Updated: Apr 19
Thank you for reading, liking, and commenting on our blog posts about youth soccer and youth sports. This post really hits home for our family as I'm sure it does for many parents and players out there. We certainly don't have all the answers when it comes to dealing with the mean kid(s) on the team but hope our experiences will inspire and encourage parents and players who are struggling with what to do when encountering these types of kids.
As our oldest daughter who played soccer and our youngest daughter who played tennis will testify, good and bad things come from encountering mean kids in sports and in school.
We talk here about their personal experiences in youth soccer and youth tennis as well as how it affected us as parents. We will also hear from one of our younger soccer players who gives his story about what happened when he encountered mean kids on his team, how he dealt with the situation, and what he learned in the process.
We will also delve into a parent's role in helping our players (and ourselves) when we encounter these frustrating and emotional situations. When should parents get involved or should we stay out of it and let the kids figure it out on their own? What we've learned is that every situation is different of course in terms of severity and sometimes you have to go with your gut on what's normal and acceptable. It can also be a case of safety. You can ask yourself...is this a normal, although emotional situation where it would be better for my child to figure this out on their own, or is it time for a parent to be involved? As coaches of youth soccer players, we believe that giving your youth players guidance on how to talk to their teammates and how to build camaraderie is best instead of talking to the mean kids on your child's behalf. It can also build a player's confidence to speak out on their own.
Coaches can also be a great intermediary if they set clear boundaries on what's acceptable on the team in terms of how players interact and deal with each other. However, if mean kids are allowed to run rampant on the team and create chaos without a coach's intervention, it may be prime time for parents to meet with the coach (who may choose to involve the mean kid's parents) to discuss viable options and potential solutions. Sometimes parents may ultimately decide to remove their players from a team which is creating more harm to the child's psyche than the overall physical and mental benefits of being on this particular team. As a sports organization, we highly recommend putting youth players on teams where the kids are having fun, even at the expense of being on the best, most competitive teams. Anson Dorrance, UNC Women's soccer coach, is well known to recommend that players follow the best coaches instead of chasing the best, more competitive teams. Sports are supposed to be fun but are your kids having fun playing?
According to Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., a psychologist with 25 years of experience and the author of, “Why Good Kids Act Cruel", the ages of 9-13 are a particularly vulnerable age for kids as they are striving to move from childhood to becoming more independent and therefore, creating their own social circles outside of their parents. As children try to build their own self-worth during these middle years of childhood some will resort to negating the self-worth of others and go on the attack so as to stake their own social place at school, the soccer field, or wherever groups of adolescents mingle. These middle school years are the prime time when athletes and students may experience bullying, harassment, and other forms of social cruelty from their peers. However, in our experience, this can also take place in the high school years and beyond.
Let's look at one of the toughest challenges my older daughter faced in youth soccer. She joined a new team and experienced bullying almost immediately when she tried to get playing time by working harder and being the best player she could be at soccer practice and on the field. One girl told her right away that this wasn't "her" soccer team because they'd already been playing together for some years and this girl wasn't even the main bully.
It was hard for me to believe that sometimes these athletes can be seen by others as nice kids. I remember talking to another soccer mom who knew a bully on my daughter's new soccer team. The verbal harassment and cruel teasing of my daughter by this girl were happening not only in soccer practices but even in games where she would yell at my daughter in frustration if all did not go as she wanted. This player even developed a posse of sorts where 2 of her other friends would also join in. The other kids on the team knew it was happening, but were too scared to intervene. We talked to the new coach and our daughter even talked to the players in question to try and reason with them, but nothing helped. Luckily these kids aged off the team in a couple of years. Should we have removed our daughter from the team and placed her on another team? Perhaps. Our daughter didn't want to give up because she'd seen similar experiences before and because this was the only ECNL team in the area. She thought it would get better. Should the coach have intervened? Definitely. He tried to help and even saw it happening, but in the end, he was more afraid of trying to remove the troublemakers and having to replace them than of us leaving the team. Sound familiar?
Imagine my amazement that same year when the soccer mom I mentioned above spoke of this main soccer bully in glorious terms. The mom praised the kid's kindness on their high school soccer team and said she was a wonderful mentor to her younger daughter who had just joined the high school soccer team as a freshman. What were we missing? Why was this kid so kind to others, yet she had singled our daughter out to vent her frustration? Was our teen doing something to aggravate her? Were we in the wrong? My daughter had tried multiple times to befriend this girl and soothe the tensions between them but the girl would not budge. I've had to content myself with the fact that we may never know the issues this girl had and hopefully, she has outgrown her bullying ways, but our daughter certainly learned from the experience. As an adult, she now realizes that this kind of behavior has to be nipped in the bud immediately. You can't start out slow. As she's gotten older, she won't tolerate this kind of treatment from anyone and will readily speak up if she sees others being mistreated or sees the beginnings of this kind of thing happening to her again. I've seen her play soccer against adult men and call them out if they are being disrespectful to her on the field. I like to believe that my daughter is a stronger person because she went through this on her own, made the decision to stay on this ECNL team as a junior, all the while knowing that we were there talking to the coaches and that we had her back. She had options in other words. She didn't have to stay on this team. She chose to and is a strong woman now.
According to Dr. Cletus R. Bulach, retired Ohio school superintendent, associate professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia, and co-author of the book "Creating a Culture for A High Performing School: A Comprehensive Approach to School Reform, Dropout Prevention, and Bullying Behavior", Dr. Bulach believes that a bully is using this behavior to exert one of life's basic needs which is control. By controlling their victim, the bully is fulfilling his/her own needs while depriving the victim of happiness and control over their own lives. He goes on to say that a team environment that encourages other players to look out for and discourage bullying behavior, is the best way to combat bullying on a sports team. If a coach establishes this team purpose from the start, bullying behavior will diminish because the other players will step in when they recognize it.
As I was writing this blog, I reached out to my daughter about other things she saw happening on the soccer field. She reminded me of players who would encourage her not to try too hard and this would stop the bullying. They told her she was singling herself out by working harder than the other players. But working harder and never giving up was what we had been teaching her all her life! How could she possibly not try hard anymore? Coach Mike of Captain Elite often tells our soccer players about how other players can be like "crabs in a tank by climbing on the backs of others to become great". We strive always to teach our soccer players to be true to themselves and to stick to the good habits their parents have taught them. Treat others with compassion and respect, work hard, be thankful, and you'll win in the end.
Now read the story below of young Miles who is learning these important lessons as a 10-year-old soccer player. Even though playing hasn't been easy, Miles is learning grit and that to get to the good stuff, you often have to get through the bad stuff first.
"So I started soccer at a young age but I played with xxx club for a while with a friend. One year later one of my coaches got me into All-Stars and then I joined. One time my coach told me to go get the team the winning goal so he put me at right wing (my fav place to be on the field) and I scored the goal!!!!!! It was the best day ever. Then like 2 years later I was on a new soccer team. It was a very good team, but the kids were not nice to me at all. The only thing that made it ok was my best friend from school was on my team and that was cool, but tryouts came, and I did not do well, so I was bumped down one level. Now I am in a better place than ever before. My friends on the team are so nice and I was able to score goals this season.
Speed touch was hard for me this week. Thank you so much Coach Mike!!! You have helped me so much!! I am a whole new player and I have learned to never let a mean person bother me. I feel more confident because of Captain Elite.--Miles G"
One thing that I have to say about Miles is that he's a kind and hard-working kid who never gives up. He's continually one of the grittiest kids training in our Captain Elite soccer programs and it's become important to him to train on his own. I personally believe that training on your own is a way to build the confidence in soccer that many players don't start out having. Lack of confidence in themselves is a comment that parents say about their youth players over and over. What got my own children through their difficult middle and high school years and gain the confidence they needed to become better players, students, and adults, was to learn how to train and study on their own. During this "alone" time, my youth athlete daughters were able to come up with their own solutions to problems and develop the inner fortitude that we could never have provided to them as their parents. In other words, no matter how much I wanted to take away the pain they were experiencing, I had to let them figure it out, while at the same time letting them know I was here for them and was willing to step in when necessary. We never put them in an unsafe situation that we didn't feel they could handle but we did let them confront bullies, whether those bullies were teammates, classmates, or even coaches. We encouraged them to tackle the issues head-on with these people, but to know when it was time to leave the situation and leave they sometimes did. Timing is everything.
But what is a parent to do when they find out that their child is being taunted beyond the normal realm of good sportsmanship on their soccer team, another sports team, or even in school? After you feel confident that your child has done all they can to remedy the bullying situation, you may start off by requesting a meeting with the coach/teacher and ask that the kid who is doing the bullying be present for that meeting with you and your player. That child's parents may also wish to attend. If the coach/teacher resists such a meeting then you'll have to decide if this is the right place for your child. You can also help your child look for friends on the team or in class, just like Miles did in the story above. Bullies tend to seek out others who are on their own and are easy targets such as new kids on a team (like my daughter was) or new kids in a class. Miles's friend likely was the sole reason he was able to tolerate the other kids who mistreated him. Make sure your kid is spending time outside their team with their teammates in a fun way outside of soccer. You will see how they interact together. Again, if this doesn't work, you may decide to explore other options such as changing teams or clubs.
For most parents, it's really hard to let a kid figure out their own problems. I remember dropping off my youngest at tennis and picking her up when she was in tears because she didn't play well or when the other kids were mean to her. I admit to encouraging her to leave that club and go to where the players would be nicer to her and sometimes we did. But I remember the time she stopped crying, looked me in the eyes, and said, "I can't let them win Mommy. I have to stand up to them and show them that they don't scare me." Wow! Now I look back and realize what strong girls we raised by just being there for them when they needed us and only stepping in when it was necessary. My best hope is that you can do the same. As parents, keep them training on their own, learning to work hard and be gritty, treating others with respect, and being thankful for the tremendous opportunities you're providing for them and they will be great!
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