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Handling the "Mean Girl" Culture Within Sports

By Positive Coaching Alliance, 02/18/20, 11:45AM CST

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Here are 7 options you face when your child is faced with bullying on their team.

Should a parent ever step in to tell a coach about the negative behavior of a player on a team? On my daughter's 14U club volleyball team, there is a "mean girl" scenario occurring where one player talks behind the back of other players on the team denigrating their skill level. This girl makes these comments to another player on the team, who then goes on to tell the other players what was said about them. Our coach doesn't know this is occurring. My daughter has not let the other girl's comments affect her, because she knows what was said about her is not true. However, the comments are affecting the morale of the team, because the other teammates are pulling away from the "mean girl." It is getting to the point where players are saying they want to go to another club next season so they don't have to be on the team with this girl again. Is this just part of girls' sports culture, and we should just teach our daughters to rise above the comments? I haven't noticed this situation on my son's teams.

Response from PCA Trainer and Bully Expert, Randy Nathan

Thank you very much for reaching out to PCA regarding your question and concerns. Given the nature of your daughter’s situation and what you shared it makes complete sense to be concerned about the “mean girl” culture. The culture within sports often allows opportunities for behavior such as this to exist.

Prior to my response, I will ask you one question. If your daughter came home from school sharing information such as this, how would you handle it? What would you do? Parents often view the culture within sports through a different lens than school. Parents also struggle with this type of situation that occurs in school. On the one hand, parents’ want their son/daughter to be safe in school. They expect schools to protect their child(ren) and feel comforted knowing they are learning in a healthy and safe environment. Yet, when a child comes home with this same situation, parents often struggle with the same reasons their child(ren) struggle with telling an adult within the school. It comes down to FEAR. Fear of retaliation, fear it will make matters worse, fear that nothing will change, fear that it may be perceived poor family matters.

The behavior of the players on the team are dictated by the environment that is created by the coach. It starts at the top, and then trickles down to the players, and of course parents. It may seem like a helpless situation. However, the good news is you have several choices. First, review the mission and purpose of the Volleyball Clubs mission statement. Read the items that you received, what was shared, and whether or not negative behavior is addressed and what is expected from parents. Second, have an open and honest conversation with your daughter. It may not be an easy one, but given her age, she may be able to provide needed insight into her psyche – this is between the two of you. It may mean more to you, than it does to her.

You also mentioned the overall impact on the team. I encourage you to focus your priority on daughter, not the team. If she does share with you important thoughts into how this is impacting her, then you’ve provided a great learning opportunity for the two of you – mother and daughter. It will ultimately strengthen your relationship in the long run. Finally, having this type of open conversation, allows you necessary direction to what you may want to do next. I do caution you to trust your instincts as a mom following what you learn. For instance, if your daughter does open up about the negative behavior and the personal impact on her play, then tells you to please not say anything, that is a clear sign for parent involvement.

You also have very good option as this is a club team. I’m not certain where you live, but most towns and communities have several options to register their player for competitive athletics. Club sports is a business and that means clubs only exist if they have teams, players and parents willing to pay their fees. Therefore, you have the power to your advantage as a consumer. Now, it may very well be this club team is “the team” in town known for getting girls to play varsity in high school and connect them with college opportunities. If so, that adds unnecessary clutter to your decision. Therefore, I encourage you to take a few moments for two quick exercises. The first is to list all of the values you want your daughter to learn from sports and what is important for you to have her be a competitive athlete. Then brainstorm all of the goals you have for your daughter in volleyball at this time. Yes, values are different than goals. Once you complete the two lists, the circle the top three in each category. That way you will have the top three values and top three goals to serve as your guide in moving forward.

Here are some options you face at this time:

  1. Ignore everything and to nothing (yes this is an option)
  2. Go straight to the coach without talking with your daughter and provide the information you shared with me
  3. Talk with your daughter to determine what her values and goals are for playing club soccer, then compare them to use to see if they are in alignment. If they are, you can then decide next steps. If not, it provides you with an opportunity to discuss each of your values and goals about sports. I great learning opportunity.
  4. Go to the owner of the Club team directly and share with him your concerns – you can do so directly, or come up with a way to be anonymous.
  5. A “mean girl” culture is symptomatic to bullying. A bullying environment is created by an imbalance of power, either real or perceived. “Mean Girls” are very aware of that power imbalance and use it to their advantage. Therefore, when speaking with your daughter, ask questions as to whether there may other players and parents concerned. If so, there’s a tactic we discussion when standing up to bullying behavior (Upstanders) called swarming. It’s when several targets (youth or parents) stand up simultaneously to have the matter addressed
  6. Although no parent wants their child(ren) to experience any type of pain are hardships, this does provide a very important life experience for her to learn how to deal with, understand, and possibly stand up to individuals she was face in her future. I do not condone this type of behavior towards anyone, not even adults. However, as a parent, our goal is to provide our children with the best learning possibility to become strong independent individuals. Therefore, instead of focusing on what’s not in her control (the mean girl, coach, etc), you can help her learn what is in her control and how she can learn to start to deal with individuals such as this. This option is one of the most important decisions you can face – help empower her as well. Struggle is not a bad thing, pain can be an important educator. Once a person burns their hand on the stove, most choose not to do it again – because it hurts. A butterfly struggles significantly pushing out of the cocoon, but without that struggle the butterfly fails to gain the necessary strength to fly.
  7. Nearly any other choice you and your daughter can come up with. At PCA we focus on a very important coaching strategy with our coaches. It’s called the ELM Tree of Mastery. However, as a parent, this strategy is also very relevant. I have yet to meet a parent who does get overwhelmed or freaked out about not being the best parent possible to their child(ren). There is no users guide, blueprint or set of directions. Yet, ELM can be a good start for you to think about your approach and parenting skills. E represents Effort, L represents Learning, and M represents that Mistakes are okay. Given your willingness to reach out to PCA, it is clearly obvious you are making every effort possible. It further demonstrates the importance of learn as a parent. Finally, you are doing and being the best parent you know how to be. Regardless of what you choose, if you do believe you made a mistake – relax its okay. We parents mess up all the time. It’s part of our jobs. We literally have no idea what we are doing at times and simply take actions base on the love we have for our kids…and that’s more than enough.

Thank you for reaching out to PCA with this important situation and set of circumstances. Your daughter is fortunate to have a mother so in tune with what is important and what she needs from you. At the very worst, you will be able to find her a more suitable situation moving forward because you control the power in this decision. At the very best, you force a club program to become aware of bullying and require them to make changes and policies to help other young players. And most importantly, regardless of the outcome, you’ve provided an life experience for you to share with your daughter demonstrating your love, concern and support.

Good luck,

Coach Randy

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Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) develops BETTER ATHLETES, BETTER PEOPLE through resources for youth and high school sports coaches, parents, administrators and student-athletes. PCA has partnered with roughly 3,500 schools and youth sports organizations nationwide to deliver live group workshops, online courses and books by PCA Founder Jim Thompson that help those involved in youth and high school sports create a positive, character-building youth sports culture.

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