Blog Post: Bullying or Coaching: Are you pulling kids in, or pushing them out?

In a recent conversation with fellow coaches, we were trying to determine how best to support young coaches’ development. One of the questions we wrestled with is “what is good coaching practice?” We struggled with the the idea of Safe Sport and particularly “how do we know when something verges or leans toward bullying?”

The example that arose was the idea of making an athlete ‘drop and give us 20’ when they arrive late to practice. This is a common practice at many club and school sport programs. We reflected on how the practice can start ‘all in good fun at first’, ‘enjoyed by the athletes’, ‘something they liked to do to show their strength’. But eventually the practice seems to shift and gradually transform. We imagined, in our sport of rowing, that as the weather cools into winter, the push ups may be perceived increasingly as a punishment on the wet and sometimes icy ground. Another colleague described this practice as devolving into a situation on his basketball team where the athletes were taunted and made to do the push ups in front of everyone. It wasn’t ‘fun’ anymore… It reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in which everyone ‘buys in’ and is excited to partake in the town event until they are the one who draws the ‘black dot’ and find themselves being stoned to death by the eager and bloodthirsty crowd.

As my coaching community reflects on why and when these practices tip over the edge of good and safe sport into bullying or abuse, we arrive at the conclusion that bullying is when the consequence can be perceived as punishment. No matter how the practice is intended, if it can be perceived by an athlete or other coach as punishment, it can easily slide toward bullying, abuse, or violence.

The ‘consequence’ should better fit the ‘transgression.’ If an athlete is late, what is the actual cost to him/her and the team? In our sport of rowing, it is usually a matter of losing the athlete’s contribution of time and work: setting up a coach boat, bringing down oars, discussing and clarifying the workout as a team, and getting onto the water in a timely way. Therefore, it made more sense that the athlete should bring the oars up after training or engage in some other form of time and work contribution to the club. Because the athlete needs to learn responsibility and better habits as well, it made sense to us that the athlete should also determine – with the coach’s help if needed – their own restorative contribution.

Later, I was in conversation with a young and inspiring local coach about this topic. He said, “it’s easy, bullying pushes kids out rather than pulling them in”. He explained that bullying is about exclusion and control. The push ups, laps, bans, and other ‘punishments’ were all examples of excluding the athletes. Good coaching is about engaging and connecting with the athletes so that they feel safe and supported enough to try new things, to push themselves, to learn. Where good coaching is about the athlete’s development and ‘power to’, bullying is about coach ego and ‘power over’.

“It’s easy, bullying pushes kids out rather than pulling them in.”

Ensuring our coaches understand the principles of good and safe sport requires that they receive training in Good Sport principles and associated practices from their provincial and national sport organizations. Coaches can then ensure the athletes understand the principles of good sport by clearly communicating their expectations as well as their reasoning for certain practices. Coaches need to understand that along with being technical experts, they are also educators and leaders tasked with modelling safe, true and good sport principles. Everyone wins when we practice good sport.

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