There is a fine line between bullying and motivational tactics used by coaches to get the most out of their athletes. While the level of tolerance for bullying is traditionally higher in sports compared to other cultural settings, recent lawsuits have shown that what is deemed acceptable behavior is changing. Although tolerance varies between each sport, coaches and school districts would be best served to adhere to the lowest level of tolerance, rather than straddle the blurred line, as the consequences can be significant for all parties involved.
Bullying is generally defined as: an action carried out repeatedly over a period of time; with the intention to harm the victim; that is derived from a power imbalance that exists between the bully and the victim. Bullying is a broad term and may include words, gestures, physical contact, and social exclusion.
The coach-athlete relationship generally involves an older individual who uses their set of specialized skills to enable an athlete to succeed in ways they could not on their own. This status inherently creates an unequal relationship whereby the athlete makes themself vulnerable by giving their all to the relationship in order to real their full potential. This frequently includes enduring great physical or emotional pain with the belief that their long-term goal of becoming a better athlete will be accomplished. The decisions coaches make regarding their coaching style and relationship with their athletes is influenced by a combination of their personal ethical model and their previous relationships with coaches when they were young athletes.
Behavior That Can Be Defined As Bullying
‘Singling out’ an athlete – Occurs when an athlete is treated differently than the rest of their peers. While it is important that athletes are treated as individuals, it is even more important that they are not treated unequally through verbal or physical treatment that is different form the rest of the team, as this may leave the athlete feeling isolated and rejected. Significantly, this also includes reserving special treatment in a positive manner for an individual as this may lead the rest of the team to feel alienated and isolated.
Unnecessary physical training – Occurs when an athlete is over-exerted by being expected to go beyond an acceptable limit, particularly as punishment. Such training may lead to injury, and the loss of motivation and confidence.
Going against the will of an athlete – An athlete should not be forced to partake in an activity they do not agree with. Thus, the coach must identify the goals of the athlete and discuss with them their motivation for partaking in the sport.
Intimidation – Intimidation can be both physical and verbal and can lead to a decline in the confidence and motivation of the athlete. Physical intimidation may include actions ranging from threats of violence to throwing chairs or kicking water bottles. Threats of violence against athletes and actions that make them fearful for their well-being will usually be classified as bullying and should be avoided. When used in certain contexts, shouting and the use of foul language (abusive language shows questionable returns) has been shown to increase motivation and work ethic when coaches have known that their athletes will respond positively. This is contradictory to other cultural settings, where such behavior would automatically be considered bullying. Thus, when shouting and using foul language, coaches need to be sure they have a previous understanding of their specific athletes and knowledge of what behavior may provoke a positive response, as actions beyond that will be considered bullying.
Causes of Bullying
Inability of coach to adapt – Coaches must change their coaching style based on the athlete’s age, motivation, skillset, competitive level, and personality. This is particularly important in contact sports, where failure to use correct technique may lead to a greater risk of injury.
Lack of communication/miscommunication – Coaches must communicate effectively with athletes to maintain order and discipline to ensure they adhere to training and maintain a safe practice environment. Coaches must also make their athletes aware of the rules they employ in training, so their athletes understand what is expected of them. Additionally, coaches need to keep an open dialogue with the individuals who influence their athletes, most significantly, their parents. By keeping parents involved, coaches may reduce misunderstanding in their behavior or actions and may have their goals reinforced by the parents at home.
Qualifications and regulation by employer – One of the main reasons coaches display bullying behavior is due to a lack of education. Coaches need to be trained on what constitutes bullying so they may identify and avoid those behaviors.
For examples of bullying by coaches and state-specific laws enacted to combat these actions, see, Bullying accusations in high school sports blur lines between good coaching and abusive tactics, My Coach, the Bully, The Real Damage Bullying Coaches Can Inflict on Kids.
Contact David O. Fleischer (954-941-1844; firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional recommendations relating to high school issues.