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Trauma-Informed Approach: What Drives Bullying Behaviors in Youth Sports?

When it comes to dealing with misbehavior on your team, it can be tempting to label kids as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and ‘bullies’ or ‘victims.’ But rarely is real life that simple, and more often than not, bullying behaviors are driven by a need that a child has that’s not being met.

Yes, you should step in to help the athlete who’s being antagonized by a teammate. But as a coach or a parent, you should also look beyond that specific incident to try to understand and ultimately root out bullying behaviors that exist within the team.

Nadia Kyba, MSW, TrueSport Expert and President of Now What Facilitation, explains how to talk about bullying and apply the ‘trauma-informed approach’ to bring your team closer together.

Take a trauma-informed approach

Based on her background in social work, Kyba recommends that coaches and parents address bullying behaviors through a trauma-informed approach, which focuses on an athlete’s background and the ‘why’ of their behaviors.

“It means thinking about what happened to a child, rather than what’s wrong with them,” she explains. “After an incident, think about why the athlete is exhibiting those behaviors. Think about them in the context of a whole person rather than just an athlete on a team.”

With this approach, you may be able to identify triggers behind misbehavior. “Usually kids who have experienced trauma have grown up in really unpredictable situations,” Kyba says. "One of the ways they establish predictability in their own lives is through bullying type behaviors.”

For example, having a practice go 15 minutes late may lead an athlete to act aggressively or talk back to the coach, but upon further inspection, you may realize that even something as small as an extended practice represents unpredictability and could trigger negative behaviors. Seek to understand, rather than to instantly punish. The better you can understand the needs of your athletes, the less behavioral issues you’re likely to encounter.

Get specific

“There are so many shades of bullying,” Kyba explains. “And it can be counterproductive to describe a kid who’s making fun of someone the same way you’d describe a kid who’s shoving a teammate up against lockers. When I hear that someone is bullying, I want to know the actual behaviors."

Breaking down behavior like this makes it easier to work through the problem with each athlete and create new rules for the team as a whole. “It leads toward actual conflict resolution instead of just punishing the kid,” Kyba notes. "You’re also removing the automatic stigma that comes with the label of ‘bully.’”

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Mental Health TrueSport