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May 18, 2021

Looking at bullies in sport

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Today is the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. Sport is one of the many areas where bullying is an issue. We see it at all levels from junior grade right up to the games on our television. To help combat bullying, the Play by the Rule website provides free online education, information, training and resources about keeping your sport and club inclusive, safe and fair for everyone.

Every person in sport, in every role, has the right to participate in an environment that is fun, safe and healthy, and to be treated with respect, dignity and fairness.

Bullying denies participants these rights and can result in feelings of disgrace, embarrassment, shame or intimidation. Bullying can also affect an individual’s athletic performance, level of enjoyment, work or school life, academic achievement, and physical and mental health.

Research has shown that one in six Australian students is bullied every week, and is three times more likely to develop depressive illnesses.

Bullying can occur both on and off the sports pitch and can involve athletes, parents, coaches, spectators or umpires. It is prohibited by most sporting organisations under their code of conduct and can result in penalties and punishments being applied. Some forms of bullying constitute assault, harassment or discrimination under federal and state legislation and are therefore illegal.

What is bullying

Bullying is deliberately hurting a specific person either physically, verbally, psychologically or socially. It involves a power imbalance where one person has power or strength (eg physical, mental, social or financial) over another. It can be carried out by one person or several people who are either actively or passively involved. In a sports context bullying can take many forms, for example:

• a parent telling their child that they are incompetent, hopeless, useless, etc

• a coach alienating an athlete (adult or child)

• several people ganging up on an individual team member

• spectators verbally abusing players from the opposition

• an athlete calling a referee names and using put downs

• a parent intimidating a young coach.

Bullying can be a ‘one off’ incident, but usually involves repeated actions or incidences. It can occur everywhere: at home, school, work, playgrounds, while participating in sport, when using public transport or walking to or from home. An individual may bully their victim face to face or use technology such as a mobile phone or computer.

Types of bullying

Bullies may use one or several types of bullying to hurt their victim.

Physical – pushing, shoving, punching, hitting, kicking, taking away a person’s belongings (this may also constitute assault).

Verbal – name calling, banter, threatening, teasing, intimidating, yelling abuse, using put downs.

Psychological – ganging up, preventing a person from going somewhere, taking a person’s possessions, sending hostile or nasty emails or text messages.

Socially – excluding, alienating, ignoring, spreading rumours.

Bullying behaviour is damaging to all involved: the bully, victim, family members, those that witness the behaviour and the sporting organisation involved. Athletes, parents, coaches, administrators and sporting organisations all have an ethical (and possibly a legal) responsibility to take action to prevent bullying occurring in sport, and manage it, should it occur.

The effects of bullying – why certain people bully and are bullied

People that bully may:

• pick a victim randomly, or carefully choose their victim

• find that they get what they want by bullying (power, acceptance, admiration)

• have been bullied themselves

• be arrogant, aggressive or impulsive

• enjoy having power over others

• enjoy doing it and not care that they cause their victim distress

• believe that some people deserve to be bullied

• have been influenced by aggressive ‘models’ (at home, in real life, or in television or the movies)

• see their behaviour as justified or ‘pay back’ for some treatment they have received.

Any person can be bullied. Sometimes people who are popular, smarter, attractive or possess obvious sporting ability are victims of bullying. People can also be subject to bullying if they:

• have not had experience standing up for themselves against bullies

• lack assertiveness, resilience and the social skills required to protect themselves against bullies

• struggle academically or in terms of sporting ability

• appear stressed, anxious or easily hurt or upset

• look different or are different

• have a disability or illness

• lack confidence or are shy

• have been overprotected at home.

Signs a person is being bullied

A person, especially a child, may not always ask for support when being bullied. They may feel afraid, ashamed or embarrassed and that the person they tell will think they are weak. Victims of bullying may think that they deserve to be bullied or are ‘dobbing’ by telling someone what is happening to them.

The following are signs that a person may be being bullied:

• finds excuses for not wanting to attend training or games (eg feeling sick, has an injury, has too much work to do) or talking about hating their sport

• wants to be driven to training or matches instead of walking

• regularly the last one picked for team or group activities

• alienated from social or shared activities

• has bruising or other injuries

• becomes uncharacteristically nervous, worried, shy or withdrawn

• clothing or personal possessions are missing or damaged

• repeatedly ‘loses’ money or possessions

• suddenly prone to lashing out at people either physically or verbally.

Managing bullying

Bullying is more likely to occur in environments that are highly competitive and promote a ‘win at all cost’ mentality. By emphasising other aspects of sport such as enjoyment, teamwork, sportsmanship and skill development, especially at the junior level, sporting organisations may be able to prevent bullying behaviours.

Sporting organisations should promote their organisation as one that will not allow or tolerate bullying and develop codes of conduct and a policy that addresses bullying behaviours, such as a member protection policy. A member protection policy addresses a range of inappropriate behaviours including discrimination, harassment and abuse and provides a complaints process for dealing with incidents. The policy can also provide a complaints handling process so sports can deal with incidents of bullying in a practical manner that is consistent with other inappropriate behaviour.

The law

Bullying that involves physical assault is against the law. Bullying that involves, harassment or discrimination can be against the law under certain circumstances (eg racial and sexual harassment). Because bullying can contribute to psychological injury it may be covered under occupational health and safety legislation.

From the Play by the Rules* website: http://www.playbytherules.net.au.

* Play by the Rules is a unique collaboration between the Australian Sports Commission, Australian Human Rights Commission, all state and territory departments of sport and recreation, all state and territory antidiscrimination and human rights agencies, the NSW Commission for Children and Young People and the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association (ANZSLA). These partners promote Play by the Rules through their networks, along with their own child safety, antidiscrimination and inclusion programs.

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