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SIRC is pleased to be working together with Sport Canada to share current research on topics informing policy and promoting quality sport programming. This week we are sharing highlights of a recent article reviewing a research study evaluating SPORT PARTICIPATION’S ROLE IN BULLYING PREVENTION FOR YOUNG ABORIGINAL WOMEN.

“Mean mugging”: an exploration of young Aboriginal women’s experiences of bullying in team sports. Kentel, J. L., McHugh, T. F., & McHugh T, L. F. (2015). Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 37(4), 367-378.

SIRC Highlights from the research

Bullying is a serious concern within the youth population around the world. More than 50% of youth say that they have bullied or been bullied at school. Research also suggests that young women “suffer a wider range and more negative effects of bullying” and that “Aboriginal youth may be especially vulnerable to bullying”. In Canada, bullying rates among Aboriginal youth may exceed the national average. If sport is seen as a way to build positive youth development, then it is important to identify the experience of bullying in sport so that it does not mitigate this potential positive influence. While hazing in sport has been the focus of research it has been argued that hazing (intent to create cohesion and inclusion) and bullying (intent to create fragmentation and isolation) are different topics and thus there is a gap in the research around bullying. Further research has identified that young female athletes are 2-3 times more likely to have experienced bullying or victimization. This study looked to fill some of the gaps in the research by exploring young Aboriginal women’s experiences of bullying in team sports.

Eight young Aboriginal female basketball athletes between the ages of 14 and 18 living in Edmonton, Alberta were selected for this study. A qualitative descriptive study was undertaken and data collection was performed through one-on-one semistructured interviews and follow-up phone interviews. Content analysis was performed on the data and findings were presented under five themes: (1) mean mugging, (2) sport specific, (3) happens all the time, (4) team bonding to address bullying, and (5) prevention through active coaches. The first three themes represented the experiences of the participants including their definitions of bullying and how it occurs in sport. The second two themes “highlight the participants’ suggestions for various preventative and intervention strategies”.

Mean Mugging

Despite the variety of experiences of bullying shared by the participants one common goal of bullying was consistently identified, the intent to make others feel bad about themselves. The term used to represent this concept was ‘mean mugging’, the use of intimidating facial expressions to make someone feel bad. This was used within the team as well as with between different teams. This is one example is used to demonstrate that the participants’ understood the larger concept of bullying. The young women also recognized that repetition was a characteristic of bullying too. Bullying was also described as “bringing people down” or “emotionally hurting” others. These findings further the understanding of the meaning of bullying in team sports specifically for young Aboriginal women.

Sport Specific

Experiences of bullying specifically within the sport context emphasized the need to contextualize the concept of bullying. Participants identified specific instances such as not including teammates in play either in games or practices, name calling, getting mad at someone on the court, and rumormongering centred around individual player’s skills/abilities as bullying behaviours. This demonstrated to the authors that experiences of bullying in sport had a broad range, and while there were some examples that were consistent with more stereotypical bullying much of it was different from other contexts because it involved sport-specific behaviours. Some of the participants indicated that participation in sports was jeopardized by the experience of bullying in the sport context.

Happens all the Time

According to the young women bullying is a common occurrence in sport but may not be noticeable to all people even when it does occur. They also observed that bullying and behaviour on the court affects a person off the court as well in their everyday lives (home, school, etc.) and their relationships. These contributions confirmed a spillover effect that should be further explored.

Team Bonding to Address Bullying

Despite the admitted prevalence of bullying, the young Aboriginal women were optimistic that bullying in sport can and should be addressed. They identified team bonding as a key way to lessen bullying or protect the team from the impacts of bullying. Getting to know each other including the positive attributes and skills of each individual as an athlete would promote a sense of belonging and lessen the likelihood of conflicts arising. Participants also provided examples of team bonding experiences (sleepovers, rallies, fundraisers, special practices/drills, etc.) that would help promote positive feelings towards individual players and the team as a whole. Team bonding is also seen to have a positive impact on an individual’s enjoyment of sport. Two aspects that were identified as important to team bonding included communication and the need for the bonding experience to take place outside of the immediate sport experience (practices and games).

Prevention through Active Coaching

Participants described how important the role of the coach was in the prevention of bullying in sport. They indicated that having a coach who actively promotes communication and gets to know their players can “prevent or lessen bullying activity as a result of their familiarity and connection to players”. By supporting an environment of communication between coach and players, and between individual players, an active coach creates a welcoming environment that encourages team bonding. Active coaches are also described as being role models by setting the standard of acceptable behaviour, and by also intervening when bullying occurs.

Study limitations:

  • Some of the participants had difficulties speaking to their own immediate experiences of bullying and were more at ease talking about their observed experiences of bullying in sport in general.
  • While the depth of the research may be limited and bring into question the transferability of the results, the authors suggest that the richness of the content and resulting themes support transferability.
  • The method of data collection through interview may be limited through the participants’ potential difficulty putting their experiences into words. The authors suggest that using alternate methods of data generation such as photovoice may have been a more supportive method for sharing experiences.

Suggestions for future research:

  1. More in-depth research to provide insights into bullying in sport in general and in youth team sports in particular.
  2. Youth’s perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of published and/or accepted definitions of bullying.
  3. Acknowledging the high amount of changes occurring throughout adolescence, future research should investigate narrower age ranges of participants.
  4. Examining the amount of bullying actually taking place in sport.
  5. An exploration of the forms of bullying taking place in sport based on gender.
  6. How does the gender of the coach impact how bullying is perceived and addressed?
  7. An exploration of differences in bullying among various ethnic groups, which may also include culturally relevant bullying prevention and intervention.

In general, the findings in this study acknowledge the existence of bullying within the sport context and the need to address bullying in order to support positive youth development through sport. The results indicate that bullying can be very specific to the sport context and there are certain identifiable bullying behaviours in sport. This study provides a foundation for further research into the area of bullying in sport and bullying among Aboriginal youth. It takes a vital first step in increasing awareness of the existence and understanding of bullying in the experience of young Aboriginal women in sport and in sport in general. It suggests the importance of active coaching and team bonding in addressing the bullying that occurs in team sports. Further research is required.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.