Why do we often allow sports culture to deviate so far from societal norms? Why is bullying often an accepted norm in sports, or, frankly, why is bullying behavior often not recognized as bullying when in the context of sports?

Defining Bullying

Let’s start with a definition used by the Workplace Bullying Institute:

Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is :

But It’s Sports, So It’s Different, Right?

Many involved in sports will hear their inner voice loudly declaring that that’s not bullying, that’s sports. If that’s your first reaction, you are not wrong but that doesn’t make the behavior right or productive, either.


Sports are built on tradition. Coaching styles, the norms established, and the elusive “sports ethic” are influenced more by experience from our own sports culture roots than by carefully considered study of motivation and human behavior. Sports are rooted in toughness and hazing and bullying are part of the historical methodology for how teams were formed and the tight bonds among teammates were cemented. There is a romanticism about the days when “men were men” and sports built character.

Have We Become Soft?

It’s tempting to say that we have become soft over time. That what was once OK should remain OK and that it’s healthy to weed out the meek given the demands of competitive sports. Yet sports aren’t the only context that demands effort, expertise, focus, dedication, and coordination. In fact, most industries have demands to exact the most of its employees and employee every motivational tactic available in order to reap the benefits. It’s often not about human kindness or dignity. It’s generally about performance. Which raises the question, is there something inherently different about athletes that would require extreme and harshly negative motivational tactics in order to ensure optimal performance?


The motivational profile of an athlete must be understood not in generalities but, rather, in understanding that particular athlete. What are the ways that a particular individual learns? When is feedback best delivered? Are they an experiential or visual learner? Can peers deliver the message organically or should it come from a coach? There is tremendous variety in what motivates and engages any athlete. However, it is rare that anyone performs their best under threats, humiliation, and intimidation.

Be Demanding

This is not to say a coach or team shouldn’t be demanding. This is where many seem to become confused. High expectations are healthy. Candid feedback and building a realistic understanding of strengths and weaknesses is healthy. Stress is normal and a healthy part of adaptation and learning. It should be exhausting, challenging, and demanding to perform to one’s capabilities in any endeavor – especially sports.

A New Golden Rule?

Coaches must walk a fine line but is it really that challenging? Use the son or daughter test. If you are a coach, would you want someone else speaking to your son or daughter the way you are speaking to your athlete. Is the culture one in which you’d want your son or daughter to be immersed? If not, why not? How is it helping to motivate and exact performance consistent with expectations for your team or program? Likely, it isn’t if it fails this simple test.

Systems Thinking

Systemically, it would behoove athletic directors and other administrators to align winning with healthy locker room culture but establishing clear values and ensuring all incentives, contracts, and other evaluation systems tie-in to these values. Winning and a healthy team culture or not mutually exclusive. Look at the San Antonio Spurs and how they’ve built a team based on a core set of values that exemplify the alignment of performance with healthy culture. They recognize the need for bonding, for hard work, for demanding expectations but they do so without tearing down individuals and without bullying or hazing.

Don’t Be Afraid of Visibility and Insight

Similarly, visibility is key. Do post-season assessments. Don’t create an insular environment. Get outside perspective on the experience your athletes have and see if it is truly consistent with your organization’s values. The power structure in sports can minimize an athlete’s ability to tell a coach that there is a problem with bullying. Build structures, such as an athlete ombudsman, to create a safe, confidential space for such concerns to be raised and communicated back to the organization in aggregate. Most importantly, create rituals and new traditions that form teams that are close without the historical baggage that we too often perpetuate. Ask yourself, why do we do that tradition? If you don’t have a good answer, it might just be a historical artifact left in the past. Finally, have a zero tolerance policy against bullying and hazing. They only harm a team’s ability to perform and there is no reason why they should be more acceptable in sports than in any other context.

Author: Joshua Gordon