Having participated in more than half a dozen different team sports for more than twenty years, I have witnessed and been the target of bullying in sports often. At times, the behavior of my teammates was mentally and emotionally harmful and detrimental to accomplishing team goals. In other cases, bullying in sports created positive results, benefiting me as an individual and advancing team goals. Even then, bullying was not the only means by which the benefit could be realized. Between these different results is a fine line that can be difficult to stay on the proper side of. To determine which side of the line behavior falls on, the nature of the bullying and its purpose must be balanced against its effectiveness in accomplishing that purpose and any other means available for accomplishing the same.
Nature & Purpose of Bullying v. Effectiveness in Accomplishing Purpose & Available Alternatives
Bullying is the use of verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation or threats practiced by individuals or groups in order to exert some amount of power over others. It can be overt and extreme in nature or take effect subtly over time. Bullying in sports takes all forms and has been commonplace for decades. But why has abuse and humiliation remained a part of locker room culture for so long?
One reason is that the purpose of bullying often aligns with team goals and can be effective in helping the team accomplish those goals. Modernly, appropriate alternative means can replace bullying completely in accomplishing the same goals. Therefore, even bullying with a proper purpose that accomplishes its goal and is subtle in nature is likely unnecessary and avoidable.
Purposes of Bullying in Sports
Bullying in sports is often done for purposes of socializing team members to behave in ways that enhance team performance in at least three ways. First, sports require a certain level of mental toughness. Enduring an atmosphere of bullying can build mental toughness and enhance performance under pressure. Second, athletes must often consider the goals of the team above individual goals in order for the team to succeed. Bullying in sports can strip an athlete of individuality and rebuild his identity based primarily on being a member of the team. Third, performance is enhanced when athletes know they have the support of teammates in accomplishing a common goal. Bullying can expose those athletes who seek only individual accomplishment and are unwilling to make individual sacrifices for team improvement. Those athletes are faced with the choice of leaving the team or enduring continued bullying.
Other times, bullying in sports is done for selfish purposes. For example, intimidating younger talented players may hinder performance and allow more senior athletes to keep roster positions or places on a depth chart. Bullying of this type fails from the outset because of its invidious purpose. This type of bullying is often overt and extreme in nature because its purpose is to humiliate and intimidate.
Failure in Nature and Purpose: High School Soccer
On my high school soccer team, we were required to run a couple of warm up laps at the beginning of practice. The seniors on the team would typically dribble a couple of balls along with them on the jog. At some point they would fan out to either side of the double-file jog line and start aiming shots at the heads of the younger players. They would pair the attack with rhetorical questions aimed at any particular freshman. Most questions regarded what the freshman should do with his girlfriend and whether he was physically mature enough to do the suggested activity. I witnessed players receive “wedgies” so violent as to rip the underwear clean out from under their soccer shorts to be hung on the nearby tree branches. The fear of having my wrists and ankles taped to the goalpost and my pants taken down, a common threat from seniors, haunted me in the hours of the school day before practice. Few things would be as humiliating for a pubescent high school frosh.
Due to the bullying by the seniors on the varsity team, I purposely played poorly at tryouts as a sophomore so that I would be placed on the junior varsity. I easily could have made the varsity team that year and would have helped it win more games. Other of my teammates simply quit. The purpose of bullying done by those seniors was to exert power over the talented younger players to ensure the seniors would get playing time in the coming season. They kept their place in the lineup by convincing players like me that we would be better served to stay on the junior varsity one more season or by limiting our ability to perform through intimidation. The team was therefore not as strong and many young players lost a great deal of confidence and love for the sport.
In this case, the seniors were effective in accomplishing their goal but the nature and purpose of their bullying was improper at the outset. The desired purpose was selfish and against the betterment of the team. The nature of the bullying was extreme and involved inappropriate physical abuse. Because the nature and purpose were invidious, the bullying had a negative effect on individuals and the team regardless of whether it was effective or whether alternative means were available.
Positive Purpose and Effectiveness: College Baseball
On my college baseball team, I was one of three freshmen that made the traveling team. Ten to twelve other freshmen participated in practice and red-shirted their first year. When I returned for my sophomore season, I was the only one of the freshman class to return from the previous season. I witnessed both subtle and overt bullying of the freshmen by the senior players. During fall practice freshmen were required to carry all of the team gear, catch bullpen workouts for pitchers, put the field to bed after practice, clean the locker room, chase all the foul balls, and leave practice last after making sure that everything was in order for the evening.
At times further tasks like fetching ice from the training room or preparing water coolers were assigned by the more senior players. All of these tasks sent the same message to the freshmen: serving the team was more important than their individual success. When a freshman made an error in the field or failed to swing when a hit-and-run was on, he had to wear the “Sweet Player Jersey.” The jersey was a pink tie-dyed practice uniform that was never washed, smelled horrible, and was humiliating to wear. Invariably, it ended up on a freshman every day of fall practice. For a group of freshmen that were the best players on their respective high school teams, the systematic breaking down of their confidence was too much of a sacrifice and many transferred after the fall semester.
By the time spring came, I was transformed from a confident player into a humble athlete willing to do whatever it took to endear myself to my teammates and coaches. I received a room assignment on the road with a junior and a senior who had starting positions. During road trips, they employed various methods to let me know my place. On one trip, they used athletic tape to create a three by three foot box in the corner of the hotel room. I was required to keep all of my gear within the box and stay in the corner myself at all times. On nearly every trip, it was my job to go get dinner after the game while my roommates lounged on the hotel beds. I was given far too little money to accomplish the task and was told to “make it enough” by spending my own meal money to cover the difference. I carried their gear to and from the bus and was given the nickname “green” because of my naivety.
In this case, the bullying treatment had a positive effect in three ways. First, the pressure of constant bullying, loss of confidence, and the threat of humiliation made performing at practice more difficult. In many ways, it mirrored the pressure that I faced later in game situations. In that way, the bullying by the seniors was effective in that when called upon to perform in a game situation I was mentally ready to do so under pressure. Second, when it came time perform in a game situation my main focus was to do what it took to help the team. Because I knew that my performance was for our collective accomplishment, it carried a heightened importance and relieved me from individual pressure at the same time. Third, by enduring the bullying of my freshman year my teammates came to know that I bought into being a part of the program and team. They knew that I was aware of the fact that the game and the team were more important than my achievement. The team was not a vehicle for my advancement but a separate entity that was far more important than me as an individual. By remaining in the program, choosing not to transfer, and enduring the initiation I became a trusted and respected teammate.
Alternative Means even when Bullying is Effective
Even though I learned valuable lessons from the subtle bullying on my college baseball team, alternative means may have made for even greater team gains. I eventually became a starter on my college baseball team, became a much more skilled player, and formed lasting relationships with my teammates. However, I never fully regained the confidence I had before enduring my freshman season. Confidence is as critical to success in baseball as physical prowess. Many players equally if not more skilled than me left the program entirely after that season. Had the seniors used other means to improve performance under pressure, increase focus on team goals, and ensure player dedication to the program, we may have been a better team going forward.
Bullying accomplishes its purpose through negative sanctions. It discourages particular behavior. Alternatively, the increased use of positive reinforcement can have the same effect by encouraging particular behavior. The positive effect of performing under pressure can be accomplished with increased positive verbal praise upon success and constructive advice upon failure, teaching the athlete to deal with pressure without punishing his failures. The positive effect of focus on team goals can be accomplished by creating a tradition and culture of respect for the team as a unit rather than by breaking down individual confidence. Traditions like touching the “play like a champion” sign while leaving the locker room at Notre Dame exemplify this approach. Finally, the positive effect of trust-building between teammates can be accomplished through off-the-field service, team study halls, and team dinners.
By implementing positive alternative means, teams can reap the benefits that subtle bullying accomplishes without sacrificing athlete transfers and loss of confidence in freshmen. Therefore, even bullying that is subtle in nature, positive in purpose, and effective in accomplishing its purpose can be outweighed by the availability of effective alternative means. In that case, eliminating bullying from a program can increase team performance by retaining skilled players and increasing their level of confidence and performance.
Author: Kevin Cave, JD