On this episode of Champion in Every Corner, Judy French, from PACER joins us to discuss how bullying erodes team cohesion and how it impacts athlete’s mental health.
Disclaimer: This podcast episode features a guest who is not an employee of the United States Center for SafeSport. The opinions, recommendations, comments, or representations made by the podcast guest do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Center.
Welcome to Champion in Every Corner, the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s podcast. Building a safe and positive sports community is what we're all about. So, you'll hear from experts about innovative ideas and abuse prevention practices you can put in play today. Before we begin, be sure you know your obligations for reporting actual or suspected child abuse, and other abuse and misconduct. Ask a leader in your organization what policies and laws apply to you. This episode is hosted by Grace Glaser, Education Coordinator at the Center.
Grace Glaser (00:40):
On today's episode, we are excited to welcome Judy French from PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center to discuss how bullying impacts athlete well-being and team cohesion. Judy runs the Los Angeles office of the National Bullying Prevention Center where she has facilitated and presented workshops for many years throughout the country on communication skills, conflict resolution, relationship building leadership, and self-advocacy. Judy, welcome to Champion in Every Corner! We are so excited for you to join us today. Your background in this field is very wide reaching. So, can you talk a little bit about the work you do at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center?
Judy French (01:20):
Sure. Thank you for the opportunity to speak about bullying and bullying prevention. I really appreciate it. So PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center has been in existence since 2006, but we are a part of a larger nonprofit called PACER Center, Inc. And PACER was formed in 1977 to help parents of children with disabilities navigate the public school system and from there it grew into 30 different projects at PACER helping children with disabilities. The National Bullying Prevention Center is just one of those projects. And when we put intention behind working on bullying prevention, we decided that it would be for all children with disabilities without disabilities. So that's our mission is to really ensure that children can have a childhood free of bullying. And the work we do is to provide good research-based content and work with the community to make it a place where bullying doesn't happen.
Wow, that's incredible work. And I'm really looking forward to our conversation today and would like to enter it more from a prevention background, but maybe towards the end, I would love to circle back and hear more about the resources that you just mentioned. You know, you really have my wheels turning and I'm just really looking forward to this conversation today. So, thank you for being here.
<laugh> So, let's dive in. As you kind of mentioned that bullying can be a pretty broad range of actions. It can impact a lot of communities. So, can you please tell our listeners what bullying is?
Absolutely. And I always do that, no matter whom I'm speaking to, because there are so many different ideas and myths and misunderstandings about bullying out in the world. It's really important for all of us to be on the same page, starting with the definition. So here goes, and by the way, this is not a legal definition what I'm gonna give you right now. This is what we do is we take the best definitions out there and we take the common hallmarks and put them together into something that anybody could remember. So here we go: hurt or harm that is unwanted and usually repeated. Now the target of this hurt or harm really can't stop it and that's because they don't have the same amount of power as the person or group doing the bullying. What's important there is that there's hurt or harm that the target has not asked for.
They don't want it. They don't wanna be involved with it, and they really can't affect change with what's happening to them. If they could, believe me, they would. Targets would shut that down. But most often they cannot do anything about it. And it's not conflict. So it's important to remember that bullying and conflict are very different things. With conflict we want kids to gain skills and tools to understand, you know, how their actions can hurt others or how they need to repair a relationship or what a good relationship is. But with conflict, the people involved are on the same playing field. They have equal power. They're playing the same game, basically. With bullying, the person doing the bullying or the group doing the pulling has more power. They can do pretty much what they'd like to do and get some kind of reaction, even if it's being ignored, that gives them some satisfaction, but the people involved in a bullying situation do not have the same power, right?
The target does not have the same power. So that's, that's a good, short way of understanding what bullying is. And I bring up and I highlight that the target can't really stop it because very often a lot of the advice we give to targets is for them to do something like either ignore it or, as my father famously said to me, punch 'em in the nose and they'll never bother you again. And we tell the targets to do things in order to get the bullying stopped. And that just really doesn't work. So I wanna make sure that your listeners know that some of the advice we give is not always useful <laugh> to targets or to the kids who are doing the bullying.
Right. I think that's such an important call out. And I like the definition that you use, because that's a very digestible piece of knowledge that we can share with everyone. So I, I really like the foundation that you just laid for that. And then I noticed, as you were explaining, what bullying is, you use the word target pretty frequently.
So would you mind maybe elaborating on what a target is or who a target might be, and then who are common targets of bullying?
We're really careful with our language when we're talking about bullying. We don't, for instance, ever use the word bully as a noun or a label to put on someone, or we also don't use victim. So, in the place of a word like victim, we use target. So, the person who is targeted by the bullying behavior, but we never ever use the word bully, especially for a child who's in development and changing and growing. What we do is we change our language a little bit, to say, you know, the person doing the bullying, the group who is doing the bullying, because what we really want is for people to focus on the behavior of what's happening. So, that's just a little sidebar into the language we use. So, we do use target. It is a convenient way to refer to the person who is receiving this unwanted aggressive behavior.
Especially as adults, if we have the power to change our language, and we sure do, we should think really hard about the labels we put on kids who are still in development. So, in terms of common targets of bullying, one of the biggest risk factors for becoming a target is being someone who is socially isolated. Even having one friend is a bit of protection from being bullied. So, it's, it's often the children who either are isolated because they self isolate, you know, they don't know how to get into friendships or they've burned bridges, or it's a child who just hasn't been able to make friends. Those are the children, you know, they're alone and it makes it a lot easier for somebody to get in there with bad behavior and no witnesses. And also sometimes people who are socially isolated may perceive the attention that they're getting as something good.
So very often, children, for instance, who have a diagnosis of being on the autistic spectrum and they may never acquire the kind of social skills that is child without ASD might and so they don't interact well. That can be a risk factor. Sometimes it's hard, you know, for kids to have visible disabilities, the other children can perceive that there's something different. So, they understand there's a difference. But when there's something that you can't see, those children with the invisible disabilities can suffer greatly. So those are some of the most common targets, but sometimes you can't really, there's no guarantee for any of that. That even if you fall in those categories, that you would be sure to be bullied. Not at all, doesn't work like that. Sometimes it's kids that you would never think. They look like they have everything, and yet they're experiencing bullying. Because so much of kid world can happen outside of adult eyes, we really need to be keeping the lines of communication open with the children around you so that you can, you know, get clued in as to who could be vulnerable to be targeted.
Sure. That totally makes sense. And I appreciate that you talked about risk factors and kind of putting that into buckets, but also acknowledging that someone who is a target of bullying may not fit within one of those buckets. So just being aware of individuals that you're working with, the youth athletes that are within your purview, students in your classroom, and it really lends some good insight into what teachers coaches, parents should be aware of. So, kind of segueing into: how does bullying impact individual athletes? And, could you tell us about maybe some common signs and symptoms that an athlete might exhibit?
Often, because you know, the lines of communication might be a bit slow to activate where bullying’s a concern cuz kids who are being bullied have a lot of shame. Kids who are bullying may have shame as well around, you know, doing something that makes them a bad person. Everybody knows bullying's bad. Still, it happens. So, because there's a lot of shame attached to bullying, sometimes adults are the last to know. So, what you might see for a child who's targeted by bullying is that it presents like depression. So, they may look like they're depressed. They may stop wanting to do the things that they formally enjoyed. Like for instance, if they were good students and then all of a sudden, you know, the grades plummet, or they're just, they don't wanna go to school. They don't wanna go on the bus or, you know, for the sport that they love, they don't wanna go and do it.
They're sick. You know, all of a sudden there's a mysterious illness that crops up, changes in sleep, changes in eating. Again, it presents a lot like depression and we really want them to find an adult they trust and talk to them. And that could very well be a coach or a teacher, but may not be, you know, a parent as much as we might want that to happen. It may be somebody else. And so, you know, adults who work with children need to be prepared to get the harder stories because if you, if a child comes to you or you've noticed that all of a sudden their behavior has changed, you've gotta find a way in to get some of that information to help a child and, and to make sure that they're safe. So, the impact can be, it can manifest as physical maladies.
It can certainly be psychological stress because very often kids don't know why they've been chosen to be bullied or they've made a, or they've made up a reason why they're being bullied that is all about who they are. If only I didn't talk this way, if only I didn't walk this way, if only I was better at, you know, shooting the free throw or doing whatever my sport is, the target often will say something I'm doing and if I could change that, then I wouldn't be bullied. That's when you need to get a caring adult involved.
You know what? Side note, I'll talk a little bit about my sport experience growing up. You just made me think of something. So, I had a soccer coach growing up. He was my first club coach. So around that time, when you see the transition from athletes playing in rec leagues to moving into a more competitive environment and, you know, maybe some of those athletes have more fine tuned skills than others and the potential to lead into an environment where less skilled athletes could be bullied. However, I will say my coach always did such a good job of creating inclusive environments and like pointing out when individuals were improving, when they've been working hard at practice, supporting other teammates, it just made for a really positive environment. And it made me excited to show up to practice every single day, especially when it's this intimidating leap from more of a junior league to more of a senior league.
So, with that in mind, how can coaches play a role in preventing bullying and creating a positive team culture?
You've actually just said the thing. You know, you gave us a really good example. First of all, adults cannot abdicate their responsibility to set team culture. And so, what that means in terms of bullying or the prevention of bullying is that adults have to realize that bullying is real, but it is also a learned behavior and it doesn't have place in team culture, right? So that it's never okay. There's never a reason why it's okay to bully. And that for some adults is a big shift because a lot of adults are raised with this idea that bullying just happens in childhood. And if you get through it, you're gonna be tougher. As though like surviving, you know, the trauma of bullying, that's in and of itself is the goal. <laugh> You know, that's all we have to do is just survive. No.
No, not so much.
No, no, we don't want children to suffer. And by the way, for some kids, the effects of bullying will last forever. And we don't want that. We don't want that in our team culture. We don't want that for individuals, but trying to form a team means that all the parts need to work together. In my mind, it's always, it's a rowing metaphor, right? So, everyone has to be rowing in the same direction. Otherwise the boat doesn't go forward. And so, working with, you know, making a team cohere, come together as a group, you can't have the fractures that bullying can cause, right? So, the power dynamics have to be pretty balanced and your coach did a fabulous job. So, adults have to really, really buy into this idea that it isn't just what they say. So, it's not just those pep talks at half time.
It's what your coach modeled. So, it isn't just promoting it by talking about it. It's showing kids, here's how you lift up the members of the team that aren't doing so well. Here's how you constructively criticize when a child needs to step up or the energy just isn't there. And you need to say, Hey, Hey, be present and be in the room. You know, there are ways to do that, to set the tone and still be competitive. And what I find is, very often, the best coaches are ones who also admit when they don't know and when they're wrong and they recover, or they repair what they need to to get moving again in the forward direction. So, adults have to realize that if bullying is a learned behavior, then what else could we be teaching? How do we unlearn that? I think people don't realize that the way we learn social behavior is by watching others' social behavior. And so, it does very much matter what we do and the tone we set. So hopefully, you know, coaches, again, are encouraging their, uh, the team members to come to them with issues and that coaches don't take this as tattling, right? So what we tell the kids early on is tattling is what you do to get somebody in trouble. Telling is what you do to get help for yourself or for another person.
One thing that you talked about was how it might be difficult for an athlete to approach their coach and say, I'm concerned about X behavior. Do you have any recommendations for coaches who might be listening on how they can appropriately respond to that?
First of all, this is one of those instances where it's okay to sit there and, and listen to the story and not know exactly what you're going to do, but that you underscored to the child. Okay? You did not deserve the treatment that you're experiencing, or the other person doesn't deserve what's happening here. I'm gonna work on this. And that's a big message to give the kids - you're not alone. I know bullying makes you feel like you have no power, but that's not true. What we really wanna do, and this is the big thing for us at PACER is we want adults to go from a position of being an advocate, really trying to help, but we have to be careful, but then to also support the child's journey to become a self-advocate, because if bullying takes the power away, self-advocacy gives it back. And the way we do that is by encouraging them to tell us what they want to have happen.
Yeah. I hear you on that. And I like what you said about giving the power back to the individual who may have been harmed.
And everything that you've said today, Judy, is just so phenomenal and it's blended great insight for our listeners, for myself included. I feel like I just learned so much from this conversation with you today, and I'm really grateful you took the time out of your day to come record with us. This has been a great lesson.
Good. I would just urge any of your listeners to take a look at our three websites: pacer.org/bullying, pacerteensagainstbullying.org for middle and high school students and pacerkidsagainstbullying.org for elementary school.
Thank you so much, Judy, for your time. We really appreciate your valuable insight and I look forward to speaking with you again soon.
Thank you. Thank you very much for all that you do too.
One final important note information about or reasonable suspicion of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, must be immediately reported to law enforcement and the U.S. Center for SafeSport and individuals must comply with other applicable state or federal laws. Visit safesport.buzzsprout.com to hear more episodes and share them with a teammate coach or colleague, and feel free to share your own ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for all you do to give athletes a champion in every corner.