When bullying is mentioned, people think of what goes on in school hallways and on the playgrounds, or on after-school sidewalks and busses. Not everyone thinks of the after-school sports field. After all, teams are closely supervised by coaches, so there should be little opportunity for bullying. Besides, sports organizations have codes of conduct for all to follow, and coaches certainly don’t want their players bullied by their own teammates. That goes against everything team sport represents and doesn’t lend itself to team spirit. But often coaches don’t see bullying or recognize it when it happens. Kids, after all, can be subtle. Or, should I say, sneaky? But I suspect some coaches simply look the other way, especially if the target doesn’t make much of a contribution to the team.
My son played soccer for two or three years when he was very young. He was small for his age and not particularly enamored with sports, but his father and I felt he needed the discipline that learning a sport and working as a team member would provide, even if he would never be a star athlete.
In his final year of soccer, when he was seven or eight, he moved into a different age bracket. However, since we had held him out of school for a year before kindergarten, he no longer played with boys in his same grade. The new team consisted mostly of strangers, all bigger and a grade ahead of him.
He tried, but his heart wasn’t in the game, especially once the pecking order fell into place—with our son at the bottom. He was in the spotlight, but the air was filled with taunts, not clapping.
We spoke to the coach, but he didn’t seem to think there was a problem. We approached the soccer “powers that be” and requested that our son be allowed to compete at the younger level, where his size and ability would be more appropriate. Our plea was rejected, since, if we were allowed to move our son into a lower age bracket, every parent would want their kid to “play younger” in order to provide a better chance for their child to be the star player on the team. No case-by-case consideration allowed.
Before long, our son begged to quit. We debated. Was it wiser to leave him in soccer and let him learn that life can be cruel, but you can survive? Was that a lesson he needed to learn in his first decade? Would continuing to play teach him, that if you hang in there, things get better, especially if it’s a sport and you practice and improve? Probably not, since he was no longer interested in practicing or improving. Alternatively, would it be wise to pull him out and protect him from the cruelty of his teammates, possibly teaching him that it’s fine to cut and run when life gets tough?
We asked our son to hang in there, but it was heartbreaking to watch his misery as he jogged up and down the field, trying his best and knowing his best was never going to be good enough for his teammates to accept him. In the end, we consulted his very wise preschool teacher, and opting for kindness, pulled him out of soccer. As older parents, we knew life would provide a heap more nasty opportunities to learn that you can get through bad times—especially if people who love you are on your side.
I hadn’t thought about our son’s soccer misery for a long time, until I began researching bullying in sports. When I reminded him, he seemed to have forgotten. I’m grateful for that lack of memory and wish I didn’t remember it either. But I do. And I’m sure there are many other parents out there trying to help their precious, budding athletes cope with being a target for their bullying teammates.
Parents don’t have to go it alone. There is a lot of support available on the web. A quick search of “bullying in children’s sports” will uncover sites loaded with information and advice. One helpful site is Moms Team. Check it out if your child is complaining about bullying during his or her sporting activities. Check it out even if he or she isn’t. Attend the games and keep a watchful eye. Bullies can be sneaky. And victims don’t always complain.
(And don’t even get me started about parents who bully the referees and coaches, not to mention their own young athletes! That’s another story.)
Do you have a sports bullying story to share? I’d love to hear it.
Thank you for mentioning parents who bully their own children, as well as referees and coaches. Years ago, when we were involved with girls’ softball and basketball leagues with our daughters, sometimes bullying parents were worse than their pint-sized replicas. Parents’ actions in the stands sometimes served to encourage bullies on the field or court.