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Bullying and Hazing In Youth Sports

LMIPP_USYSA_Article_Bullying_250x350In recent years, terrible bullying and hazing incidents in youth sports have come to light.  Older teammates abusing younger teammates.  Coaches bullying players from the sidelines.   And recent statistics seem to suggest that the problem is getting worse.  Liberty Mutual Insurance and their Play Positive® initiative powered by Positive Coaching Alliance along with many coaches and parents are committed to turning this around, using National Bullying Prevention Month (October) to highlight the problem and champion change.

Did You Know?  See The Statistics
28% of U.S. students in grades 6-12 reportedly have experienced bullying or are feeling bullied [1].  70.6% percent of teens have seen bullying occurring in their schools.  And approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying themselves.[2]  A recent report found that 47% of students experience some sort of hazing before graduating high school and 74% of college students on a varsity athletic team report going through hazing.[3] 

What Is Considered Bullying & Hazing
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the Stop Bullying program, “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”[4]

Bullying can take many forms. Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, taunting, or threatening to cause harm. Physical bullying includes hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, or making mean or rude hand gestures.  And finally bullying can be social, often times called ‘relational bullying’, when someone is left out on purpose, when someone tells kids to not be friends with someone, when a child spreads rumors about another kid, or when a child intentionally embarrasses another child in public.

Hazing is taking these same activities of harassment, abuse or humiliation and using them as a way of initiating a person into a group or a team.

Bullying and Hazing In Sports
Sadly, bullying and hazing behavior in youth and high school sports has oftentimes been excused as “kids being kids”, “team initiation” or “part of our tradition.”  But while coaches and team captains sometimes defend hazing practices as activities that create team bonding, the research has clearly shown that hazing deprives both the hazed and the hazers of true, valid team-building.[5] 

Making teammates dress in a costume, wearing something that is humiliating, eating disgusting or very spicy food, drinking large quantities of water, requiring strenuous calisthenics, memorizing trivial information, or acting as a ‘servant’ are all examples of activities labeled ‘initiations’ that are hazing. And while they may seem innocent, they can have a negative effect on children’s psyches and their enjoyment of being part of the team.

Zero Tolerance For Hazing
Coaches and sports administrators should be clear with their athletes and team parents that their organization has a zero-tolerance policy for hazing. Explain what hazing is and clearly state that the behavior is unacceptable. Outline the consequences for hazing upfront and then follow through when issues arise.

Coaches should also follow up the zero tolerance policy by providing a forum for kids and parents to talk about hazing or bullying when they think they have seen or experienced it. And have an on-going open dialog at practice and throughout the season that continues to remind everyone about the shared commitment to a positive environment. And as a parent, remember that your primary role is to ensure you child’s safety: if you believe your child is being bullied or hazed, you owe it to your athlete to have a conversation about the unwanted activity and how you will address the situation together.  In some cases, your athlete should speak to the team coaches, but in other cases, you as the adult may need to intervene and speak to the coach directly.

Fresh Approach To Team Bonding
Instead of using activities that diminish, belittle and bully athletes, coaches and teammates can foster a positive youth sports environment by focusing on team bonding and team building exercises that bring about camaraderie.  Try physical activities and exercises designed to foster listening, collaboration and teamwork. Rather than divide, separate or in some way create a tiered environment within the team, create activities that truly bring everyone together.  For example, PCA National Advisory Board Member and Northwestern University Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald advocates a big brother program throughout the season, with upperclassmen being assigned to an underclassman to help the new player get acclimated. 

Also, outside-of-practice activities like pizza parties and ice cream get-togethers can help players find commonalities away from the field.  

Creating a positive youth sports environment for kids means eliminating bullying practices.  Just because they have been done in the past, doesn’t mean they should continue.  Some traditions – like hazing – should be retired and replaced with positive activities that continue to develop a culture where kids can grow and learn valuable life lessons.

At Liberty Mutual Insurance, we believe that integrity matters. That’s why we created Play Positive®, powered by Positive Coaching Alliance, an initiative that promotes good sportsmanship to help ensure our kids have the fun and positive youth sports experience they deserve. We are committed to providing tools and resources for parents and coaches so we can come together to provide valuable life lessons that support winning on and off the field.

In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series based on the fundamental principles of sportsmanship and relevant youth sport topics, powered by the experts at Positive Coaching Alliance.

©2015 Liberty Mutual Insurance and Positive Coaching Alliance. All rights reserved. This material may not be distributed without express written permission. Any reproduction in whole or part by and individuals or organizations will be held liable for copyright infringement to the full extent of the law.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, School Crime Supplement, 2011.

[2] Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36(3), 361-382.


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