Are you an “UPSTANDER?”

Athletic teams are supposed to be a safe place where our children can learn some of life’s lessons. However, it is also a situation that can lend itself to bullying, hazing and harassment. Unfortunately I have seen these behaviors among the adults as well as the students involved in youth sports.

Power and control are key elements in sports, and are often distorted within communities. In some places Athletic Directors are more powerful than principals, and being on the winning football team can be more important than a student’s academic success. Are these the values that your community wants to support?

I have cringed at the behaviors of parent coaches, when I witness them harassing their own children. Sometimes these coaches bully kids, sometimes they bully other parents.  If the community allows these coaches to continue they are condoning bullying and thereby providing a model for bullying behaviors to flourish.

What can parents do?  If an individual parent questions the coach it is likely that their child will not make the travel team for the following season. Therefore parents cannot act alone. However, what they can and should do, is create a group of like-minded parents, who will band together to question the authority of the coach.

How? By discussing the inappropriate behaviors with the people who administer the youth program, since they are ultimately responsible. In other words, go to the coach’s “boss.”

It is important that parents question inappropriate behaviors of those in power, such as coaches. By doing so they are demonstrating “upstander behaviors.”

Upstanders are bystanders who stand up for what is right. We must teach our children how to act, as a group, in order to stop bullying.

The same kind of “upstander” behavior is necessary to stop hazing, which is alive and well and integrated into our culture. Sometimes communities do not even recognize the traditions that are part of hazing. For example, in many places Freshmen Friday is considered acceptable; when, in fact, it is a form of hazing.

Hazing is a process used by groups to maintain a pecking order or to discipline. Most coaches allow upper classman to continue a set of rituals that clearly identify new, usually younger members of the team. The freshmen typically carry the equipment to and from the field, they may carry the water, and in other ways they are marked as being subservient to their older teammates. The coach usually imbues a good deal of power to the captain, someone who has no training in how to manage a team, etc. Frequently, senior students abuse their power and encourage hazing and harassment.

Have you seen professional athletes from the Pirates, Steelers, or Penguins brag about their days as a rookie? National news coverage includes athletes who cross-dress or wear other embarrassing costumes. This is yet another way that the culture is transmitted to our children. When such events happen it is the job of the parents, coaches and athletic organizations to acknowledge that activities which are potentially humiliating, demeaning, degrading or physically harmful, are not to be endured. They are to be reported.

Breaking the code of silence, being a hero by standing up and reporting events which are planned, which are happening, or which have already occurred, is another vital step that parents can model, and teach their children. Again, safety is an issue. No one wants to be ostracized for being an upstander. That is why communities need to establish a 24/7 anonymous online reporting system. One that is appropriately monitored, and one in which the reports will be investigated in a professional manner.

Reporting is a behavior that parents can model at any time, since we are all bystanders. For example, when passing a car accident what do you do?

Do you drive by thinking, boy I am glad it wasn’t me. Do you call 911 to report it? Do you stop to help? When you do report a crisis you are modeling upstander behavior for your children. Such experiences can be the beginning of a dialogue you can have with your kids. One that ultimately teaches them to tell you, or a trusted adult, anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. You can extend the concept to actually reporting incidents to the appropriate authority. Praise your child for coming to you and reporting any concerns they have. Do not use phrases such as: “don’t be a tattle tale” or “don’t be a snitch.”

How can we break the cycle of bullying, hazing and harassment in youth sports?

  • Parents and coaches must be positive role models; both at home and on the field. 
  •  Parents need to teach their children to band together, as a group, in order to protect themselves and others. To question authority, such as being able to say, “no we will not allow you to bully or haze us…we will not participate.”
  • Parents and coaches need to teach students to break the code of silence, and to report any instances of bullying, hazing and harassment.  
  • The school system, police or community, needs to develop a 24/7 online reporting portal that can be used for any kind of threat that may occur in the lives of students and athletes.
  • A system to acknowledge and reward those individuals who are brave enough to report should be established, both within your home and within the community.

Dr. Susan Lipkins is one of the country’s foremost hazing and bullying experts. A psychologist for over twenty-five years, Lipkins specializes in conflict and violence in young adults, on teams and on campus.  In her book Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment and Humiliation Lipkins provides a practical primer on the hazing epidemic that is sweeping our nation.