Mental Health in Youth Sports: How to Prevent Bullying and Hazing on Your Team
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the ties between mental health and youth sports are well established. Youth sports are a way for growing kids to let off some steam, make new friends, grow their confidence, and—of course—have fun. Running around everyday after school can have a profoundly positive impact on the mental health of kids, like lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, reduced risk of suicide, less substance abuse, and improved psychological well-being for individuals with disabilities.
Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that many young kids—especially in grades 6-12—are feeling bullied in youth sports. Incidents happen at practice, games, and according to SafeSport for Coaches, more than half of reported incidents occur in the locker room.
Bullying on a team sport affects not only the target, but also the team morale as a whole. There are steps you as a youth sports organizer or coach can take to mitigate bullying and teach your players how to treat one another with respect to create an environment that everyone feels comfortable in and is able to thrive in. Here’s what you need to know about bullying in youth sports and what you can do to stop it.
What Coaches and Organizers Can Do
Some behaviors that are oftentimes excused as “kids being kids,” “team initiation,” or “traditions” are actually considered hazing and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Examples of this kind of behavior include making teammates eat disgusting food, dress in a costume, wear something humiliating, perform strenuous calisthenics, and memorize trivial information. If you see bullying on your team, here’s what you should do in retaliation.
- Get involved immediately. Responding quickly and consistently will set a precedent for the team.
- Explain why their actions are wrong. Remember: kids are kids. Sometimes they need reinforcement and reminders between what is right and wrong.
- Withdraw privileges. Taking away something your player loves in response to bad behavior—whether it’s the ability to start in a game, participation in a pizza party, or even playing in a game at all—can weaken the likelihood of that player bullying again.
- Report it to other involved parties. You should never have to face the difficult situation of bullying alone. If you’re a coach, get support from the administrator or organizer. If you’re an organizer, get the parent involved. Etc.
- Refer the player to a professional. If it gets out of hand and you suspect there might be deeper problems, a professional counselor can be a way to get the child the help they need while allowing them to continue playing the sport or return to the team when they’re ready.
To stop these kinds of behaviors before they develop, US Youth Soccer suggests the following.
Have Zero-Tolerance for Hazing
Talking to your players and their parents before the season even begins about the fact that the organization has a zero-tolerance policy for hazing will help ensure it doesn’t happen. Outline exactly what is considered hazing in the organization and what consequences the child will face if they participate in any of those activities. With a zero-tolerance policy, you’ll want to consider banning kids from games, practices, and—if it comes to it—kicking them off the team.
Provide Open Communication
It’s important to provide an open line of communication for kids (or parents) who may think they have seen some form of bullying or hazing on the team or are experiencing it themselves. LeagueApps provides a variety of seamless communication tools—through both the desktop registration flow and mobile apps—that can be helpful in facilitating this kind of open communication.
Foster a Positive Environment
In addition to knowing how to handle the situation if bullying does occur, you should focus on creating an environment at practice that encourages camaraderie, listening, collaborating, and teamwork. A great way to bring the team together in this way is through out-of-practice activities like pizza parties, pasta parties, and getting ice cream as a team to allow the players to establish commonalities other than the sport they play.
Mental Health in Youth Sports
Mitigating bullying is just one of the ways youth sports organizers and coaches can support the mental health of their team. In a world where 1 in 6 school aged children show symptoms of a childhood mental health disorder, it’s more important than ever that we get involved where we can. To stay updated on this series, keep up with our blog—where you’ll access everything you need to stay in-the-know about youth sports today.