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Challenges and opportunities in team sports for creating an environment in which kids thrive – Enda McGahern

Having being involved in both sport (as player & coach) and teaching Internet safety in schools for the past number of years, I’ve often pondered as to whether sport helps to build resilience against bullying or conversely, creates an environment where a child can actually become exposed to bullying?

Let’s take a step back.

What is bullying? According to Wikipedia, bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. Bullying can be divided into four basic types of abuse – emotional, verbal, physical and cyber. It typically involves subtle methods of coercion, such as intimidation.

Professor Sameer Hinduja, a renowned expert in bullying and cyberbullying, recommends involving children in sports or other extra-curricular activities to foster personal growth and team spirit and to give them opportunities to develop alternative support structures. Team sports are great at bringing young kids out of their shells, teaching them discipline, introducing them to people and making new friends, helping to build self-esteem and demonstrating how to work in a team environment in which they can improve their fitness and in turn their mental health. They expose kids to situations where they have to think or act in response to certain situations on the field.

But on the flipside, if not managed appropriately, there is a danger of creating a culture in team sports in which winning is everything. By creating an environment obsessed with success, with beating your opponents, with becoming ‘the best’, we may inadvertently create a culture of bullying.

In sporting organisations where people become coaches either as volunteers or paid, there is more responsibility being placed on their shoulders. It is important that clubs and coaches have the necessary skills to identify, mitigate and deal with bullying? Do they truly understand what bullying is? Do they turn a blind eye to it or say “don’t be a wimp, just get up and get on with it”. In the heat of the moment, would a coach harass or abuse a child? Do they shout at players for making mistakes, make fun of or isolate team members with limited skills or who come from a different ethnic background? Would they encourage their team to go out to deliberately hurt an opponent (physically or emotionally)?

Do coaches and parents show such disregard for match officials that it creates a “culture of hate” against the referee, even before the match starts?

Increased use of social media by children facilitates new forms of bullying. It is vital that sports clubs have appropriate policies and procedures to discourage bullying in all its forms, including through social media. This should include for instance the creation and sharing of video or photos in changing rooms and ensuring that coaches are adequately trained in how to identify bullying activity and to deal with it appropriately when it happens.

Most sporting organisations in Ireland carry out child vetting on their coaches, which is a good thing. They are also creating Code of Ethics programmes that must be adhered to by parents, children and coaches. This programme is generally overseen by a Child Protection Officer. It encourages parents to act and behave appropriately and to lead by example, that there is adequate supervision and kids are not left isolated with other kids or a coach. It stipulates the language that should be used during training sessions and to keep kids active during and in between drills. It also sets out guidelines for kids in how to behave during training and matches.

Sport has a huge part to play in building resilience and self-esteem and providing additional support structures. The onus is on all of us to ensure that as clubs and coaches, we create an environment in which children thrive, and that as a society we are making progress and “tackling” the problem of bullying once and for all.


CyberSafeKids is an Irish charity, which has been empowering children, parents, schools and businesses to navigate the online world in a safer and more responsible way since 2015.