Recognizing Subtle Bullying
Bullying is an aggressive act meant to keep other people down. So, to start, let’s look at two major types of aggression: physical and relational. Physical aggression, like pushing while waiting in line for drills, hazing in a locker room, or intimidation on the playground, is easier to recognize and stop immediately. The second type—relational aggression, (meant to lessen social status)—can be easy to miss. This type of aggression allows some bullies to remain hidden in plain sight.
Perhaps the most common forms of relational aggression are teasing and name-calling in a playful, “just kidding” manner. You might be surprised at how frequently this type of behavior is tolerated and even condoned by adults under the guise of “boys will be boys” or “that’s just how girls are.” A playful verbal jab at a basketball game, such as “Were you actually aiming for the basket?” might seem harmless. However, when one or two individuals are frequent targets, what appears on the surface as good-natured teasing can quickly become bullying. If the comment above is made to a competent player who just launched a half-court shot, then it’s funny. If the remark is directed at a player who is struggling to make shots and the jab is part of a pattern of pointing out deficiencies, then it’s an act of bullying.
A second common form of relational aggression involves limiting the target’s access to group activities, telling inside stories or jokes, or withholding desired resources (the good basketball, the yummy snacks, etc.). This type of aggression becomes bullying when certain individuals are consistently excluded, even in small matters. For example, never being invited to parties or gatherings that most of the class or team attends, or not being told the funny stories that happened there, gives the target the sense of being an outsider.
Presence = Prevention
What else can you do to prevent bullying? Consider the first time a group comes together at a class, practice, or other youth program. What do you typically do? Go over rules? Set boundaries and expectations? Sort the group by position, skill level, or experience? None of these approaches are necessarily wrong, as they do begin to establish a social hierarchy. But a first meeting can be a missed opportunity to define a culture that makes bullying less likely to occur. To avoid this, set up an environment with cooperative instead of competitive goals.
I can hear the groans. But I am not advocating a touchy-feely or everyone-has-to-get-the-same-trophy-for-everything approach! In fact, I encourage you to recognize and celebrate differences in youngsters’ skills and accomplishments. What I am advocating—and what can stop bullying from ever getting started—is establishing teams, classes, and groups where each individual is necessary to accomplish the major goals of the group. It’s a “we all sink, or we all swim” mentality that is rare in today’s world.
What I'm suggesting cannot be reduced to a single prescriptive set of instructions. It takes time and skill for adult leaders to know every member of the group well enough to tap their individual talents or skills. For example, the more skilled participants can mentor and coach those who are less experienced. Encourage the novice members of a group to demonstrate persistence and effort. Seek out the better communicators and ask them to monitor how the group interacts. Finally, use the most competitive participants to help inspire and motivate the entire group. If the group’s goal is that everyone needs to help their teammates improve, and that each player is responsible to ensure others have fun, then there won’t be a place for bullies.
If your program's culture is competitive, my proposed solution to hidden bullying will be new and challenging. But what organization doesn’t want to diminish relational aggression, boost fun, and increase return rates? Once staff members are trained to identify and deal with hidden bullying, you’ll be surprised by how much enjoyment, growth, and confidence participants will experience.