Active Voice: Bullying in Sports

By David B. Coppel, Ph.D.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

David B. Coppel is a Professor at the University of Washington and Director of Neuropsychological Services and Research for the Seattle Sports Concussion Program. His research and clinical interests that especially relate to this commentary include sport psychology interventions, neuropsychological evaluations, psychological consultations with athletes, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Dr. Coppel is a longtime consulting neuropsychologist with the Seattle Seahawks and currently serves as a member of ACSM’s Clinical Sports Medicine Leadership Committee

Recent news stories regarding Miami Dolphins football players have generated debate and discussion, within and outside the sports community, regarding a wide range of issues. Based on available reports, issues have emerged ranging from concerns over the impact of hazing and/or bullying on players and teams, to what it means to be physically or mentally tough, to the role of team leaders and coaches in forming the team or locker room behavioral expectations. Does the sport or team culture (or subculture) play a role in creating expectations (or tolerances/allowances), and how does it respond to deviations from the norm? Further, questions arise about how teams (or players) perceive that other players will become tougher if a need is determined; what team environment provides the optimal conditions to grow in this area? As many coaches and teams have realized, one single approach may not fit all players as regards motivating, activating, or improving some sense of toughness. Each team or player may have different dimensions they look to regarding toughness; for some, it may be a sense of physical presence or action/reaction (“don’t back down”), for others, it may be a sense of resilience or perseverance in response to adversity, or the development of mental focus under pressure. The complicated concept of mental toughness is often thought of as a central piece in the work of sport psychologists with athletes. Mentally tough athletes are thought to be able to have positive responses and think in adaptive ways when faced with adversity.

Hazing or bullying behavior, or an environment that tolerates these actions, are harmful to the integrity of sports and can have lasting negative impact on athletes, and potentially their capacity to adapt. These are generally acts of power and control and victimization; hazing involves the loss of dignity and respect often under the guise of tradition or rite of passage to membership, with bullying often being a more targeted version of power imbalance and coercion. In either instance, these do not contribute to team-building and are not helpful in developing mental toughness. For some athletes, these acts can create fear and insecurity, even within a described “team” atmosphere. While some degree of adversity or struggle can help foster and develop coping strategies and strengths in individuals, and shared team experiences can promote bonding, teamwork and mutual respect, the actions that humiliate and threaten athletes do not.