Bullying by Coaches

In competitive sports, there’s always a coach present, and sometimes that coach may be tough with the players. This can motivate the players, at least that’s their intent. However, two North Dakota State researchers, Bradford Strand and Sean Brotherson, ask how far is too far? When does it become bullying behavior?

Brotherson, a professor in the child development and family sciences department at NDSU, explained that the intention of their research was to identify bullying behavior in high school coaching, such as verbal harassment, name calling, isolating players and other physical or non-physical forms of bullying. “We want to identify and minimize (bullying),” Brotherson said.

Through their research, the researchers found that approximately one in five high school students ends up leaving a sport because of bullying behavior.

Strand, a professor in the health, nutrition and exercise department, said this number is unfortunate because sports lead to a lot of positive development. Brotherson added that sports can produce growth in a person through building teamwork qualities and helping to understand and build healthy relationships.

The researchers acknowledge this behavior is often inadvertent, that the coaches simply want to toughen up the players for the competitive environment they volunteer to play in. “Does being mentally tough mean we allow inappropriate behavior?” Brotherson questioned.

The biggest downfall players can experience as a result of bullying from their coaches is long-term effects like anxiety, depression, dropping out of a sport and, in extreme cases, suicide.

“Most coaches are not doing these things,” Strand said, but that there is pain from the harassment that is taking place.

Strand also said that some of their data is up to interpretation, but to the person on the receiving end of these events, it can be challenging.

When speaking on the idea that the players reporting this behavior are “special snowflakes” or regarding the high numbers, the researchers stated that people are becoming more aware of the bullying that occurs within the locker room or on the field.

Brotherson recommended approaching it as a teaching process, to look at the players and for the coach to adjust their behavior accordingly.

The biggest problem the researchers have seen is that coaches may not see it as bullying. There’s also a power dynamic present that isn’t there in day-to-day interactions with friends or family. This means that the players have to take it and they can’t fire back.

The intent of this research is to help coaches be better, with Strand noting, “It’s about the kids.”

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