We've all heard about bullying in school and even online, but the culture of bullying on sports teams often goes unchecked.

Team sports, particularly in school settings, can bring out the worst in coaches, players and parents. Many turn a blind eye to bullying in the name of winning championships. 

Unfortunately, undisciplined sports bullying is common in American culture and those in charge might not investigate these actions. 

Left unresolved, it can have unforeseen consequences for a team. It can discourage students from joining, pressure others to quit the sport, leave a team shorthanded and demoralize the players, costing them games. 

And like all forms of bullying, it can lead to more deadly consequences like depression or suicide.

Many of those “acceptable” forms of sports bullying come from within the team. 

When older team members or leaders ask new players to do humiliating tasks or mock players who make a mistake, it is called “team building.” In other cases, coaches push kids dangerously past their limits to get a good performance. 

Kids who want to be a “team player” respect the older members and adults who are in charge and rarely report incidents even if they are hurt. Serious injuries or health issues can follow. If your child comes home injured, depressed or demoralized each time they're with their team, there might be more going on than simply a coach setting a high standard.

Parents also need to curb their behavior. What they model at sporting events will set a child’s guideline on how athletes should behave. This includes behaviors like yelling, cursing, threatening violence or even speech that targets a group. 

For example, the common phrase “you run like a girl” is meant to demean male athletes. Instead, it belittles women and teaches disrespect.

Bullying can follow athletes in their professional life, as well. 

2016 Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas was cyberbullied after not putting her hand over her heart when the U.S. national anthem played during her medal ceremony. And, in 2013, former NFL player Jonathan Martin claims he was bullied by his own Miami Dolphin teammates.


Have we built a culture of bullying in athletics? And how common is sports bullying? Statistics are scarce, but when bullying is viewed as “team building,” many cases go unreported. 

It’s clear that as a society, we need to try and break this culture of sports bullying. Here are some suggestions on how to start:


  • Watch for the signs in your child

If your child comes home from a team sport displaying behaviors consistent with being a bullying victim, don’t ignore it. If he comes home with frequent injuries or sicknesses that result from overdoing it, he may be experiencing a bullying coach. Additionally, coaches may require that kids don’t talk about their “techniques,” but an over-exhausted or injured child who won’t talk about what happened at practice could be a red flag. Look for signs of a “code of silence.”

  • Don’t tolerate it.  

We need to stop saying that sports bullying is less important than winning or just “part of the game.” Find out what practice is really like by talking to other parents, team members and coaches. Or, go to a practice if parents are allowed and other parents show up. (You don’t want to make your child stand out by being the only parent at a practice.) If your child is the victim of sports bullying, don’t normalize it as “just what teen athletes do.” Treat it as seriously as you would any other form of bullying.

  • Check with the school.  

Your child’s school may have rules covering team sports, including the behavior of coaches and players. Make sure they are abiding by all the rules. If not, find out if it is because the school is unaware or they are tolerating bad behavior in order to win championships before taking action.

  • Get involved.  

For younger teams, parents are often invited to help out. Some even recruit coaches. Go ahead and jump in to help organize, or bring snacks, or whatever way you can serve to find out how the team is really operated.

  • Teach your child respect.  

Demeaning the athletic abilities of girls and younger players is disrespectful. While friendly competition does have a dose of “all in good fun,” continually treating some players, especially those who are new, as if they are less valuable teaches a dangerous lesson. Your child will get the most out of sports when they learn that all players matter.


  • Look for the signs in your team. 

Are team members dropping out or not showing for practice? Are kids cringing around older team members or captains - or you? Do new members seem overtired or more prone to injury than older members? You may want to review your leadership methods or investigate if what you see could be called bullying.

  • Eliminate hazing.  

Much of this behavior resembles hazing, which some consider an acceptable practice to build a team. Hazing, however, can have real fallout for the victims from physical injury to loss of self-esteem – all of which can hurt the team at game time. Serious harm can also result in legal issues, lawsuits and court actions that can hurt the team.

  • Involve players in positive team building activities.  

Building a team doesn’t have to mean all work all the time. Get players together off the field with activities that don’t involve the team sport. Off-field camaraderie will build confidence in individual members and can encourage long-term friendships. Or, get your players involved in charitable or community activities and build a memorable team that is valuable to others.

  • Consider yourself a mentor.  

For kids and young adults, athletics is more than just winning championships and trophies. You know that it builds confidence and self-esteem, but did you know it also has been shown to reduce drug usage and build academic skills? It can even benefit college and job applications for team members. Coaches and captains can use their leadership to make positive and lasting impressions on all the team members.


  • Discover if there is bullying in your team.  

High team member turnover, excessive complaints from parents and injury levels above the standard can all be red flags. Investigate if these have stemmed from bullying.

  • Set clear guidelines for player and coach behavior.  

Ultimately, the responsibility for the safety of the students while on school grounds or at school-sponsored events may fall on you. The best way to avoid problems from the outset is to set clear guidelines and communicate them to the coaches you hire in advance. Then, discuss unacceptable player behaviors with your team’s staff, ensuring they also have clear guidelines and consequences. Make sure they share those standards with the team.

  • Do not let “winning streaks” blind you to danger.  

While hiring a winning coach is always attractive, make sure you understand the techniques they’ve used in past positions to make sure they fit your guidelines and school philosophy before you hire them. Focus less on winning and more on the well-being of your students.

  • Don’t be afraid to discipline coaches.  

Setting guidelines is worthless if you won’t enforce them. Keep the bigger picture in mind and do not be afraid to take action to protect the safety of your students and your school.

The common problem of sports bullying in the U.S. is as challenging as cyberbullying or classroom bullying. By promoting a culture that respects others and finding community-oriented ways to build teams, we can overcome this problem and help young athletes grow into responsible, well-guided adults.

About Gina Badalaty

Gina Badalaty is a lifestyle blogger for moms raising kids with special needs. She is passionate about living a nontoxic life, inclusion for kids with disabilities and technology to help kids thrive.

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