One of the great lessons gained by participating in sports is learning how to overcome adversity. But sometimes the greatest adversity can come not on the ice from the opposing team, but in the locker room from teammates.
A bully can make life miserable for any teammate who is scapegoated, teased or ridiculed. Or a team’s rituals can cross the line into hazing. These acts call for vigilance on the part of parents, and, as always, it begins with a coach who’s tuned in to the issue and to his team.
“No drama.” That was always the number one locker room rule for Skaneateles, N.Y., High School Athletic Director Mike Major, who counts on his hockey team captains to help reinforce the strict no-bullying stance on and off the ice.
While captains serve an important mentoring role, it’s the coach who needs to monitor the pulse of the team, keeping an ear to the ground, on the bench and in the locker room to create an atmosphere of trust and respect.
“A coach needs to set up consequences for bullying and enforce them – even if it means benching or terminating the best player on his team,” says Dan Saferstein, team psychologist for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. “
Bullying doesn’t just hurt the victims of bullying. It weakens the entire team and creates a culture of fear and cowardice.”
Westchester County, N.Y., youth hockey coach Stacey Wierl believes coaches, players and parents sometimes have a hard time differentiating between a prank, a joke and bullying.
Wierl recalls a bullying incident with a Peewee skater, who was small and somewhat reserved, an easy target. His teammates threw his sneakers in the toilet. Swift action followed with the coaches suspending the players who were part of the “prank.” Once the suspensions were over, the coach hosted team dinners and fun off-ice sessions to create a strong team bond, which prevented any additional situations.
Social media is also a huge concern that can take bullying to another level.
“If bullying is happening in the locker room, you can almost guarantee it is happening via text, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook,” Wierl says. “Coaches must acknowledge this possibility and encourage parents to check phones and be aware of these dangers.”
For my daughter’s team, we assign a parent to collect all the phones before players go into the locker room, to cut down on the chances of a theft and inappropriate snapchats.
Bullying in athletics is real, and cuts across all levels. When not addressed, it can quickly cause its victims to loathe not just the harassment, but the sport itself.
“The scars of bullying can run deep,” says Saferstein, who encourages parent to be vigiliant to the signs and symptoms that their child is being subjected to bullying.
“I would do whatever it takes to empower your child and not let any bully poison his or her love for hockey.”
Christie Casciano Burns is a hockey mom in Syracuse, N.Y. She is also the author of two books, “The Puck Hog” and “Haunted Hockey in Lake Placid.”