Bullying In Youth Hockey
Bullying is an unfortunate fact of life when it comes to many youth sports leagues, and youth hockey is no different. Hockey is a historically rough and tumble sport with a history of allowing for (and even encouraging) violent competition and aggression between players. As a result, bullying is often present within hockey leagues, leaving kids in youth hockey leagues vulnerable to its effects.
Bullying in youth hockey should be addressed through monitoring, team building activities, and zero-tolerance policies. Figuring out when bullying is occurring and directly confronting the players involved is the only way to stop bullying at its source. Not doing so can have a severe adverse effect on the emotional and mental well-being of players.
Bullying in youth hockey shows up in many forms and has many signs. Please keep reading to learn more about dealing with bullying in youth hockey and how to spot it when it rears its ugly head.
For many decades there was a prevailing attitude that “boys will be boys” and that aggression in contact sports such as football, rugby, and hockey was simply part of the sports experience. But there is no room for bullying in youth hockey or any other team sport.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no excuse for social ostracization and other forms of bullying in youth group activities. These behaviours are often a sign that kids are not being watched carefully enough by their elders in the sport, and there hasn’t been enough effort put forth to help the kids bond both on and off the ice.
Here are some of the reasons that it’s crucial to nip bullying in the bud:
- Bullying can have lasting impacts on a person’s life even beyond childhood: While bullying can be torture for a child, psychologists say that being bullied as a child also has massive negative impacts moving forward into adulthood, potentially leaving bullied adults with severe clinical depression or anxiety disorders. Being bullied as a child can also cause an adult to be unable to trust or bond with others and leave them vulnerable to substance abuse. (Source: PsyCom)
- Bullying takes the enjoyment out of the game: Being bullied in a youth sport can cause a person to have an aversion to interacting in group sporting activities for their entire life. This, in turn, can leave adults lacking healthy activities to participate in with others; it can also lead them to avoid all group sports and games in general.
- Verbal bullying can escalate quickly to physical or even sexual bullying: While name-calling, taunting, and other forms of verbal bullying on the ice may seem like high spirited hockey, verbal bullying can often escalate to physical and sexual bullying. As children grow up, even supposedly harmless forms of bullying like “hazing” can have deadly consequences. (Source: Vocal)
No matter what traditionalists might believe about how harmless bullying is, the reality is that science has proven; it is far from harmless. Not only can it have severe and adverse lasting effects on a person’s life as an adult, but it can also lead to rape and murder in its most extreme forms. Bullying is the cradle of hazing deaths and hate crimes.
The most common (and insidious) form of bullying in hockey is verbal bullying, also known as “chirping.” This practice is also known as “talking trash” or “smack talking” and is the verbal equivalent of sucker-punching an opponent on the ice. Chirping has long been an accepted form of communication between players on the ice. It has also been one of the primary motivators behind many fights on the ice.
Because chirping is accepted by many hockey players and coaches as part of the sport, it can lead to an atmosphere where verbal abuse toward other players on the same team and the opposing team becomes acceptable. This makes it difficult for coaches and parents to differentiate between playful or friendly chirping and chirping that is a cover for ingrained social ostracization and in-team bullying behaviours.
The biggest challenge with chirping in youth hockey is that many verbal taunts are passed out when players are out of earshot of either parents or coaches. This can make it difficult to determine when chirping occurs, much less what is being said and towards whom.
The primary way for coaches to fight back against a culture of verbal abuse in youth hockey is to have a “no chirping” policy on the ice and actually enforce it. While some might argue that this takes the “fun” out of the game, chirping is unsportsmanlike behaviour that often escalates to unnecessary aggression on the ice, and there’s no excuse for it.
Verbal bullying might be the most commonly found type of bullying in youth hockey, but other types of bullying show up in the sport, too. Here are a few types of bullying that parents, coaches, and players may encounter (Source: Peabody Youth Hockey):
- Emotional bullying: Emotional bullying can be difficult to pinpoint and can be as simple as excluding one of the players on a team from social activities outside of practice or refusing to speak to them. This type of bullying isn’t violent, but it can be crushing to a player’s self-esteem to be mistreated by their teammates. Sensitive players can often be the target of bullying, as can players who have difficulty with social interactions, such as players on the autism spectrum.
- Physical bullying: Physical bullying is any bullying that escalates to physical contact such as slapping, throwing projectiles (such as pads or equipment), shoving, kicking, or any other physical fighting. Physical bullying is very serious since it can mean criminal and civil charges if a player gets injured in the process.
- Racist bullying: Racist bullying can occur in teams that consist of multiple ethnic groups and should never be tolerated. Coaches and parents should be vigilant in monitoring for racist behaviour since victims may be reluctant to speak out from fear of retaliation if they do.
- Homophobic bullying: Homophobic bullying can occur on any youth hockey team due to locker room name-calling and roughhousing, and openly gay students aren’t the only targets of homophobic bullying. This increases the general atmosphere of homophobia in the sport, which can be detrimental to the mental and emotional health of many players. It can also make players uncomfortable and tense in the locker room.
- Sexual bullying: In some extreme cases, physical bullying and verbal bullying can escalate to sexual bullying, where a player is forced to perform sexual acts, has sexually-charged insults lobbed at them, or is sexually assaulted by other players on their team. Sexual bullying can occur in places that players are vulnerable to sexual assault, such as showers and locker rooms.
As you can see, many different kinds of bullying may show up in a youth hockey league, and all of them are damaging. It’s up to parents, coaches, and players to be mindful of the types of bullying that can occur and how they should be addressed if they do.
Player-on-player bullying can be some of the hardest bullying for coaches and parents to control. These are some of the reasons why it can be so hard to get a grasp on:
- Player-on-player bullying often takes the form of more subtle types of bullying, such as emotional bullying, social ostracization, and verbal abuse. These forms of bullying may seem relatively minor, and hockey players—a tough lot by reputation—may be very reluctant to report any instances of lesser bullying out of fear of making the social ostracization worse. Many may also think that this kind of bullying is “hazing” or a phase and eventually stops.
- Player-on-player bullying is often conducted out of the earshot and eye-line of coaches and parents. It’s difficult to control how players talk to each other on the ice or in the locker room unless the victim of bullying speaks up, someone overhearing the exchange reports it, or a coach happens to hear it. Combine this with the fact that players don’t usually want to “tell on” their teammates, and bullying can quickly escalate out of control.
- Player-on-player bullying can snowball quickly. What starts as a verbal exchange of abuse between two players may eventually lead to one of the players being shunned by every other member of the team, especially if the bullying is the result of some imagined slight out on the ice or poor performance in a game. If left unchecked, an argument between two players can quickly involve other players on the team, too, as teammates tend to take sides.
- Players may not naturally interact much between practice sessions or games. Without efforts to build up team bonding off the ice, players’ relationships are relegated to a tense and aggressive environment that encourages verbal abuse and competition, rather than friendly interactions with each other. It’s up to coaches and parents to help foster the bonds of friendship between players when they’re not actively playing together.
- Players must be monitored carefully to catch bullying before it becomes severe. This means questioning players about any bullying behaviour behind closed doors and watching players carefully both on and off the ice to ensure that any signs of bullying are addressed as soon as they’re seen.
Bullying can get to the point that it causes depression and suicidal thoughts in the victim. Since adolescents are already vulnerable to these kinds of grim thoughts, they must be protected from peer abuse and given a safe environment to play in.
One of the biggest challenges with bullying in youth hockey is that bullying can sometimes come from the hockey coaches themselves. This is because the high levels of competition in youth hockey can bring out competitive aggression in many coaches, and they can lash out and verbally abuse their players when they lose their temper. (Source: Mom’s Team)
This is commonplace behaviour—to the point of the “angry coach” being a trope in fictional media—because, for many decades, this kind of bullying behaviour was deemed acceptable in coaches as long as their teams performed well. But modern society has come to know that bullying from coaches does not improve their teams’ performance. It actually serves to goad player-on-player bullying when player performance does not meet expectations.
The primary way to deal with bullying from youth hockey coaches is to make sure that both parents and coaches are on the same page with a zero-tolerance policy about bullying. Parents should also be vigilant about questioning their children about their coaches’ behaviour and reporting any inappropriate coaching behaviour to those in charge of the youth league.
Despite some “old school” hockey coaches’ attitudes, there is no room for verbal abuse on the ice.
There are many signs that both parents, coaches, and other well-meaning players should be on the lookout for when it comes to spotting bullying if it is occurring between players on a team.
Here are a few of the bullying signs that parents, coaches, and players should look out for:
- Verbal confirmation: Any admission from a player that they are dealing with bullying should be addressed immediately by parents, coaches, or players (if one player admits to another that they have been bullied). Not addressing the bullying as soon as it is brought up can lead victims to believe there is no point in reporting abusive behaviour, leaving them vulnerable to escalating abuse in the process.
- Social withdrawal: Social withdrawal from activities outside of hockey that the hockey player used to enjoy can be a sign of depression and anxiety. They can be symptoms of a bullying issue on the team. Parents should monitor social withdrawal and make inquiries if it seems that their child’s behaviour has changed.
- Not wanting to participate in team activities: Refusing to join in on team social activities that occur off the ice can be a sign of more subtle bullying, such as emotional bullying. When a player is led to believe that they aren’t one of the team, they will often detach socially to protect themselves from being shunned.
- Claims to be sick before practice or games: The dread of being exposed to bullying behaviour in the locker room or on the ice can lead players to become sick to their stomachs or show other physical symptoms of anxiety before they are expected to participate in those activities. If a hockey player seems to be coming down with stomach aches or other ailments right before practice or games, parents and coaches need to ask why.
- Unexplained injuries: Hockey can be a rough sport, but any unexplained injuries should be examined and addressed immediately by coaches and parents to determine that they were not deliberately inflicted in the locker room or on the ice.
- Wants to quit the team but will not say why: If a hockey player wants to quit the team but is elusive as to the reasons, this could point to emotional bullying or some other type of bullying within the team that occurs behind closed doors, such as in the locker room or showers.
- Damage to equipment or clothing: Like unexplained injuries, unexplained damage to clothing or equipment can signify that a player is experiencing physical bullying and attacks behind closed doors. Players will often try to hide signs of physical abuse to prevent causing a scene or getting their teammates in trouble.
- Lack of appetite, poor sleep: Lack of appetite and poor sleep can both be symptoms of depression in youth, and depression can often result from social ostracization and bullying. Parents should watch their children carefully for signs of depression and press them for causes if they see any to determine if bullying is occurring.
- Self-injury: Self-injury in children and teenagers is a serious sign of anxiety and depression, and if self-injurious behaviours are seen, then bullying definitely needs to be checked to see if it is triggering the action. Self-injury can also serve as a cry for help from those who are ashamed or afraid to speak up verbally about their abusers.
Some signs of bullying are obvious, while others are much harder to catch if coaches and parents aren’t actively seeking them out. Everyone needs to remain aware of the threat of bullying so that it can be addressed quickly if it does show up before permanent damage is caused.
One of the most effective ways to deal with bullying in youth hockey is to establish a zero-tolerance policy. This helps address bullying in several ways:
- It prevents coaches and more aggressive, dominant players from establishing a culture of bullying within the organization. Because of the intense nature of the game, an aggressive or domineering coach can easily foster an atmosphere of cutthroat competition on the team that can quickly lead to tension and bullying.
- It gives youth hockey leagues a strict and enforceable policy to enact when bullying occurs to prevent it from becoming a systemic disciplinary problem. Bullying is a serious problem, and concrete actions need to take place to correct it if it’s been reported. Lack of attention can lead to more serious consequences, such as player self-harm or suicide.
- Zero-tolerance policies for bullying in youth hockey bring bullying awareness to the forefront of these organizations and make both parents and coaches more culpable about watching out for signs of bullying and stopping it when it occurs.
Almost all youth hockey organizations have zero-tolerance policies on the books. Still, it is up to players, coaches, and parents to abide by and enforce these rules so that everybody on the team is happy and safe both on the ice and off it.
Social media and online bullying may not be as apparent as other forms of bullying in youth league hockey. These forms of bullying are becoming increasingly pervasive across all kinds of youth-based activities.
There are a few causes for this:
- Many social interactions online are anonymous. This allows online attackers to verbally or sexually abuse players through their social media platforms without fear of retribution. While a player may suspect that they know the people involved, this can be difficult to prove, making it even more challenging to report.
- Some social media apps are designed for short interactions. Apps like Snapchat are designed to erase messages soon after they’re sent, which means that there isn’t much to screenshot or prove when attacking bullying behaviour.
- Social media anonymity can increase cruel behaviour. Because the anonymity of the Internet protects them, some bullies can escalate verbal abuse way past the level that it would occur face-to-face. While bullies are naturally fearful of getting too aggressive with verbal abuse in a face-to-face interaction to avoid a physical fight, online bullies have no such qualms.
If bullying is discovered on social media, evidence of the bullying in the form of videos, screenshots, and other physical proof should be gathered and brought to the coach’s attention as well as the parents of the offending player. If this isn’t enough to stop bullying, then more forceful disciplinary actions should be taken.
It is important when parents, coaches, and players intervene in bullying to understand how to do it effectively. Unfortunately, as many kids have discovered, having adults intervene on your behalf in a bullying incident can sometimes make bullying behaviour even worse.
While zero-tolerance bullying policies means that bullying should be reported and adults should intervene, there are also other ways that adults can help to reduce incidences of bullying in youth hockey:
- No tolerance of crosstalk, smack talk, or “chirping” on the ice: This goes for both players on the same team and players of the opposing team. Not only does this kind of aggressive talk often lead to physical altercations on the ice, but the anger and resentment generated by this insulting behaviour can leak into the locker room as well.
- Coaches and parents should make players aware that they are available for reporting: Parents and coaches need to tell players that they should report bullying if they hear or see it. They should also openly encourage players to report bullying if they see it. A culture of anti-bullying should be actively cultivated in team sports.
- Coaches should coach with a positive attitude: Players will directly mirror the attitudes of coaches and other mentors. So, if they’re always being screamed at by a hockey coach, they will turn around and vent their frustrations out on weaker players. Coaches should do their best to foster good sportsmanship and friendliness on the ice through leading by example, not by showing out aggressively during games or practice.
- Coaches and parents should work to foster friendship off the ice: Most of the time, minor bullying, such as leaving some members of the team out, can be reduced or eliminated by making a point to encourage teammates to spend time with each other in a non-competitive environment. This can be accomplished by setting up pizza parties, sleepovers, and other fun bonding activities that let players get to know each other as individuals.
- Physical aggression on the ice shouldn’t be tolerated: While fighting in hockey is a time-honoured tradition, this is a tradition that is on its way out the door. The physical aggression that has historically shown up in hockey may be seen as an exciting thing to people who are watching the game. Still, the tension that arises from this kind of sports-based aggression can find deadly outlets in behaviours such as hazing or bullying.
In many ways, preventing bullying in youth hockey means looking at the subculture of hockey as a whole and how violence and aggression—even among teammates—is not only overlooked by parents and coaches but actively encouraged. While this may seem to spur on more aggressive or dominant players, this kind of attitude only serves to victimize hockey players who are more gentle or passive.
Hockey is a game, and there is no excuse for authority figures such as coaches or parents to perpetuate an atmosphere of aggression and fear in youth hockey.
Bullying is unfortunately associated with hockey just because of its rough and aggressive nature as a sport. Still, times are changing, and this kind of abusive behaviour is less acceptable both on the ice and in the locker room.
Stomping out bullying in youth hockey must be a concerted effort between players, coaches, and parents to be successful. Not only does this help protect the most vulnerable members of a team, but it can also instill a sense of sportsmanship and compassion in players for decades to come.