By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
Tragic school shootings and increasing numbers of teen suicides have led to an increased focus on the topic of bullying among children at school. But school may not be the only place bullying occurs. It could be prevalent in the sports we oversee, and if we’re not paying attention, we’ll overlook it and let it continue. Or, worse yet, we may even notice it happening and just think that this is “part of the game” and do nothing.
Since the beginning of time, kids have been picked on and some are more prone to victimization than others. Maybe a child is small and can’t defend himself, is overweight, shy or timid, maybe it is a young girl who isn’t as pretty as others. Imagine the world of these poor young children who face teasing, abuse and ostracism all day long at school. Then imagine them wanting to join a team, to play sports, where they hope they can make friends, have some fun and be treated fairly, only to have their despair continue there.
If you coach a team, one of your primary jobs is to make it safe for every child. Most coaches believe this means ensuring no one gets hurt and, yes, that is very important. But it doesn’t end there. Making your team environment an emotionally safe place to be is just as critical.
Bullying in youth sports can take many forms, and some are more subtle than others. When coaches let children run out to positions on the field without assigning them, there are some kids who feel they are entitled to the “better” spots and always force the weaker players to go somewhere else. This doesn’t necessarily mean you jump in anytime you see this occur and make sure everyone has equal rights. Part of playing sports is learning to stick up for oneself, and to earn respect through performance. But in order to gain that respect, one has to be given opportunities and it is up to you to see to it everyone has that chance.
It is important to monitor what kids say to each other on the field during games and practices. Coaches should not tolerate their players belittling or demeaning a teammate. This is not only bad for the psyche of the child, but bad for the team as a whole. When a player makes a mistake, I want my team to “pick him up,” when he’s down, not kick him. Far too often I’ve watched youth league games when a kid made an error in the field and the hotshot pitcher throws his hands in the air and yells at his teammate. How a coach can sit idly by and let that happen is beyond me. Not only should this be corrected on the spot, but it should never take place to begin with.
One of the first discussions I always had with my teams, in any sport, addressed this issue. I asked the players to raise their hands if they’d never made an error, or a mistake. Of course, no hands went up. I then asked them to think about the last error they made, and if they’d have wanted a teammate yelling at them, “Come on!” or “You should have had that!” or “You’re terrible!” Obviously no one said they’d like that. I went on to explain that criticizing teammates for mistakes is wrong, not only because of the way it makes them feel, but because it hurts the team. Players who live in fear of being ridiculed or berated by their teammates are much less confident. They don’t want the ball to come their way and that means it is more likely they’ll mess up when it does. But players who know their teammates will be there to support them any time they make a mistake aren’t afraid to try to make plays, and that makes the team much better.
As coaches, it is impossible to be everywhere at all times. But you can pay greater attention to details if you’re tuned in. Listen to what kids say to each other on the bench and on the field. Notice if there are some kids who are always sitting alone at the end of the bench, or are the last ones to arrive and the first to leave. When it comes to youth sports, kids should get out of their parents’ cars and bound to the field with eager anticipation of a wonderful experience ahead. Wouldn’t it be a shame if some of the youngsters on our teams felt just the opposite?
Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.