Chasing the balls that are punted into the woods.
Carrying the gear bags.
Cleaning up the messy locker room.
Eating all the peppers on the table at dinner.
Of course, the list can get much worse from here, but you certainly get where this is headed. Hazing has been a part of the sport culture since any of us can remember, but in recent years the hazing has moved beyond silly tasks or rites of passage to downright painful, scarring, potentially lethal situations. It escalated. Quickly.
Was it wrong that we were hazed and then subsequently hazed the next group of weaker players?
Is it even hazing anymore or is it something more nefarious altogether?
The word “bullying” has often been used in recent years to describe the downward spiraling relationships we see in sports, and what we once saw as inane, benign, harmless rites of passage are now acts of bullying. Most of the bullying we see today is embedded in the coaching culture, or in parent behavior.
Examples of coaches mistreating players abound. Anecdotes of parents crossing the line from their comfort zone on the sideline are aplenty, and while the focus has turned to the trusted adults in the game who have skewed the mission of youth sports and taken their role way too far, bullying from the players still exists. It need not be as cruel as examples that have made mainstream media, but any situation in which a child feels helpless against verbal, physical, emotional attacks and can find no escape from them is still bullying.
In this series of articles for SoccerNation.com, we will review four key scenarios of when player-generated bullying occurs and provide you with simple tips for preventing and correcting bullying behavior. Many times it can be easily remedied with proper adult intervention and guidance. As the principal of my son’s school recently relayed to me when we were discussing a possible bullying situation, “If us adults can alter the child’s perspective, get him or her to see it from the “victim’s eyes” and gain some empathy, we can turn this into a growth experience for all. Wise words.
First Scenario – Strong Players bullying weak players
This is one of the most dangerous bullying situations because of the “perceived power”. The strong players have all power, all backing and support, and their targets feel all too helpless. It can easily escalate beyond the control of the children. Also, don’t fool yourself, this happens at all ages. Even the very young children are capable of exerting power of the weak.
Typically, this comes from the larger, more athletic children at the young ages. They exert their power on the field of play, gaining an advantage over the smaller, less adept children. If it is perpetuated by us adults, they will begin to see their position of power and will exert it.
Usually, we see it manifest in typical displays of strength – wrestling, throwing items, punting other’s soccer balls, taking their snacks. They mean no real harm, but are exploring their own warrior strength. They are developing a pecking order. You will also see it exerted verbally through nicknames, comments regarding lack of strength or skill, or physical expressions of disgust when weaker players make mistakes.
As players get older, these acts of power can be more overt and also more deleterious to their teammates. At the very young ages, it is usually passed off under the guise of “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls”. This may be so, and may have been so when we were that age, but we now are more aware of the damage it can do if left unchecked. When you begin to witness the strong versus the weak type of bullying, it is time to intervene.
This needn’t be a massive ordeal. We don’t need to punish the “strong” players, unless they have crossed some lines or broken rules. If it is still in the initial stages, the easiest way to address it is through the following tips, before it becomes a destructive force.
- Focus on Team Roles – Great coaches know that all players on a team play a role. One of the single greatest examples of this notion was Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls of the 90s. He assembled an All-Star team of elite talent and extreme personalities. On paper, the team looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Too many cooks in the kitchen, too many top dogs vying for the throne, way too many big personalities for one bench, but Phil knew how to set roles. Each player was brought in to play a role for a greater team mission. They all bought into the mission, agreed on the group goal, and accepted their role. If they gave their all to the role they were given, the team, as a whole, would be the greatest of all time. They would be a part of something that would go down in history. He brought in the sharp shooter, the passer, the rebounder, the muscle, the playmaker, and more. As those players grew into their roles, they began to respect and embrace the roles of others. They knew they would only be great if their teammates played their roles and respected them. Great coaches today strive to create the “every player has a role” mentality in their teams. It builds a culture around a common goal, a team focus, and a sense of cooperative competition. In a culture with roles for everyone, the weak are no longer seen as weak, but as integral members of the greater good. It sounds very “sit around the campfire and sing”, but this has been used in business, in surgery rooms, in airline cockpits, in army units, and much more. Clearly define the roles individuals, and everyone begins to see value in all. Make sure it is very clear that each player plays a vital role. Parents, you can also support this through your conversations and your actions. Continue to stress the importance of roles for the greater good when you talk to your children about the team and guard how you react. Our children will key off our behavior, and if we show we see value in everyone having a role, they will value that concept.
- Embrace the merit of all players – Many coaches and parents can easily recognize “success” and dole out the appropriate praise for it. The wise also find merit in other players too. Though little Johnny may be very undersized now and easily knocked off the ball, are we acknowledging how hard he works, how he continues to chase in order to win the ball back, how he shows great effort and heart in training and in games? Beginning to find process-based successes in the weaker players and acknowledging them gives them merit in the team pecking order. They need us to help show their value to teammates. They may not score all the points or make all the tackles, but find a value they added to create those. My coach was awesome at pointing out “who caused goals” when we would score. He would yell out, “Hey Johnny, Mikey scored a great goal, but your stealing the pass and finding him open created it. You caused a great goal, keep it up, son!” Those words served two purposes. They encouraged Johnny to keep doing what he was doing, because it was the right thing and they let everyone else know Johnny had merit on the team. Mikey doesn’t score, if Johnny doesn’t get him the ball. When Tim Tebow was at Florida, all eyes were on him, but he used to talk about the defense…how those guys would go out with a singular focus – get the ball back in Tim’s hands. He acknowledged their value. Find merit in all players and acknowledge it.
- Reinforce Team Values – If you do not already have team values, you need them. It doesn’t need to be a list of 800 key words. I have lived, and my teams also have lived, by four simple values I call the “FIRE”. Faith (or Fun), Integrity, Respect, Excellence. All we do is driven by and measured against these values. They are the guiding principles of our actions as a team. If you are a parent, learn the team values and encourage them. Many team values have to do with character, heart, trust, teamwork, respect, gratitude. These values, when reinforced, call our players to treat each other as equals worthy of being members of our team. If you are seeing a strong versus weak situation arising in your team, begin reminding them of the values that make them a team. Institute habits of excellence that reinforce them, such as greeting each teammate with a hello and handshake upon arrival at games and training. The more they live the values through habits of excellence each day, the more they began to see each other as members of a team of shared focus. My son was always the kid after training who went up to every kid and told them “good practice” and he would even tell them something they did right. In the beginning, everyone thought he was an odd bird, but ultimately that group of boys had a profound respect for each other because they all began doing it. They came from varied background and skill levels, but they fought hard for each other like a brotherhood.
- Acknowledge Development Cycles – Children are very concrete and think in the here in now. They are also essentially fixed in mindset. They cannot always see the future through the moment, so if they see a teammate as the smallest, weakest player today, they effectively see him as such for eternity. They cannot comprehend development cycles and how some children may develop physically and emotionally or mentally at different rates. Many times, coaches simply acknowledging and reminding them that we are all growing and changing each day and at different rates can alter how they perceive each other. I was 5’8″ as a 13-year-old and recall a coach once telling me I was a big brute who would always use his size instead of skill or smarts. Years later, when I was still 5″8″ and one of the smaller guys on my collegiate team I recall that same coach telling a local paper that I was a smart, skilled goal scorer and that is what drove my career. Really? That is not quite what you said when I was 13, and trust me, we always remember the words of coaches. Had he simply acknowledged that I was at a different pace in my development cycle when I was 13 I may not have held the grudge for as long as I did. Imagine what other players are thinking about their teammates if you are not addressing the differences in terms of growth and development. Today’s slow kid could be tomorrow’s Usain Bolt. Yesterday’s Messi may very well be today’s Hulk (the Brazilian player in yellow and green, not the Marvel Character who turns green). Be aware of how you address differences between players and keep in mind that we all develop at different rates and in different ways.
As parents and coaches, if we can follow these simple tips when we see the potentiality of strong versus weak bullying, we can easily manage it and turn that energy into effective team building behaviors. Keep on the look out for the signs of this type of behavior and be sure to communicate effectively the roles, values, merit of players, and differences that make us unique and special and you will have a team that plays with a unified mission and goal.
Next article in the series will take a look at Coach Side versus Player Side bullying.