At just 15 years old, Coco Gauff became the youngest woman to win a Women’s Tennis Association title since 2004 (and the youngest American to do so in 28 years) when she won Austria’s Linz Open on October 13, 2019. While your average 10th grader might not have Coco’s talent, she may have the same drive and passion. And she’s not alone: high school girls across the country are increasingly participating in sports.
We’ve all seen the news stories about the aftermath of hazing incidents, when alcohol abuse, humiliation and violent harassment have been inflicted in the name of “team building”. These stories are just a small sampling of a problem that seems to be epidemic in athletics at all levels, from rural high school programs to elite colleges and universities to world famous professional teams. Hazing, or targeting rookies for humiliating, and even dangerous, rituals, is not a new phenomenon. However, our focus on the prevalence of hazing is a new phenomenon, especially the impact at the high school level.
We all value the positive effects that playing sports can have on our kids – improved social skills, higher self-esteem, better mental and physical health, for starters. However it’s not all fun and games. Toxic and/or too-intense sports experiences have also been found to contribute to depression and anxiety in young athletes.
When my friend Howard checked the box on his son’s soccer registration form to volunteer as a coach, he’d never coached a sport at any level. He played soccer through elementary and high school, but was hardly an expert on the Xs and Os. So he figured he’d sign up as an assistant and learn the ropes under a more experienced head coach. But ready or not, here it came -- an email from the commissioner letting him know the recreation league was low on volunteers.
They needed him to be a head coach on his own.
The Aspen Institute held its fifth annual Project Play Summit earlier this month in Detroit, Michigan. I was lucky to join more than 500 thought leaders in the worlds of sports and health for two days of thought-provoking panels and breakout sessions. Panelists addressed many of the key issues in youth sports while also offering suggestions about how all of us can work to eliminate the negativity in our culture.
Bullying and hazing are serious, some say epidemic issues, year round. October is National Bullying Prevention Month; our opportunity to pause and focus on bullying and bullying prevention awareness. It's an opportunity to focus our attention to both the problems that cause so much harm -- and also the solutions that offer protection from trauma as well as opportunities to build resilience for individuals, families and communities.
Cyberbullying is more than a buzzword in the discussion about bullying. It's a serious and growing problem, and, to our horror, a major cause of suicide in young people who are victims of online harassment and intimidation.
Though the threat and dangers of online harassment is very real, so are the solutions. And these solutions are practical and simple to implement.
Kids see and experience bullying and, too often, never mention it to the adults in their life for many reasons. To create a culture that does not tolerate bullying, you need to teach your team members how to identify this toxic behavior and know how to stop it.
Whether you’re a coach or a parent, you should be prepared to recognize and respond to one of the most common forms of negative behavior associated with sports teams: bullying. Bullying is an issue in every part of our kids’ lives — from the locker rooms to home rooms to social media. And statistics show that more than half the time, kids don’t tell adults about bullying situations.
So, how can we help stop something when we don’t even know is happening?
Highlight Reel: Rather than seeing each other as competition, parents and coaches can work together to build a positive sports culture that benefits everyone on the team.
“Sorry, I’ve got to go deal with this parent.”
“I’ll be late – I have to handle this situation with the coach.”
Many parent/coach interactions fall under the label of “handling” or “dealing with” each other. And those word choices say a lot: These aren’t the words you use when you’re talking about something you’re excited to do. It’s a chore, it’s an annoyance, and the person you’re interacting with is a nuisance at best and the bane of your existence at worst. Luckily, the parent/coach relationship doesn’t have to be this way. It can be a productive, even positive, partnership if both sides are willing to consider their attitudes and behaviors toward each other.
Highlight reel: Some personal coaches are exceptional in every sense of the word, but some are toxic and untrained. Keeping the right perspective and setting realistic expectations are critical when choosing the right instruction. Follow these tips to find the person or group who will enhance -- not destroy -- your child's love of a sport.
Highlight reel: Kids play sports to learn skills and have fun. It’s important for coaches and ADs to lead with a positive mindset because too many teams are permeated with negativity, driven by unhealthy attitudes toward competition and overrun with internal conflict.
The solution is in your hands
One of the biggest opportunities to make a lasting change to our youth sports culture lies in the hands of the coaches and ADs. Your program’s and team’s culture is the expression of your shared values, attitudes, and goals. It determines whether your team members focus on: