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Bullying: An Ongoing Problem In Youth Sports


Recently, I received the following letter from a mother who had attended one of my talks to a group of sports moms.

"My daughter has just signed up for a 3rd grade travel soccer team after having never played soccer before.  But last week, she told me that her teammates were teasing and bullying her (telling her she's not a good soccer player) and telling secrets about her. I have stayed and watched all her practices and all her games except one. She is completely devoted in her practices, and seems to work at least as hard if not harder than the other girls. She pays attention and does what the coach (or trainer) says. She seems to be one of the more mature girls on the team, and has made amazing progress from the first practice, to now (practice #5). I am not sure she fully understands the game, nor the nuances of each position, but she is definitely participating in earnest.

My question really is what I should expect out of the coach in this regard? I have already sent him an email telling him about the behavior of the other girls, and I borrowed some language from your handout to say that I expected the girls to show respect to each other (i.e. no teasing or bullying). Should I really expect this situation to change? Should I pull her out in the middle of the season? She is telling me now that she never wants to play soccer again. I think that, other than the behavior of the other girls, she enjoys it. I have told her she needs to finish out the season. Help!"

Bullying is violent behavior

The subject of bullying in sports is one that is near and dear to me.  According to an about-to-be- released book from the United Nations titled Violence Against Children In Sport - The Right To Play Safe (a book to which I was honored to contribute) and Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, what her daughter's teammates were doing to her daughter actually constituted emotional abuse/violence.

It is sad, but true, that some kids think that one way to keep moving up the sports pyramid is to eliminate the competition and drive kids to quit, especially if they perceive them as competitive threats, through bullying or teasing that makes them so unhappy they see quitting as a better alternative than being abused.  In extreme cases, teasing in youth sports can even lead to tragic results, such as the teasing that led a thirteen-year-old California boy to beat a fifteen-year-old boy to death in April 2005.

Common problem

A recent study revealed that there is a high probability on most teams that one or more of the lesser skilled players will be bullied or teased by a more skilled teammate.  Good coaches are alert to the possibility of bullying and proactively seek ways to reduce it.

If the coach allows the bullying to go unchecked, the player being bullied may end up deciding that quitting the team is the only way to get the abuse to stop. I remember when my son, Taylor, was on a youth basketball team.  He had just gone through a big growth spurt and towered above the other boys on his team.  He was still trying to get used to his new body, but showed real potential as a basketball player, especially given his height (he is now close to 6 feet 6 inches tall).  One of the players on the team, who actually happened to be one of his closest friends, decided that the best way to eliminate Taylor as his competition was to tease him and so he did did everything he could to undermine his self-confidence by teasing him about his skills, especially at the offensive end of the court where, despite Taylor's height, he had trouble scoring over smaller opponents.  Unfortunately, because the coach did nothing to stop the bullying, the strategy worked: Taylor finished the season but decided not to sign up again.  There is no way of knowing how good Taylor could have been as a basketball player (he was definitely a late bloomer), but I would like to think that he would grown into his body and been pretty good.

Given my experience with my own son and thousands of emails on this subject spanning the tens years I have been running MomsTeam, I thought there was a pretty good chance that the daughter of the mother who wrote me was  being bullied because, despite having just started off in soccer, she was already showing real potential and was therefore viewed by her teammates as a competitive threat.  I wondered whether the coach's child was one of the bullies and when/where was the bullying actually taking place.

The bottom line, I told her, was that the her daughter's coach should have a zero tolerance for bullying and needed to do whatever it took to get it to stop. Easier said than done, though.

Here is what I suggest to parents who find their child is being bullied by his teammates:

  1. Find articles and information on bullying on MomsTeam, especially in sports, such as Quitting Sports: A Difficult Decision and Good Youth Sports Coaches Teach, Model and Demand Sportsmanship, Fairness and Respectful Behavior ;
  2. Print the articles and when handing them to the coach demand that he or she put an end to the bullying and teasing, because it is a violent activity, because teaching respect for teammates, officials and opponents is critical part of a coach's job, and because bullying is damaging to team spirit; and
  3. Teach their child to look directly at the kids who are teasing or bullying her and in a loud, assertive voice say something like, "I have had enough of your bullying. I just want to have fun. Stop it now!" (Repeat as necessary to get it to stop).
  4. Ask your child's coach to make a quick announcement prior to each practice or game along the lines of  "There will be NO bullying or hazing or teasing and anyone on the team who does will sit on the bench! This was something I did before each practice when I was coaching and there were no problems-ever!

November 4, 2013 update: As the sad story of alleged bullying of Miami Dolphin offensive tackle Jonathan Martin by teammate Richie Incognito, which led Martin to take an indefinite leave of absence and to the indefinite suspension of Incognito while the NFL investigates, bullying can happen on teams at every level of sports.   

Has your child ever been bullied? Please add your comments below--I am very interested in what worked to eliminate the bullying of your child. 

Brooke de Lench is the Author of: Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (Harper Collins), founder of MomsTeam.com, and producer/editor of the new PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." You can contact Brooke at delench@momsteam.com

Bullying - part of sports

Bottom line is - Kids are mean... My son was bullied on the soccer fields and succomed - he couldn't get his confidence back, and gave up on a sport he loved. But boys haven't got anything on girls. Girls take first place in nastiness and viciousness. The girls whisper personal attacks so that no-one else hears it but the girl it's aimed at. The only advice I would give - is suck it up. If they love the sport - then play the sport. Part of the game is the snide comments. 90% of the time the child being nasty has parents screaming nastiness from the side-lines. You can't confront a parent. You can't confront another's child. The only thing you can control is how you react to it. I tell my daughter to suck it up - turn the hurt feelings into anger. Play your A game - that's the only way you can get back at these girls - beat them on the scoreboard. But - having played college basketball - be fore-warned what the girls are saying at age 10 - is a far cry from what they will be saying when you're 18. If nothing else - it's a lesson to toughen your skin for all that life throws at you.


I read this article and thought,; you started your child out in travel soccer? What were you thinking? These kids take the game to a more serious level than REC Soccer. No one wants to lose, and suddenly, there's a kid on the team who doesn't even know the rules, and you as a parent were surprised?

I agree the coach should have been more aware of what is going on with his team. He should also have been aware that this kid never played before and counseled the parents to let the child try out soccer in REC. One, it is much cheaper than travel. Why invest all that money and time for a sport that might not be to their liking or abilities. Also, it would let the child develop at a pace that is more enjoyable and less competitive than Travel. I give a "boo" to both parent and coaches on this one....be smart with your kids. They aren't all going to be Mia Hamm’s or Beckham...try and be realistic with their goals.


This is an area I know well and can tell you that SOME parents will take this lightly. I have found that schools across the United States are experiencing bullying throughout their sports programs. Why does this happen? It happens because we tolerate it. Shame on the parents who live vacariously through their children. The fact is less than .5% of kids will become some sort of professional sport star!!!!! It is probably less than that with the competition from other countries these days. SO, with that in check what are the sports suppose to teach children??? We have a vast majority of children who play some sort of sport. I believe that sports in our schools were suppose to teach our children some positive life skills. Is it really down to build up a couple and break down the rest? This is how we want our future generation to be? Lets say the one who has to "Suck it up" is in charge of you when you are 98 and you have taught them that life is not fair and to suck it up per say? That verbage could come back to haunt people! We are suppose to be teaching children through sports on how to contribute as a team, how to be fair, how to share, how to look out for others, that it is not all about ONE person. Teams are so worried about winning they forget the reason they were started. The system overall FAILS. Why have them if they do not do what they were set up to do? We wonder why we have a society with children who think they are entitled. I know in my hometown there is a lot of very talented children in sports both boys and girls. It never fails though that the same children play and start in every sport. We groom them to THINK they are better than everyone else. They take the role that only they can do it and only they can start sports.The fact of the matter is when you have talent a good coach should be able to put kids in and out. They can start different people and have less drama on their teams. Many schools have changed and went to a rotation and all kids play and start at different times. I am sure they have way less drama than these other schools. I have seen one local school that the girls actually get along and work as a team because of it. Ohh and they win ballgames because they do play as a team!It is an amazing concept to think that we could actually move towards what sports are about and get the same outcome of competitiveness! In regards to the travel teams., I have a child who has been on them for about 7 years. This is a tricky situation. Please note, some travel teams are not very competitive to start. They take children and work on building them. One of the keys to this is you are paying to play on this team! A coach has a responsibility to not take a child if he has no intentions of playing them! That is just plain mean and cruel! I cannot believe that a coach would want that headache because you are messing with two major fires! One you are breaking their child and two you got in their pocket! Kids DO NOT go out for sports to sit a bench. They join because they want to play and advance their skills and learn team skills! It is about the children and how we can make them better people through sports! I tell my children all the time that they are very talented in sports and do very well but they need to remember when they are out of school and in the real world no one will care that they played high school basketball or volleyball, etc They will not even remember any of the games.It is how you act and how you are as a person that you will still be accountable for!


I really
thought I was alone on this issue, until I ran across this site tonight. It’s
like you are telling my son story. I have watched him play ball for over 5
years now, usually getting in for a few minutes a game; but his contributions
were noticed. But yet, the same kids every year, every sport, get to start and
play while he warms the bench. Now that he is in his senior year, he has
accomplished the goal of "sticking it out" till he could become a
varsity team member, only to be told, last week, that he a couple other boys
were being cut from the varsity team, because they had too many boys out for
basketball. There are 51 boys out for freshman, Junior Varsity and Varsity.  The powers that be have allowed Freshman and
Junior Varsity to have spots on this varsity team, cutting varsity  players first. 
Two of the players were just cut, and my son was told that he needed to
make the decision of whether or not to stay; because the coach told him that he
had no intention of playing him. This is two days before their first game of
the season. Went to the principal. because there is a no cut rule in
basketball...unless there are tryouts...principal told the boys to talk to the
coach, but that he could not guarantee any play time. So the boys are back on
the team…except one quit..my son got a jersey 3 x his size, and was told he
will be sitting on the bench; the other boy was told he would not get a jersey.
and has to sit in the bleachers with the fans. THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS.. So, I asked
for a different uniform for my son and tried to get the parents of the other
boy to come talk on his behalf. Neither happened. Apparently, it is my son’s
responsibility to trade with the other members of the team, those who think
they are entitled. That is sure not to happen either. I contacted the Kansas
Department of Education today, and spoke with an agent there. He gave me great advice
and steps to take. I meet with the Superintendent on Wednesday...and come
prepared with a civil rights attorney contact information from the US department of Education. This is
blatant harassment, bullying, and emotional abuse. To add insult to injury,
they still are required to practice with the team and suffer consequences of
the losses, which consist of, the starters scrimmaging, while the rest
watch...but they all due to the conditioning. Please....guess they forgot I
hold a bachelor's degree in Criminal justice...AND, am a current
investigator...I may be a single mother, but I'm a force to be reckoned
with...Ill keep you posted...for all you parents out there...stand up for your
children...and don’t allow it to continue, as I did, with the hopes that they
would recognize my son’s dedication and talent. 
If nothing else, this may help students later on down the road.  For my son, I love you, and you will make a
great coach someday. 

Bullying in Sports

Laurie, There are no easy answers here but I can tell you that I have been working on this issue for many years and have found that a sit-down face to face meeting( set up at a convenient time) for the parents and the coach may work. If you tell the coach that you are holding them accountable for any bullying or hazing -and that includes neglect (clearly a situation here) perhaps they will take it to heart.



Brooke de Lench

Publisher /Editor In Chief



Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (Harper Collins)

First of all I feel for her

First of all I feel for her daughter but you have got to remember you can not start a child out on a travel team. These child have trained for it and are very good. You start you kids in rec ball or church leagues to learn to play. That would be like putting a 3rd grade in an advanced algebra class. My son plays AAU basketball and they are ranking NO. 1 in the state and No. 6 in the nation. First the child would have never made it on the team, but if for some reason they did and they don't even know how to play they are going to feel bad anyways because children are not stupid they know that they are not at the same level as the rest and they will get no play time, so how will that teach them to be better. She did a disservice to her child by putting her in travel ball. Even on the teams there is a hierachy of players, they all know who is best. To think that there are alterior motives for the bullying, i could understand if it was rec ball and this was happening but that is just the way it is when you are in advanced ball, don't get me wrong, I don't condone the teasing but I also don't think it would have happened had she put her is a skill appropiate team. I would highly recommend she put her child in a church league. They teach them how to play the game. They evaluate the players and make sure that comparable players are guarding each other and they have fun, and they will not tolerate any bullying. After a few seasons of rec or church ball if her daughter is exception then consider trying out for the travel team.