Industry Insights

How to Prevent Bullying and Other Forms of Harassment on Your Team

By Melissa Wickes
May 31, 2023
5 min

Youth sports are a way for growing kids to let off some steam, make new friends, grow their confidence, and—of course—have fun. Running around everyday after school can have a profoundly positive impact on the mental health of kids, like lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, reduced risk of suicide, less substance abuse, and improved psychological well-being for individuals with disabilities.

Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that many young kids—especially in grades 6-12—are feeling bullied in youth sports. Incidents happen at practice, games, and according to SafeSport for Coaches, more than half of reported incidents occur in the locker room. Bullying on a team sport affects not only the target, but also the team morale as a whole.

Sexual harassment in youth sports is another huge problem that youth sports professionals and coaches have a responsibility to prevent. Sexual harassment impacts an estimated 2-8 percent of minor athletes, according to Childhelp.

Luckily, there are steps you as a youth sports organizer or coach can take to mitigate bullying and as well as prevent child abuse. Here’s what you need to know about bullying and harassment in youth sports and what you can do to stop it.

What Coaches and Organizers Can Do to Prevent Bullying

Some behaviors that are oftentimes excused as “kids being kids,” “team initiation,” or “traditions” are actually considered hazing and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Examples of this kind of behavior include making teammates eat disgusting food, dress in a costume, wear something humiliating, perform strenuous calisthenics, and memorize trivial information. If you see bullying on your team, here’s what you should do in retaliation.

  • Get involved immediately. Responding quickly and consistently will set a precedent for the team.
  • Explain why their actions are wrong. Remember: kids are kids. Sometimes they need reinforcement and reminders between what is right and wrong.
  • Withdraw privileges. Taking away something your player loves in response to bad behavior—whether it’s the ability to start in a game, participation in a pizza party, or even playing in a game at all—can weaken the likelihood of that player bullying again.
  • Report it to other involved parties. You should never have to face the difficult situation of bullying alone. If you’re a coach, get support from the administrator or organizer. If you’re an organizer, get the parent involved. Etc.
  •  Refer the player to a professional. If it gets out of hand and you suspect there might be deeper problems, a professional counselor can be a way to get the child the help they need while allowing them to continue playing the sport or return to the team when they’re ready.

To stop these kinds of behaviors before they develop, US Youth Soccer suggests the following.

Have Zero-Tolerance for Hazing

Talking to your players and their parents before the season even begins about the fact that the organization has a zero-tolerance policy for hazing will help ensure it doesn’t happen. Outline exactly what is considered hazing in the organization and what consequences the child will face if they participate in any of those activities. With a zero-tolerance policy, you’ll want to consider banning kids from games, practices, and—if it comes to it—kicking them off the team.

Provide Open Communication

It’s important to provide an open line of communication for kids (or parents) who may think they have seen some form of bullying or hazing on the team or are experiencing it themselves. LeagueApps provides a variety of seamless communication tools—through both the desktop registration flow and mobile apps—that can be helpful in facilitating this kind of open communication.

Foster a Positive Environment

In addition to knowing how to handle the situation if bullying does occur, you should focus on creating an environment at practice that encourages camaraderie, listening, collaborating, and teamwork. A great way to bring the team together in this way is through out-of-practice activities like pizza parties, pasta parties, and getting ice cream as a team to allow the players to establish commonalities other than the sport they play.

What Coaches and Organizers Can Do to Prevent Abuse

However, according to a survey of 4,000 athletes in 50 sports conducted by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, 93 percent of respondents who experienced sexual harassment or unwanted contact during their time in sports did not report it. For this reason among many others, it’s crucial that youth sports leaders do everything they can to not only prevent any form of harassment, but also foster a safe environment where athletes feel like they can come to you should something that makes them uncomfortable happens.

The nonprofit Darkness for Light offers five steps to protect children from harassment:

Learn the facts.

Child abuse can affect any person. In fact, one in ten children experiences sexual abuse prior to turning 18.

Minimize opportunity.

Take time to think carefully about the safety of situations where adults are with younger children and try to keep these interactions observed and supervised whenever possible. Monitor children’s phone and internet use. Understand that abusers often gain the trust of family members and friends to spend time alone with the victim.

Talk about it.

Communicate with kids in an age-appropriate way about their bodies and boundaries. This can be done by telling kids which parts of their bodies others should never touch, and what to do if someone does (to tell mom, dad, or another adult they trust). Also, emphasize to kids that they don’t have to be scared to talk to you, even if the person is a friend, family member, teacher, coach, doctor, etc.

Kidpower, an international nonprofit safety education organization, offers four rules around touch that involve play:

  • It has to be the choice of each person involved
  • It has to be safe
  • It has to be allowed by the adults in charge
  • It is never a secret

Recognize the signs

The signs of abuse are more often emotional or behavioral than they are physical. They can include:

  • Overly compliant behavior or an unhealthy need for protection
  • Behavioral problems like physical aggression
  • Anxiety, depression, fear, or withdrawal
  • Sexual behavior or language that isn’t age-appropriate
  • Lack of interest in friends, sports, or activities

React responsibly

If a child does come to you with an abuse claim, it’s extremely important that you react calmly and offer your support rather than with anger or disbelief.

What Coaches and Organizers Can do in the Case of Abuse

The most important thing you can do as a sports leader is to listen to the kids on your team. If someone comes to you about sexual abuse, harassment, or grooming, here’s what Hall Law, Personal Injury Attorneys, suggests you should do:

  • Listen to what they’re saying with your full, undivided attention before responding with opinions or a reaction.
  • Make it clear that you believe them. Tell them.
  • Tell them you know it must have been difficult to come forward, but that they did the right thing and you admire their courage.
  • Tell them it’s not their fault.
  • Tell them you are there to help and they are not alone.
  • Do not confront the alleged abuser.
  • Seek the help of a professional who is trained to interview children about this
  • Report the sexual abuse as soon as you can.

There are products that can make reporting and investigating harassment easier and more thorough for your organization—like Players Health. By using their reporting tool, you can help athletes document incidents and follow up with timely investigations.

Mitigating bullying and all forms of harassment is just one of the ways youth sports organizers and coaches can support the mental health of their team. In a world where 1 in 6 school aged children show symptoms of a childhood mental health disorder, it’s more important than ever that we get involved where we can.

If you’re interested in reading more about managing all kinds of risks in your youth sports organization, you can download this FREE GUIDE to risk management.