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Bullying and Teasing in Sports

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Sports and Bullying/Teasing

Dr. John E. Mayer

President-the International Sports Professionals Association-ISPA

In my career as a Clinical Psychologist I have established a national reputation for expertise in the problems of the adolescent years. One of the issues that I am frequently called on to help with is teasing and bullying among young people.

The last decade has seen more and more research being reported on the specific problem of bullying and teasing. It is encouraging to see so much attention in this traditionally neglected area of aggressive social behavior.

The findings are disturbing. One of the most recent studies and one of the few longitudinal studies of this problem highlights an alarming number of adolescents who bully. (58.4%) This study appeared in the journal, Child Development,79, 325-338.

The US Secret Service reported in 2002 that 2/3 of all perpetrators of youth violent crimes were teased or bullied prior to the event. The National Threat Assessment Center found that the attackers in more than 66% of the 37 mass school shootings were persecuted or bullied by others and that revenge was the overriding motive of these school shootings.

In my own clinical work, as I am called into cases around the country that involve youth violence, I can say anecdotally that the vast majority, if not all, of these cases involve teasing and bullying either on the perpetrator’s side or on the victims’ side of the case.

Further, studies are showing that bullies are very likely to develop psychiatric and psychological problems in early adulthood. (Pediatrics, August, 2007) And the victims of bullying display a greater risk for psychosocial maladjustment as well as somatic complaints (e.g. Headaches, sleep problems, stomachaches) than other young people. (see: Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34, 37-48. 2005.)

Bullying and Teasing are serious problems among youth.

The spread of this problem has resulted from decades of neglect on the part of adults who enable this behavior in both direct and indirect ways. In the scope of this article I won’t take the space to explain what the aim of the bully is, but suffice it to summarize that some form of power over another is the most common goal of the bully. Similarly, I will not detail here all the reasons behind why the bully does what they do, but again to succinctly sum it up: Bullying works for the bully. This behavior is repeated because the bully’s aims are accomplished. Sadly, we adults are often to blame for allowing bullying to work well.


Too often a youngster’s inappropriate aggressiveness against other peers is whisked under the carpet with adult epitaphs such as, “He’s going to be a great ball player.” Or “She’s just being one of the boys.” Unsportsmanlike conduct or bullying on the playing fields of sport is regaled as desirable behavior and often cheered. A not uncommon coaching style is to use negativism toward the player as a motivator. This is just another form of bullying in the disguise of an acceptable context, sports achievement. The problem here is that youngsters don’t have the experience or judgments necessary to discern appropriate, aggressive sport participation and inappropriate bullying of a weaker opponent. This is where coaching should mold the athlete, not model inappropriate behavior.

But, athletics and bullying/teasing do have gray areas for coaches, parents and professionals.

Is the Jericho Scott experience bullying? Is he a stronger, more advanced athlete preying on

weaker opponents? Are the batters he throws pitches at with the equivalent of 110 mph

victims? Is he being enabled by a coach who wants to win at all costs? These are questions that

the adults close to this situation must evaluate, control and not ignore.

Athletic and physical prodigies raise important questions for us to answer as professionals who

serve the world of sport. Should they be allowed to participate at the same level as

smaller, weaker peers? These are exactly the questions we should be ready to answer for the

sports world.

What if LeBron James, Lao Ming, Tiger Woods, Andy Riddick, Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan

Sheyl Swoopes, Jennie Finch, Candice Parker, Lance Armstrong, or any of these athletic

phenoms were to become restricted from playing the sports they loved and excelled at? Was their

passionate participation in their sport bullying others of such lesser athletic endowment? These

are evaluations to be made by the adults around them with objectivity and fairness. Professionals

serving sports need to be prepared to advise in these situations.

What about coaches who use abusive/bullying techniques themselves? This modeling is another

prime reason why bullying becomes widespread in youth. This Neanderthal approach is not only

ethically wrong; it is not effective with today’s young athlete. It persists and in some circles,

flourishes. We, ISPA professionals, have an obligation to intervene with these coaches.

Currently, ISPA is mounting a membership drive to increase the numbers of coaches who are

credentialed by ISPA. This is an attempt to make a difference in the standards of coaching.

Please help by encouraging coaches to apply for ISPA credentials. Also, if you have affiliation with a coaches group or association, please help us network with these groups toward ISPA accreditation. We can make a difference.

What Can We Do About Bullying and Teasing?

Speaking of making a difference, what are the best ways we can stop this bullying in our young


When you see it happening, discipline those who bully. Do not allow it to take place under your

supervision. And, don’t model bullying behavior through your actions toward others. Modeling

is a powerful way bullying is spread. This is why we are so eager to get coaches credentialed.

What do you tell a child who is a victim of bullying? All of the research and experience with

kids suggest there are only three effective ways to deal with the bully. 1) Don’t react to it in any

way-not even a grimace or flinch. 2) Ignore the bully’s words and actions. 3) Let the adult in

charge know about what the bully is doing. Only these three methods work effectively and for the

long haul. Age old advice such as, “You go back there and push him harder.” Or “Let’s figure

out something to call them that will hurt their feelings even more.” None of these things work

because they reinforce precisely what the bully wants, that is, to get a reaction out of the victim.

More on Dr. Mayer’s acclaimed work on Bullying and Teasing will appear soon in a booklet he

is preparing for a new parenting web site: Visit that web site for more