Keeping Bullying Out of the Locker Room

By Aaron Goldberg

Putdowns and teasing – anyone around sports is aware that these verbal actions exist in many forms on athletic teams. They are generally associated with activities like team bonding, tradition, or just joking around, but there is a fine line between horseplay and bullying. These common forms of simply “messing around” can easily turn into bullying with the right dynamics in play. The fact is that bullying is greatly overlooked and prevalent in present day locker rooms.

If bullying is so common, why is it rarely confronted? Well, part of the answer lies in the point that bullying sometimes hides behind the disguise of teamwork and the push for excellence, so it’s difficult to pinpoint. In addition, most parents don’t completely understand what it looks like.

Bullying is so easy to conceal because it is typically mistaken for horseplay. The parameters of horseplay include put-downs and teasing that generally intend to be expressed in a joking way, which aid in creating a sense of camaraderie in locker rooms. However, when the actions or words become aggressive and repetitive, while directed at a teammate in a demeaning manner, the line is instantly crossed into the realm of bullying.

In order to help you build a better awareness for this concept, a common description of bullying from the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program defines the act as an intentional and unwanted behavior consisting of three components: it is aggressive, repetitive, and creates an imbalance of power. These characteristics are not inherently bad.

In fact, coaches often preach these values since they want their athletes to be aggressive, comprehend the importance of repetitive practice, and seek an imbalance of power over an opponent during competition. The problem is that young student-athletes often lack the necessary skills to embrace these messages without connecting them to other interactions with their peers. In other words, your athlete’s competitive edge may not always subside when they leave the field, and it can become second nature to maintain an aggressive approach with others, repeat choices of behavior, and create an imbalance of power through intimidation and physical size.

Now that you have grasped a better understanding of bullying, you may be wondering how you can specifically identify it in your athlete. Initially, there are three different types of bullying to look for: verbal, social, and physical. Even further, there are also direct and indirect forms of each kind of bullying. Direct usually involves open attacks in face-to-face contact, which can include derogatory comments, hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, posting embarrassing pictures on the internet, and hiding or stealing personal items. Contrastingly, indirect bullying is the opposite; it is concealed and subtle, sometimes making it difficult for your child to know who is directly responsible. Typical examples include social isolation (intentionally leaving someone out), spreading rumors, and several forms of cyber bullying.

In order to prevent bullying in and around your athlete, there are two different proven methods: adult intervention and peer intervention. Adult intervention is the more effective deterrent because most bystanders consciously choose not to confront bullying or report the behavior. However, because dealing with your child can be tricky with these types of issues, how should you go about addressing bullying? The answer is to create an “upstander.”

An upstander is someone who has the ability and willingness to stand up to bullying behavior. Although this sort of action can be difficult because many student-athletes fear that the bullying will turn toward them, or they don’t wish to be seen as a tattletale, many athletes already possess the mindset to be an upstander since it exists in a sports atmosphere. Athletes are taught to stand up for a teammate during competition and sacrifice for the greater good, which should also be applied to issues off the field.

To become an upstander, there are three important steps necessary to learn in order to achieve this status. First, your athlete must recognize that a situation is inappropriate. Therefore, you should explain to your child what constitutes bullying and the difference between horseplay and bullying. The best way to accomplish this and to break through to your athlete is to practice role-playing, followed by a discussion.

The second step is to motivate your student-athlete to be responsible for themself and their peers. The key ingredient here is learning empathy and what it’s like to live in another’s shoes. A great way to instill this value into your child is to work with them on creating a list of similarities and differences from themself and their teammates. Differences could be anything from physical characteristics to social status, ethnicity, race, or age. This exercise will make your athlete realize that they are more alike than different from their teammates, which will teach them to be more empowered and care about their teammates.

Lastly, you need to empower your child to stand up and act by creating an environment of trust. You should show your athlete that they can come to you about anything – that they could trust you. Most young bystanders are hesitant about going to an adult for help, so you must provide a safe atmosphere for them.

These three parts are crucial to becoming an “upstander.” Your child will learn to become courageous and possess confidence to be active within their local community and team. Once your athlete masters these steps, they will be well on their way to, not only stopping themselves from bullying, but also preventing this detrimental conflict from entering their locker room.