Coach Guidance and Procedures for Bullying

Safesport Instructions that every coach completes during background check

Strategies for coaches when athletes report bullying behavior


In order to prevent bullying and protect children, laws and policies have been put into place, both at the state and local levels. Laws are in the state education codes, and model policies provide guidance to districts and schools. Each state addresses bullying differently. provides an interactive map, with the antibullying laws and policies each state uses: Coaches working outside of the school environment should refer to their club’s or organization’s policies and regulations.


Responding quickly, consistently and respectfully to bullying sends the message that bullying of any kind is not to be tolerated. Among the key steps to follow in response to witnessing bullying behavior are:


1. Make sure that everyone is safe and not in need of medical attention.

2. Listen and assure the athlete that any information reported will be treated seriously.

3. Intervene immediately by removing those involved from the situation. Ask for the help of another coach or adult if necessary.

4. Remain calm and model respectful behavior.  

5. Talk with each athlete separately, as well as witnesses. This way, you can evaluate what happened with the least amount of bias. 

6. Re-visit a team discussion on the definitions of bullying behavior and what to do in different witness scenarios.49

7. Reinforce the discussion by praising teammates for standing up to unacceptable behavior and reporting it to you.  

8. Check-in over time to make sure the behavior has stopped.

9. If you need additional support, seek help from a professional. A nurse, counselor, social worker, school psychologist, or other professional may have more expertise on bullying.50


Actions that support the target


Listening to the target and assuring them that you'll do everything you can to get them the help they need and relieve them from a painful situation.

Giving the target advice on what to do in the future. This could involve role playing or talking about how to handle bullying situations if they occur again.

Working together with the target and their parents to come up with a solution to protect them.51 


Actions that address the situation with the instigator 


Explaining how their behavior is considered bullying and why it is a problem for the target as well as the other athletes on the team.

Reminding them that bullying is taken seriously and will not be tolerated.

Working with the instigator to understand some of the reasons why he or she may have bullied. Try to get to the root of what caused the behavior: o Often, individuals act out because of issues at home. If this is the case, try to address with the parents or suggest a referral for professional help for the athlete. o Other reasons for bullying include: wanting to fit in, copying friends, or a feeling of superiority over the target. Many of these reasons stem from deeper issues. Those who demonstrate bullying behavior for these reasons should seek the help of a mental health professional as well. Listen to Justin reflecting on how a coach’s intervention could have made a difference in his behavior:


A person sitting on a couch

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We All Can Change: Justin discusses his past football experiences, and how he regrets bullying a teammate. Justin also talks about what could have helped him in order to change. 


Asking the instigator to make amends and repair the situation with the victim.

Reconsidering their position on the team, if the instigator is not willing to comply.52


Actions that are not helpful


1. Asking athletes to apologize on the spot. It is important to understand exactly what happened before making decisions about next steps.

2. Forgetting about the witnesses. Often times they encourage the bullying. Talk to them about what happened, and let them know that encouraging bullying behavior is not tolerated.

3. Making assumptions about those involved in the bullying. You may find that the perpetrator was actually retaliating.53


Recognizing bullying and taking action can greatly reduce the risk of individuals developing physical and mental health complications. Research confirms that brains develop over time and are influenced by an individual’s life experiences. Early intervention by a concerned coach can mitigate the harmful effects of bullying behavior.


Strategies for coaches who witness bullying behavior


If coaches remain calm and refrain from raising their voices, they show that they can control their emotions and teach athletes to do the same.

Find a place to talk to the instigator in private.

When confronting an athlete directly, coaches “I” messages are the most effective. “I” messages allow a coach to take ownership for their own feelings without putting the athlete on the defensive; they invite conversation rather than stop it.


“Hey – that’s not cool.” “I’m certain he does not want to be called that name.”  


“I’m telling you that is not how we speak to our teammates…are we clear?”


“I don’t find that funny, I’m surprised to hear you say that.”


“I understand that you are (frustrated, angry…) but it is not OK for you to (push, shove, threaten, verbally abuse) your teammates.


Consider what might be beneath the surface that is driving the negative behavior and assess the best way to address it. Is something happening at home? Did another athlete take over the starting position in his or her place? Rather than assigning blame, getting to the root of the problem remains the key to its prevention.

Refrain from labeling a child as a “bully.” The roles are complex and dynamic, with athletes potentially acting as targets, instigators and witnesses over the course of a given season. Labels have a tendency to endure and disregard the

fact that all children have the potential to learn and grow into responsible, caring citizens.

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