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date: 19 August 2017

Bullying in Sport and Performance Psychology

Summary and Keywords

Bullying is a growing problem in sport and performance settings. Bullying falls under the umbrella of “athlete maltreatment,” which includes any form of harm and all relationships where harm could occur in sport and performance. Specifically, bullying is defined as repeated hostile and deliberate behavior from one person (the perpetrator) to another (the target) with the intent to harm or threaten harm to the target; it is marked by an imbalance of power. Often, after extreme bullying, the target feels terrorized.

Athlete maltreatment in sport and performance has been categorized into one of two forms: relational maltreatment and nonrelational maltreatment. Bullying is a relational problem. In particular, sport and performance bullying can occur from coach to player, parent to player, or player to player, and often takes the form of (1) making unreasonable performance demands of the target, (2) repeated threats to restrict or remove the target’s privileges or opportunities, (3) screaming or yelling directed at the target that is unwarranted, (4) repeated and continual criticism of the target’s abilities, (5) discounting or denying the target’s accomplishments, (6) blaming the target for his or her mistakes, (7) threats of and/or actual physical violence toward the target, and (8) social media or e-mail messages with threats or insults toward the target.

Sport and performance organizations should develop and implement antibullying policies. Six potential steps toward policy development and implementation include: (1) defining bullying behaviors, (2) referring to existing “best-practice” bullying policies, (3) specifically outlining the reporting of bullying incidents, (4) outlining clearly investigation and disciplinary actions to be taken, (5) outlining specific assistance for bullying targets, and (6) including prevention and training procedures. In the meantime, coaches as well as parents and players can recognize that they are role models for everyone with whom they come into contact in sport and performance settings. Coaches, parents, and players can also accept responsibility for creating a respectful and safe sport and performance environment, have a pre-season meeting to discuss antibullying policy, foster open and honest communication, accept critical feedback, not engage or allow bullying behavior themselves, create acceptable boundaries between themselves and others, and teach players to trust their instincts when things do not feel right. More advanced bullying prevention and training procedures can then take place.

Keywords: athlete maltreatment, coach education, homophobia, cyberbullying, socioecological model

Bullying is a growing problem both within and outside of sport and performance settings. Varying definitions and measurements contribute to a range of reported prevalence rates (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014). However, recent U.S. statistics indicate that one out of every four children—from all races, classes, and ethnicities—is bullied (, 2016). Cyberbullying and child and teen bullying are also at their highest rate ever, with 43% of students reporting being bullied online (, 2016). In addition, 9 out of 10 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) children were bullied or harassed over the last year and over a third of those were assaulted in school; this is because LGBT students are perceived to be “different” from other students (, 2016). This article summarizes current definitions of bullying, interpersonal violence, and athlete maltreatment and then presents research that highlights the damaging effects that bullying can have on performers. Finally, the article offers steps that sport and performance organizations and personnel can take to create inclusive sport climates and to end bullying.

What are Bullying, Interpersonal Violence, and Athlete Maltreatment?

Bullying can be defined as repeated hostile and deliberate behavior from one person (the perpetrator) to another (the target) with the intent to harm or threaten harm to the target (Beaumont Children’s Hospital, 2016). There are several forms of bullying, including physical (e.g., hitting, kicking), verbal (e.g., threats, derogatory language), and social (e.g., exclusion, rumors) (Steinfeldt, Vaughan, LaFollette, & Steinfeldt, 2012). Bullying can also include emotional abuse, which involves harmful behaviors that are noncontact (Stirling & Kerr, 2014); in addition, perpetrators will often use coercion, where the target feels pressured and intimidated to behave in a certain way because of the perpetrator’s threats (, 2016). After extreme bullying, the target often feels terrorized (Swearer, Espelage, & Napolitano, 2009; see Table 1.

Table 1. Selected Types of Bullying

Type of Bullying



  • social media or e-mail messages with threats, insults, or rumors


  • repeated jokes about one’s sexual orientation

  • name-calling (e.g., queer, fag)


  • physical intimidation (e.g., standing uncomfortably close, controlling space)

  • threats of and/or actual physical violence toward the target (e.g., hitting, kicking)


  • verbal intimidation, threats, derogatory language

  • blaming the target for his or her mistakes

  • discounting or denying the target’s accomplishments

  • repeated and continual criticism of the target’s abilities

  • screaming or yelling directed at the target that is unwarranted

  • repeated threats to restrict or remove the target’s privileges or opportunities (e.g., playing time)

  • making unreasonable performance demands of the target


  • exclusion from group (e.g., keeping teammate out of play by not passing the ball)

  • spreading rumors

  • shaming in front of others (e.g., belittling or critiquing performance/skills)

Note: Many types of bullying are overlapping and related.

Source: Adapted from Beaumont Children’s Hospital (2016), and Steinfeldt, Vaughan, LaFollette, and Steinfeldt (2012).

Bullying falls under the larger umbrella of interpersonal violence (, 2016) and is marked by an imbalance of power. Interpersonal violence happens when one person deploys control and power over another via emotional, physical, or sexual actions or threats, isolation, economic control, or other coercive behavior (, 2016). Bullying is just one type of interpersonal violence; other types include gang violence, youth violence, sexual violence, date/relationship violence, and abuse. Bullying behavior can also serve as a pathway to other forms of violence. For example, among middle school students, homophobic teasing increases the potential for subsequent sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence (Espelage, Basile, & Hamburger, 2012). Bullying can happen in multiple settings such as one’s home, school, neighborhood, workplace, on the Internet, or in sport. Bullying also falls under the umbrella of “athlete maltreatment” which includes any form of harm and all relationships where harm could occur in sport and performance (Sterling & Kerr, 2016). Athlete maltreatment in sport and performance has been categorized into one of two forms: relational maltreatment and nonrelational maltreatment (Sterling & Kerr, 2016). To be sure, bullying is a relational problem. In particular, sport and performance bullying can occur from coach to player, parent to player, player to player, or fan to player, either in person or via cyberbullying on social media outlets such as Snapchat, Facebook, or Twitter. Sport and performance bullying often takes the form of: (1) making unreasonable performance demands of the target, (2) repeated threats to restrict or remove the target’s privileges or opportunities, (3) screaming or yelling directed at the target that is unwarranted, (4) repeated and continual criticism of the target’s abilities, (5) discounting or denying the target’s accomplishments, (6) blaming the target for his/her mistakes, (7) threats of and/or actual physical violence toward the target, and (8) social media or e-mail messages with threats or insults toward the target (Beaumont Children’s Hospital, 2016).

Relational cyberbullying is also on the rise. According to the Cyber Bullying Research Center (, 2016a), this is because 95% of U.S. teens are online on their mobile devices, with roughly three quarters of them using the Internet. Johnson (2009) defined cyberbullying as “a means of indirect aggression in which peers use electronics to taunt, insult, threaten, harass, and/or intimidate a peer” (p. 1; see also Berger, 2007; Raskauskas & Stolz, 2007). It is called indirect or relational aggression due to the perpetrator’s purposeful action of inflicting harm on others via cyber manipulation through the use of aggressive, mean, or rude comments; spreading rumors; telling lies about; or teasing or making fun of others. It is basically relational aggression in the form of humiliating, repeated gossip via technology (e.g., picture or text messaging, instant messaging, web pages, etc.). Disturbing examples are online “slam books” and defaming websites (Johnson, 2009; Raskauskas & Stoltz, 2007). Anonymity and the ability to torment someone 24/7 is at the heart of cyber (Johnson, 2009). In addition, owing to reduced accountability, perpetrators of cyberbullying often feel invincible; thus, there are great difficulties associated with trying to handling cyberbullying whenever victims are experiencing it.

What Does the Research Say about Bullying in Sport?

Whereas the phenomenon of bullying in schools has received extensive scholarly attention (e.g., Espelage, 2014; Swearer & Hymel, 2015; Thornberg, 2015), research on bullying within sport participation is still relatively scarce (Evans, Adler, MacDonald, & Cote, 2016). Given the common use of intimidation, aggression, and violence as strategies in sport (Anderson, 2010; Coakley, 2016; Jones, Potrac, Cushion, & Ronglan, 2011; Stirling & Kerr, 2007), bullying and emotional abuse can be particularly insidious (Stirling & Kerr, 2014). In particular, serious concerns have been raised about coaches targeting athletes (Stirling & Kerr, 2007, 2010, 2014); in fact, much of the existing literature suggests that adolescent athletes themselves rarely engage in bullying (Evans, Adler, MacDonald, & Cote, 2016; Steinfeldt, Vaughan, LaFollette, & Steinfeldt, 2012; Volk & Lagzdins, 2009). However, when athletes bully each other, it appears that they are influenced by gender norms and significant others (e.g., peers, coaches).

Bullying by Athletes

In an exploratory survey study of 69 girls ages 12–15 years who were involved in Canadian club sports, Volk and Lagzdins (2009) found that the prevalence of bullying and victimization was two to three times higher than in a previous nationwide study on Canadian girls (e.g., in the previous season, 40% of the participants had been targets of bullying). Further, participants experienced bullying and victimization in school rather than in club sports. Volk and Lagzdins used Likert-type scale self-report questionnaires. Although this is a common method used in research examining bullying in school settings, the study’s population of “a medium-sized group of local, predominantly Caucasian, middle-class adolescent girls” imposed obvious limitations in terms of generalizability of the findings (p. 27). For subsequent studies, the researchers suggested the use of larger and more diverse sample sizes as well as studies on male populations. Evans, Adler, MacDonald, and Cote (2016) followed this recommendation.

In a broader study of bullying in Canadian team sports, Evans et al. (2016) surveyed 359 adolescent athletes (64% female, average age 14.5 years) and found that the prevalence of bullying was relatively low; 14% of participants reported that in the months before data collection they had been targeted in sport compared to 30%who reported being targeted in school. The finding that bullying occurred less often in sport than in school confirmed Volk and Lagzdins’ (2009) earlier study. For their research, Evans et al. adapted the Health Behaviors in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey to develop the Bullying in Sport Questionnaire (BSQ). Although this approach allowed for comparison of results from studies on school populations, the authors noted that “bullying in sport may also involve distinct behaviors compared with school” and called for the development of a sport-specific instrument (p. 302).

The experiences of eight young Canadian Aboriginal women in team sports was the subject of a study by Kentel and McHugh (2015) that revealed sport-specific bullying behaviors. The qualitative approach allowed the researches to understand meanings and definitions of bullying in sport from the adolescents’ perspective. As a rationale for their study, Kentel and McHugh noted that women and Aboriginal teenagers might be especially vulnerable to bullying. In addition, sport had previously been promoted as a means of mitigating social issues among Canadian Aboriginal youth. The researchers identified five main themes from the interviews: “(1) mean mugging, (2) sport specific, (3) happens all the time, (4) team bonding to address bullying, and (5) prevention through active coaches” (p. 370). The participants described a number of behaviors intended to make another person (teammate or opponent) feel worse about herself, which they called “mean mugging.” These behaviors ranged from gestures to taking pictures and sharing them online without permission. In the context of sport, specific behaviors included excluding someone from game play (e.g., by not passing the ball), gossiping about someone’s performance, and yelling at her in front of others. The participants felt that such behaviors were not unique to their team but were, in fact, common in sports; many stated that it “happens all the time” (p. 372). As potential remedies, the young women suggested the use of team-bonding activities to address bullying, which might increase empathy. They also stated that active coaching might prevent bullying by fostering open communication both among players and between coaches and players. Given that Kentel and McHugh’s study was delimited to female participants, examining gender differences in sport-specific bullying remains an important next step in the research process.

However, gender dynamics of sport bullying are complex. For example, when asked about their perceived relationships with others, male targets of bullying reported weaker peer connections, while male perpetrators reported weaker connections with coaches (Evans, Adler, MacDonald, & Cote, 2016). Steinfeldt, Vaughan, LaFollette, and Steinfeldt (2012) examined the role of masculinity and its relationship with moral atmosphere and bullying beliefs/behaviors among high school football players. Studying a population of 206 athletes, the researchers found that—contrary to popular depictions of football players as bullies—relatively few of the participants self-reported engaging in physical bullying (often, 1%; or always, 3%), relational cyberbullying (often, 2%; or always, 2%), or verbal bullying via physical threat (often, 2%; always, 2%). Homophobic social bullying was the most frequently self-reported behavior (often, 6%; always, 5%). Steinfeldt et al. used quantitative measures to assess the meanings of adolescent masculinity, moral functioning, moral atmosphere, and social desirability. Structural equation modeling indicated that social norms and moral atmosphere (e.g., peer influence, influential male figure) significantly predicted bullying. Specifically, the strongest predictor for bullying behavior “was the perception of whether the most influential male in a player’s life would approve of the bullying behavior” (p. 340). Overall, the lower the perceived moral atmosphere and the higher the conformity to hegemonic masculinity norms, the more likely a player was to perceive bullying as acceptable (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). The authors concluded that bullying prevention efforts should address the construction of masculine norms and include outreach to influential males (e.g., coaches, fathers, and brothers). They also suggested that high school football players could use their social status among peers to contribute to a school culture that rejects bullying. Therefore, future studies using qualitative interviewing in addition to detailed measurement tools to examine various types of bullying might shed additional light on the role of gender in sport-related bullying.

Bullying by Coaches

Whereas the prevalence of adolescent athlete bullying seems relatively low, abusive behavior by coaches appears to be a more pervasive problem. The power differential between coaches and athletes is likely to contribute to such a phenomenon. Studying emotional abuse in coach–athlete relationships based on semistructured interviews with 18 retired athletes, Stirling and Kerr (2014) found that emotional abuse is closely related to philosophies of athlete development. Based on the participants’ experiences, the researchers developed a developmental model. For example, following an introductory stage and the athlete-building commitment to the sport, coaches initially became emotionally abusive after the athlete reached a more competitive level and did not live up to the coach’s expectations. The experiences included “degrading comments, personal criticisms, threats, acts of humiliation, belittlement, and the silent treatment” (Stirling & Kerr, 2014, p. 123). The coach typically used these strategies in front of an audience of teammates, coaches, and/or parents, which added to the athlete’s humiliation and was meant to send a message to bystanders. The public performance of such bullying also differentiates it from sexual abuse, which occurs in secrecy. For most of the participants in the study, early experiences of coaching emotional abuse escalated into repeated occurrences with increased frequency and intensity. As Stirling and Kerr (2014) summarized:

A number of factors sustaining the emotionally abusive relations during this period of time were reported by the athletes, including the perceived necessity of the harmful coaching behaviors for athletic success, perceived benevolence of the coach, continued exposure to other athletes’ emotionally abusive experiences, a lack of intervention from third-party observers, and culturally accepted violence in the sport environment.

(p. 124)

The majority of those interviewed reported emotional abuse by a number of coaches throughout their athletic careers. Yet, postretirement, several of the participants did not hold a grudge against their former coaches and felt that the coaches acted in the best interest of the athletes. As a former female artistic gymnast noted, “To them it was just their job” (as quoted in Stirling & Kerr, 2014, p. 126).

Seeking to understand bullying behavior from the perspective of coaches, Stirling (2013) interviewed nine Canadian coaches (seven male, two female), five of whom shared that they had been emotionally abusive to athletes in the past either verbally (e.g., using demeaning comments) or nonverbally (e.g., dragging a player of the court, throwing equipment). When asked about the reasoning for the potentially harmful behavior, the coaches referenced both expressive (“spur of the moment” frustration) and instrumental (“athletes need to be accountable”) reasons (p. 629). The participants further rationalized that these coaching practices were “normal,” as they tended to be accepted by peers and athletes alike. The coaches also noted that they had been exposed to similar strategies in the past by their own coaches and colleagues.

Another theme from the interviews was the self-perceived “benevolence of the coach” (Stirling, 2013, p. 629) as coaches described themselves as caring for athletes as performers and persons. Many saw themselves in the role of a parent or mentor. This sense of care for the athletes—particularly when focusing on performance—and the closeness of the relationship contributed to the intensity of potentially harmful coaching behaviors. At the time of the study, all participants said they no longer used the described coaching strategies. As reasons for the change, coaches referenced a range of motivations and experiences from self-reflection about athlete well-being and effective coaching; these included becoming more aware of the harm inflicted and becoming more mature. Two of the participants also mentioned formal and informal coaching education as impetus for the development in their coaching style. At a practical level, these findings underscored the need to guide coaches in ongoing critical self-reflection and continued professional development, including a focus on emotional control (expressive), positive coaching strategies (instrumental), and systematic mentoring (modeling) (Stirling, 2013).

A Framework for Understanding Bullying in Sport

The previous discussion of existing research demonstrates that bullying in sport is a serious and complex phenomenon. Common elements between accounts of athletes and coaches include the normalization of abusive behavior in sport as well as the role of modeling and social learning. Thus, both macrolevel societal influences and microlevel interactions contribute to the behavior. Therefore, understanding these dynamics requires a comprehensive theoretical framework.

The Social Ecological Framework

Applying Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) ecological theory of human development to bullying, a social ecological approach “focuses on understanding how individual characteristics of children interact with environmental contexts or systems to promote or prevent victimization and perpetration” (Espelage, 2014, pp. 257–258). In recent years, the framework has widely been used to examine bullying, ranging from school settings (e.g., Espelage, 2014; Swearer & Hymel, 2015; Thornberg, 2015) to cyberspace (Cross et al., 2015). Using a social ecological framework to study sport-related bullying has great promise for both researchers and practitioners (Stirling & Kerr, 2014).

The social ecological framework is based on five environmental systems and their interactions. Researchers applying this framework have considered a number of microsystems whose interaction is described as the mesosystem (Espelage, 2014). At the microlevel, systems like peers, family, community, and educational institutions directly influence an individual’s development and behavior. Individual sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity) are also part of the microsystem. In addition to the micro-and mesosystem, the framework includes three more layers. According to (Espelage, 2014), “the exosystem is the social context with which the child does not have direct contact, but which affects him or her indirectly through the microsystem” (p. 258). The macrosystem refers to the broader cultural environment surrounding an individual, including a culture’s ideological, value, and belief systems. Finally, the chronosystem “includes consistency or change (e.g., historical or life events) of the individual and the environment over the life course” (p. 258). Analyzing the dynamics within and between the micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-, and chronosystems is a hallmark of the social-ecological framework.

The Social Ecological Framework Applied to Bullying in Sport

Etrapolating the work of Espelage (2014) to sport structures and settings, an example of a mesosystem is the interaction between family and sport (e.g., parental involvement a child’s sports club) or the interaction between athletic administrators and coaches. An example of the exosystem is coaches’ perceptions of the club’s environment and professional development opportunities regarding bullying and violence in sport. Although athletes do not have direct contact with such training for coaches (microsystem), the coaches’ perception of them indirectly influences athletes (exosystem). As part of the macrosystem, athletes, coaches, and parents are influenced by broader cultural factors, including hegemonic ideologies about gender, sexuality, or race that tend to marginalize other power minorities in sport. Finally, changes over time in coaching personnel (e.g., hiring, firing, retirement) and team structure (e.g., players leaving or joining a team) are part of the chronosystem, as well as sociohistorical events like Title IX in the United States (see Espelage, 2014).

Based on their research on former athletes, Stirling and Kerr (2014) proposed “an ecological transactional model of vulnerability to emotional abuse in the coach–athlete relationship” (p. 128). This model differentiated between ontological development, microsystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. The first element focused on the ontological development of the coach (intrarelational). Here, factors included (1) “unrealistic performance expectations,” (2) “poor anger management skills,” and (3) an “athlete development philosophy congruent with the use of corporal punishment” (p. 129). The last-named factor referred to the notion that both athletes and coaches might regard such coaching philosophy as an accepted and expected part of being a “good” coach.

The microsystem of the coach–athlete relationship included interrelational factors such as “significant time spent together,” “authority of the coach,” and “athlete’s trust in coach” (Stirling & Kerr, 2014, p. 129). Receiving occasional praise also added to the perceived benevolence of the coach. Aspects of the exosytem provided a broader social context that made the coach–athlete relationship more vulnerable to emotional abuse. These included “separation from family and peers,” “successful reputation of the coach,” and “lack of reporting measures/consequences” (p. 129). Participants also noted that, often, parents relinquished control to the coaches and, at times, failed to intervene even when told about the coach’s actions. These failures to act on the part of significant others added to the perceived legitimacy of the abusive behaviors.

The macrosystem included broader cultural beliefs and values contributing to the maltreatment. They consisted of “culturally accepted violence and aggression,” “media messages condoning abusive coaching practices,” and “performance-based values” (p. 129).

Overconformity and Bullying

Overconformity to dominant norms of the sport ethic (Coakley, 2016; Hughes & Coakley, 1991) can be part of a macrosystem that contributes to bullying. According to Coakley (2016), these norms include (a) unwavering dedication to the sports, (b) striving for distinction, (c) accepting risks and pain, and (d) overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of goals. When athletes and coaches overconform to those norms, they might be more prone to condone or support hazing and bullying behaviors (Coakley, 2016). In the case of hazing, a number of studies (e.g., Waldron & Kowalski, 2009; Waldron, Lynn, & Krane, 2011) have revealed evidence of hazing in sport rooted in deviant overconformity to team norms and the sport ethic.

Hazing can be defined as “a secret, private, interpersonal process that reaffirms a hierarchical status difference between incoming and existing group members” (Coakley, 2016, p. 119) and that “humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate” (Hoover, 1999, p. 8). In Waldron and Kowalski’s (2009) study, many athletes saw their participation in hazing as a means to preserve the cultural norms of sport (e.g., dedication to the team, accepting pain). Athletes who accept the norms of the sport ethic without critical thinking often do not classify hazing as deviant; instead, they see it as an expected part of team socialization. Some athletes in the study, however, began to exhibit ambiguous feelings toward hazing by questioning the effectiveness of the practice as a tool to build team cohesion (Waldron & Kowalski, 2009). However, although there are commonalities between hazing and bullying, there are important differences. For example, hazing typically stops once incoming individuals are initiated into the group, whereas bullying is an ongoing process. Further, although both processes are acts of power and reassert social hierarchy, hazing is aimed at eventually integrating individuals into a group while the purpose of bullying is to exclude targets from a group (Hernandez, 2015).

Examining overconformity to the sport ethic as part of the macrosystem of bullying has significant potential. For researchers, it opens new pathways to examining the behaviors of athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators. Addressing practitioners, Waldron and Kowalski (2009) concluded that “coaches, sport psychology consultants, and team leaders must create an environment where hazing behaviors are not acceptable and help athletes become empowered to speak out against hazing” (p. 300). The authors specifically suggested that sport psychology consultants could facilitate positive teambuilding activities and team discussions, reward players who take a stance against hazing, and help athletes develop identities beyond athletics. They could also employ similar strategies to help all stakeholders think critically about the sport ethic to ultimately combat bullying as well as hazing.

Homophobic Bullying in Sport

As part of the macrosystem of sport, homophobia also contributes to the maltreatment of straight and LGBT individuals (Anderson, 2010; Griffin, 1998). Brackenridge, Rivers, Gough, and Llewellyn (2007) were among the first to overtly link homophobic bullying to sexual violence and abuse in sport, even though homophobia research began in the 1990s (e.g., see Griffin, 1998). According to Brackenridge et al., sport is a major location for homophobic bullying. This type of sport bullying has severe personal and social consequences to those who experience it. Drawing upon Rivers’s (1997) paradigm, Brackenridge et al. (2007) set their discussion within a framework where sexual identities are viewed as “socially constructed, multiple and malleable, built upon the needs and understandings of the individual set with a cultural framework” (p. 122). Further, as they wrote: “Homophobic bullying is often found in environments where there is a failure to respond to attitudes, beliefs, or behaviours that denigrate or otherwise pathologise non-heterosexuals” (p. 123). Therefore, it is important to investigate homophobia as a social practice (Brackenridge et al., 2007).

While it is challenging to come up with a single definition of homophobic bullying, Brackenridge et al. (2007) use the UK children’s charity Kidscape’s (, 2004) definition as “any hostile or offensive action against lesbians, gay males or bisexuals or those perceived to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual” (p. 123). In addition, Brackenridge et al. suggest that three fundamental criteria must be met in order to determine what constitutes bullying (as well as victimization and harassment): (1) it has to be repeated; (2) it has to be deliberate; and (3) it has to be with the intention of harming its target (see p. 125). This can include joking about one’s sexual orientation, name-calling (e.g., queer, fag), caricaturing one’s social/sexual/physical features, psychological harassment, looking or staring, stealing one’s possessions, or using actual physical threats or violence (Brackenridge et al., 2007). It is also important to recognize that in order to understand the homophobic bully and his or her motivations, it is equally as important to understand “the cultural climate that is intolerant of sexual diversity” (p. 126).

In higher education, Gough (2002) has elaborated on the relationship between homophobic bullying and forms of hegemonic masculinity. In particular, Gough explored the discursive reproduction of homophobia and heterosexual masculinity. Of interest is whether this relationship holds true in the U.S. collegiate sport context. Oswalt and Vargas (2012) surveyed 289 Southern U.S. Division I collegiate coaches regarding their attitudes toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (52.4% male, 47.6% female; in addition, 73.6% of the sample coached female athletes). As Oswalt and Vargas suggested, coaches are crucial to investigate at this elite level because they play a “pivotal role in the climate of the team by determining whether prejudice and discrimination will be promoted, tolerated, or prohibited” (p. 120). Coaches were surveyed about their attitudes towards GLB individuals and their levels of heterosexism via three online scales: the Attitudes towards Lesbians and Gay Men-Short (ATLG-S; Herek, 1988), the Heterosexism Scale (Park, 2001), and the Attitudes Regarding Bisexuality Scale (ARBS; Mohr & Rochlen, 1999), as well as six demographic questions. All three instruments contained a five-point Likert scale ranging from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree); this means that coaches who held more negative attitudes toward GLB individuals and higher levels of heterosexism would most likely report lower scores. Results indicated that Division I coaches from the Southern United States had moderately positive attitudes toward GLB people and low levels of sexism; however, there was at least one homophobic coach who sent the researchers an e-mail stating: “I think being a homo is wrong. There is your survey” (p. 126). Of significance was the fact that gender of the coach and gender of the team coached significantly correlated with all of the scales with the exception of ARBS stability; that is, male coaches tended to report more negative behaviors and sexual prejudice toward GLB individuals than female coaches. In addition, mean scores for the ARBS-stability scale, which measures whether one thinks that bisexuality is a unique and stable sexual identity, were lower than the other scale findings. The authors concluded that this finding was not surprising, since many people think that bisexuality is an experimental or transition phase between being heterosexual and homosexual.

There were several limitations to Oswalt and Vargas’s study: they did not assess the coaches’ own sexual orientations; the survey instruments focused on general sexual orientation, and coaches were not asked to link these general survey items to their perceptions of the sexual orientations of their own players; and there was a low overall response rate (11.31%). These limitations are important to address in future research. However, in terms of practical applications, Oswalt and Vargas echoed and promoted Barber and Krane’s (2007) three reasons for why it is important to create a GLB-inclusive sporting environment: (1) it creates a climate where all are valued; (2) it creates an environment where youth sport participants can improve their health through physical activity; and (3) inclusive sport climates improve performance.

However, the dominant cultural climate of sport is both gender- and homo-negative (Brackenridge et al., 2007). As Brackenridge et al. (2007) noted, while there is a fair amount of sport homophobia research to date, it is “not directed specifically at homophobic bullying and its effects upon participation” (p. 132). The research that does exist points to the finding that homophobic bullying impacts males’ and females’ sport participation but in unique and distinctive ways (Brackenridge et al., 2007). More research needs to be conducted to determine how gender- and homo-negative attitudes, as well as homophobic bullying in sporting climates, impact individual performers.

What Can Sport Constituents Do to Develop and Implement Inclusive Sport Climates?

As a first step toward creating inclusive sporting climates, sport and performance organizations should develop and implement antibullying policies. There are six potential steps toward policy development and implementation: (1) defining bullying behaviors, (2) referring to existing “best-practice” bullying policies, (3) specifically outlining the reporting of bullying incidents, (4) outlining clearly investigation and disciplinary actions to be taken, (5) outlining specific assistance for bullying targets, and (6) including prevention and training procedures (Beaumont Children’s Hospital, 2016).

For example, organizational leaders can start by referring to other “best-practices” bullying policies and models. (2004) offers an online checklist for professionals who are attempting to write an antibullying policy for their group. The checklist includes the following items:

  • Position and values (two statements regarding the organization’s position on bullying and its overall mission)

  • Clarification of terms (definitions of bullying and cyberbullying, and clear examples of behavior as well as outcomes of being bullied)

  • Roles and responsibilities (reference to all school policies, key staff, roles, and responsibilities)

  • Cyberbullying (e-safety policy, and reporting and response procedures)

  • Sanctions and monitoring (reporting procedure and how various constituents are involved)

  • Early intervention and preventive methods (home–school agreement and communication policies)

  • Review and staff development (how and how often staff are trained and reviewed;, 2004).

In addition, the Cyber Bullying Research Center (, 2016) provides specific suggestions and fact sheets on how educators can promote a positive school climate. The steps include promoting awareness of all forms of bullying; cultivating open lines of communication; learning all students’ names; developing stakeholder relationships; and setting up anonymous reporting (, 2016b). The Cyber Bullying Research Center also describes behaviors to watch for that might indicate that youths are being cyber bullied: (1) they stop using their devices; (2) they seem jumpy or nervous around devices; (3) they appear reluctant to go to school or to be outside; (4) their mood is one of frustration, depression, or anger after using social media; (5) they withdraw from activities; and (6) they avoid talking about what they are doing online. On the other hand, young people may be perpetrating cyberbullying if (1) they hide their devices or switch screens quickly; (2) they use devices 24/7; (3) they become upset when told they can’t use devices; (4) they avoid talking about what they are doing on their devices; and/or (5) they have multiple online accounts (, 2016a).

In the meantime, coaches as well as parents and players can recognize that they are role models for everyone with whom they come into contact in sport and performance settings. Coaches, parents, and players can also accept responsibility for creating a respectful and safe sport and performance environment, have a pre-season meeting to discuss antibullying policy, foster open and honest communication, accept critical feedback, not engage or allow bullying behavior themselves, create acceptable boundaries between themselves and others, and teach players to trust their instincts when things do not feel right. More advanced bullying prevention and training procedures can then take place (Beaumont Children’s Hospital, 2016; Sterling & Kerr, 2016;, 2016).

Finally, it is important to recognize that when we are talking about player-to-player bullying, players may not often fit very neatly into the roles of “perpetrator/bully” and “target/victim.” In fact, as Swearer, Espelage, and Napolitano (2009) suggest:

it is commonplace for students to move along the roles of bully, victim, bully-victim, and bystander. We do not want to perpetuate the stereotype that some students should be labeled as ‘bullies’ and some as ‘victims’. We feel that this communicates that these behaviors are unchangeable and these terms oversimplify the complexity of the bullying dynamic. Therefore, we use the term bullying/victimization … and … bully/victim to talk about the students who both bully others and who are victimized themselves.

(p. 1)

Swearer, Espelage, and Napolitano (2009) also use a four-square model by The Respect for All Project (, 2016) to demonstrate how students move back and forth between bullying behavior, being an ally, being a target, and being a bystander. The good news is that because these roles are not fixed in personality traits, they can be learned and unlearned with appropriate training and education (see Table 2).

Table 2. What You Can Do: Selected Prevention and Intervention Measures





  • Be a role model;

  • Reinforce positive behaviors;

  • Communicate openly with all parties;

  • Discuss acceptable boundaries;

  • Co-facilitate pre-season meetings;

  • Attend practices and games;

  • Report bullying.

  • Trust your instincts;

  • You have a right to be treated respectfully;

  • Talk to someone you trust;

  • Call a bullying helpline;

  • Be confident;

  • Don’t reply to cyberbullying, but keep messages;

  • Understand bullying and its negative impact;

  • Don’t become a bystander: speak up, get help, don’t fight

  • Accept your responsibility to create a safe and respectful environment;

  • Don’t allow, condone, or ignore bullying;

  • Adopt best practices, antibullying policies, and reporting guidelines;

  • Communicate openly with all parties;

  • Examine your own behaviors;

  • Accept constructive feedback without becoming defensive;

  • Regard screening procedures, policies, and training as opportunities to become a part of the solution

  • Accept your responsibility to create a safe and respectful environment;

  • Don’t allow, condone, or ignore bullying;

  • Help develop ethical guidelines, policies, and practices;

  • Facilitate educational efforts;

  • Don’t become a bystander: listen, observe, speak up, refer victims to qualified professionals, and report

Source: Adapted from Beaumont Children’s Hospital (2016), and Fisher and Dzikus (2010).

Sport Psychology Consultants and Bullying

In terms of how sport psychology researchers and consultants can help decrease sport bullying, they can take a look at research conducted in the newly created field of cultural sport psychology (CSP; e.g., see Fisher, Roper, & Butryn, 2009; Ryba, Schinke, & Tenenbaum, 2010; Schinke & Hanrahan, 2009). Twelve general principles guide CSP researchers: (1) they are informed by theory; (2) they include an examination of power; (3) they focus on social justice; (4) they critically reflect on the identities of their participants; (5) they take sport seriously as a way to understand society; (6) they scrutinize issues of diversity and social difference; (7) they draw from a range of disciplines to explore how society works; (8) they understand that research is flexible and ever changing; (9) they are praxis-driven (e.g., they inextricably intertwine theory and practice); (10) they recognize that research is specific to particular locations and projects; (11) they never advocate for one person or one text as “the” canon; and (12) their work is always open to contestation (Wright, 2000). In North America, CSP scholars have explored who has power in certain sport contexts, how that power is negotiated and maintained, and what we can do to create social justice and change in particular performance contexts. In addition, CSP scholars have emphasized feminist, multicultural, queer, postmodern, and poststructuralist theoretical orientations in their work (Wright, 2000).

For example, emphasizing power and power dynamics, Fisher and Dzikus (2010) discussed the role of sport psychology consultants (SPCs) regarding bullying and hazing in sport teams; this article serves as an update of that chapter. In addition, Fisher, Butryn, and Roper (2003) have pointed out that SPCs should regard social identities such as class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality “not as simple categories, but as relations of power, as spaces where individuals negotiate for greater agency within the existing power structure” (p. 396). Given the role of power in abusive relationships between athletes, coaches, and parents, understanding power dynamics is of vital importance for SPCs whose work places them in a unique position to both observe and prevent maltreatment. SPCs often work with athletes and coaches one on one and can closely see interactions between athletes, coaches, and parents. In terms of prevention and intervention of maltreatment, this places SPCs in a distinct position (Fasting, Brackenridge, & Walseth, 2007; Leahy, 2008; Stirling & Kerr, 2010). As Stirling and Kerr (2010) noted, given the development of trust and rapport, SPCs might become a first point of contact when athletes disclose experiences of abuse; Stirling and Kerr (2010) surveyed 75 SPCs and found that 46.7% believed they had been in a consulting situation with an athlete who had been emotionally abused by a coach or parent.

Fisher and Dzikus (2010) also stated that many national and international professional organizations have ethical codes that stress the responsibilities of all members to guard the welfare of athletes. The International Society of Sport Psychology, for example, charges its members to “develop means by which athletes are protected against psychological and moral damage” (para. 3). Depending on their training, many SPCs will not be qualified to provide abuse counseling. The ethics code of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (n.d.), for example, emphasizes that its members “recognize the boundaries of their professional competencies and the limitations of their expertise” (para. 8). It is, however, the responsibility of many, if not all, SPCs to know how to identify and report abuse and how to refer individuals to qualified professionals for further help (Stirling & Kerr, 2010). Further, SPCs can use their professional expertise in helping sports organizations develop ethical guidelines, policies, and practices; SPCs could also facilitate educational efforts regarding maltreatment in sports and performance settings, including bullying (Stirling & Kerr, 2010).

Fisher and Dzikus (2010), however, warned that SPCs can also become part of the problem when they fail to report bullying and turn into bystanders. Given existing power structures, whistleblowers might perceive risks to speaking out (e.g., loss of job), but the consequences for not acting can be even more devastating to victims. For example, in the context of sexual abuse, Leahy (2015) defined the bystander effect as “a situation in which the victim perceives that others know about or suspected the . . . abuse but did nothing about it” (p. 120). For sexually abused athletes, the bystander effect has been found to add to long-term trauma (Leahy, 2015). Related to bullying, bystander apathy also victimizes targets and supports bullying behavior in classrooms (Kärnä, Voeten, Poskiparta, & Salmivalli, 2010). Further, confirming social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), bystander behavior that is perceived to reinforce or defend bullying behavior has been shown to significantly influence the frequency of bullying (Salmivalli, Voeten, & Poskiparta, 2011).

Exploratory research on bystander-focused programs engaging intercollegiate athletes in preventing and intervening in sexual violence has shown promising results (Moynihan, Banyard, Arnold, Eckstein, & Stapleton, 2010). An emphasis on encouraging bystanders to intervene parallels a trend toward bullying prevention efforts in schools (Espelage, 2014). Targeting bullying in sport and performance settings, SPCs and others could become change agents in leading similar efforts. Using first-person accounts of abuse survivors in sport (Dzikus, 2012; Owton, & Sparkes, 2015) can be powerful pedagogical resources for bullying-prevention and -intervention programs aimed at improving empathy (Espelage, Mebane, & Adams, 2004; Nickerson, Mele, & Princiotta, 2008). Although the relationships between empathy, bullying, and bystander behavior are complex, hearing and discussing personal survivor stories can help in “supporting and encouraging change at the individual and institutional level” as Owton and Sparkes concluded (p. 11). Based on a cultural sport psychology approach, SPCs could become an important puzzle piece in facilitating bullying-prevention and -intervention programs in sport.


Bullying in sport is a common and serious problem rooted in a complex interplay of micro- and macrolevel dynamics. All parties involved in sport have the ability to change the culture of sport and reduce harmful behaviors such as bullying. Given their specific training and opportunity to work directly with athletes and coaches, sport psychology consultants have particular skills and responsibilities to affect change. In this article, a number of practical suggestions for the prevention of and intervention in sport-related bullying have been provided. Individual efforts, however, will be more successful if they are part of a more comprehensive approach. Cultural sport psychology with its emphasis on power relations can be particularly meaningful in guiding researchers and practitioners; utilizing the social ecological framework is another analytical tool. As Stirling and Kerr (2014) concluded,

Although all of the preceding recommendations could individually aid in reducing an athlete’s vulnerability to emotional abuse in the coach–athlete relationship it is important to iterate that, just as these vulnerabilities do not occur in isolation of one another, prevention and intervention initiatives must also consider the transactional influences between each level of vulnerability.

(p. 133)

Building on comprehensive approaches to understanding and preventing bullying in sport has great promise for both theoretical and practical application. In addition, all members of sport psychology societies and organizations must realize that they have the ethical, moral, and professional responsibility to identify and report abuse in sport.


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