches may rationalize bad behavior by saying they just got carried away or caught up in the moment. They may also penalize kids who report bullying by not allowing them to play or threatening to kick them off the team. Unfortunately, there is little kids can do on their own to battle a coach bully, but there are steps parents can take to help.

Talk to Your Child

Make sure your child is truly being bullied and not dealing with a coach who has high expectations and yells more than others. Some kids are more sensitive to coaches who have a tough edge and are super competitive. They may perceive this as bullying.

Be Present

Attend practices and games and closely observe coaches' behaviors and interactions with the team. Pay attention to how the coach speaks to the kids and responds when they make a mistake.

Meet With the Coach

Put the coach(es) on notice by meeting with them to discuss your concerns. This may or may not work, but sometimes coaches don't realize their behavior is extreme or understand its impact. Although you may be angry, confront the coach in a calm manner to help avoid things from escalating. Your goal is to help your child by stopping the bullying. If anger takes over, the meeting may be useless.

Stay Focused

When bullying occurs, do not allow the coach (or school or sports organization) to blow off the behavior or make excuses. Make sure the focus stays on the behavior which needs to be changed. Demand proof that action is being taken.

Talk to Other Parents

If a coach is bullying one child it's likely they're bullying others. Talk to other parents on the team to see if their kids are being bullied. If they are, divide and conquer. You're likely to get a faster response if more than one child is involved.

Request a Code of Conduct

There should be a code of conduct for coaches and team members to keep them accountable. If you haven't received one, ask for it. If one does not exist, request a meeting with the sports organization's leadership to establish acceptable boundaries and consequences if those boundaries are crossed.

Report the Bullying

Since coaches maintain power and authority over team members, coach bullying should be reported immediately. Most private sports organizations have a director or manager you can talk to. If one does not exist or if the bullying is physical or if emotional abuse occurs, a call to Child Protective Services may be in order. State bullying laws and emotional abuse laws vary.

Coach Bullying on School Sports Teams

With school sports teams, coach bullying should be reported to school officials. Schools are required to provide a non-hostile environment to all students on and off the field. In most schools, coaches must adhere to a code of conduct and are accountable to the school district. According to FindLaw, if your child is bullied by a school coach, take these steps:

  • Make an appointment with the school principal or interventionist
  • File a written report of the incident
  • If going to the principal doesn't help, contact the superintendent of schools
  • Go to a school board meeting and publicly discuss the bullying

Have Your Child's Back

The effects of sports bullying can devastate a child. No one should have to stop playing a sport they love because of a bully. The consequences of long-term bullying cannot be overstated. You are your child's best defense. While every situation is unique, if you pay attention to your child, be present, and act at the first sign of trouble, you can help prevent sports bullying from escalating and causing long-term issues.

Some kids prefer to deal with a sports bully on their own. They may fear backlash for appearing weak to their peers. But the Penn State study showed coping strategies that "accessed support from others" such as telling an adult or enlisting the help of friends had the best results. One of the best sources of advice for dealing with bullies comes from kids who've experienced it. Check with your child's school to see if they offer a bullying peer group.

Was this page useful?
How to Deal With a Sports Bully