Last updated: 06 Nov 2023
Bullying in sport

Every child has the right to experience sport and activities in a safe environment, free from abuse and bullying.

As in many settings, bullying can and does happen in sport. All sports organisations have an important role to play in creating a positive culture that challenges bullying behaviour. 

These pages aim to help you develop an environment where participants, staff and volunteers respect each other and work together to stop bullying. 

Sports groups can also provide support when a child is experiencing bullying behaviours in other parts of their life, away from sport. 

How common is bullying?

A 2018 research paper (Department of Education) based on data from children of high school age, found that:

  • 30% were bullied in the last 12 months
  • the most common form of bullying was name calling at 15% followed by exclusion from social groups at 14%
  • online or cyberbullying accounted for 10% of the bullying experienced

An analysis of Childline data showed counsellors delivered 6,654 sessions about bullying during 2020/21.

This made bullying one of the top 3 concerns reported to Childline, alongside mental and emotional health and family relationships.

A report about children's experiences of sport by the NSPCC (2011) found that 2/3 of bullying behaviour occurred between peers. But 1/3 said coaches were involved either directly or by creating an ethos where such behaviour was not effectively dealt with.

The impact of bullying in sport

There are a number of ways that bullying behaviours can cause negative experiences of sport and ultimately reduce participation. 

These include:

  • children not wanting to take part to avoid hurtful comments or bullying behaviour 
  • being unable to take part due to physical injury as a result of bullying
  • feeling overwhelmed by pressure to perform or over-train due to previous criticism
  • experiencing poor mental wellbeing due to the stress of bullying 
  • avoiding changing areas due to bullying behaviours or comments about body image 

Bullying can also affect other members of a team or club who witness the behaviour. Other children can be drawn in to retaliation or escalation, impacting the whole group.

Research has found that bullying involves more complex dynamics and roles than the traditional view of bullying where there is a 'victim' and a 'bully'.

Watch the Anti-Bullying Alliance video about bullying as a group behaviour.

Note: We're using the terms 'child' and 'young person' to describe anyone under 18 and 'parents' to describe all carers.

About bullying

What is bullying? 

The Anti-Bullying Alliance's definition of bullying is:

"The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online." 

Bullying can happen anywhere – in a club, at school, at home or online (also called cyberbullying.)  Bullying behaviour is often more common in ‘bullying hotspots’ - locations in a club, venue or school that might be more secluded or have fewer witnesses, such as changing rooms.

Examples of bullying

Bullying behaviour can include:

  • physical – hitting, pushing, kicking, poking, biting, pinching 
  • verbal – name calling, insults, spreading rumours, belittling, sarcasm
  • emotional - threatening, humiliating, constant criticism, using hand gestures, excluding, isolating, manipulation, coercion 
  • sexual – abusive comments, unwanted physical contact, inappropriate touching, inappropriate sexual proposition
  • online or cyberbullying - many of the examples of bullying can take place online as well as in person. It also includes things like, sharing nude or inappropriate images, sexting, hoax calls 

Bullying based on a person's actual or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability can also be a hate crime. 

Bullying and disability

Children and young people with disabilities can be particularly vulnerable to bullying behaviour. Research suggests that they are twice as likely* as other children to experience persistent bullying.

These added risks for deaf or disabled children can include:

  • the increased likelihood of social isolation
  • having fewer contacts than non-disabled children which can mean limited access to someone to disclose bullying to
  • being unable to fully understand, resist or avoid bullying behaviour 
  • being viewed as a ‘safe target’ for people displaying bullying behaviour

For advice about creating an inclusive environment read our safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children advice.

*Source: Doubly disadvantaged? Bullying experiences among disabled children and young people in England. Stella Chatzitheochari, Samantha Parsons and Lucinda Platt. IoE (2014).

Racism in sport

Racism and racial bullying is a form of bullying behaviour which focuses on race, ethnicity, or culture. This can include racist jokes, using offensive names, physical or verbal attacks or engaging in micro-aggressions which are often indirect and subtle. 

While children from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities are not more likely to be bullied than other groups, the nature of the bulling can extend beyond the individual to impact the wider community. Groups more likely to be racially bullied are Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller, asylum seeker, refugee and children with a mixed ethnic background. 

Racial bullying is often seen in the sporting world and in some cases has been widely reported by the media. Some high-profile individuals such as Marcus Rashford MBE, Lewis Hamilton and Priyanaz Chatterji have spoken out about experiencing racism in relation to their sport.

In 2019/20 Childline delivered 547 counselling sessions where racist bullying, racism or being bullied for spiritual, cultural or religious reason were mentioned.

Find out more about racial bullying watch our Racism and safeguarding in sport webinar.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying

Nearly half (45%) of the young people identifying as LGBTQ+ reported being bullied at school according to a recent report by Stonewall

Homophobic bullying is where people are discriminated against and treated unfairly by other people because they are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Transphobic bullying is where people are discriminated against because their gender identity doesn't align with the sex they were assigned at birth or perhaps because they do not conform to stereotypical gender identities. 

Sometimes athletes witness homophobic or transphobic bullying but may be reluctant to report it in case the participants, coaches or other adults assume they are also homosexual, bisexual or transgender, even if this isn't the case.

See our topic page safeguarding LGBTQ+ young people for more information. 

*Source: The school report 2017. Stonewall (2017).

Online or cyberbullying 

Online or cyberbullying is a form of bullying behaviour that takes place on social media, in online games and through mobile phones. Cyberbullying can have just as much of an impact on children and young people as face-to-face bullying and is often harder to escape in the 24-hour online world.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the reduced social contact acted as a respite from bullying for some children. However, for many, the bullying moved online. Childline counselling sessions about online bullying increased by 25% compared to the year before*.

Some of these online behaviours include:

  • 'trolling' – sending upsetting messages through social media, chat rooms or online games
  • creating and sharing hurtful images or videos
  • sharing nude or semi-nude images sometimes called sexting
  • sending abusive text messages
  • hoax calls 

For more information, take a look at the NSPCC pages on bullying and cyberbullying and our advice about using digital platforms safely.

*Source: Anti-bullying advice and new insights from Childline NSPCC (2021).

Body image and bullying

Body image can be a risk factor in the development of eating disorders, sometimes stemming from throwaway comments from peers or coaches about a person’s size or body shape. Children who struggle with how they see and accept their bodies may be particularly vulnerable to comments, jokes and humiliation about their body. 

Some children may be taking part in sport as an approach to combating weight issues or eating disorders. Bullying can disrupt or even stop their participation, slowing their journey to a healthier lifestyle and enjoyment of physical activity. Such disruption can have a lasting affect into adulthood and prevent children from living an active, healthy lifestyle as adults too. 

Banter or bullying 

Banter is often passed off as being acceptable within a sports setting. However, where is the line between banter and bullying behaviour? Banter may not include all the same elements as bullying, but it doesn’t mean it is acceptable.

All language that is upsetting, offensive, threatening, abusive or violent should be challenged and dealt with appropriately. Just because someone uses certain language to refer to themselves, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s acceptable for them to use this language towards others. If you think something is banter or a joke, it doesn’t mean others will feel the same.

It’s important to have open communication with everyone involved in your club or activity around acceptable use of language and behaviour, this will help ensure that everyone is aware what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Information regarding use of inclusive language should be part of your clubs or activity’s codes of conduct and promoted across the organisation.

For further information on this topic, watch our Banter vs bullying in sport webinar.

Related documents

Addressing bullying

How to address and report bullying

To address bullying behaviour successfully, a 'whole club' approach that includes coaches, volunteers, officials, young people and parents is needed.

Sports clubs and organisations should create a culture that makes it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated. Let children know that if they report bullying they will be taken seriously and it will be acted on. 

Have a strong anti-bullying policy and reporting procedures

There are a number of policies and procedures that your club should have in place to address bullying, both in terms of prevention and response.

These include:

Policies should be regularly reviewed and updated. They should be read and understood by all members of staff and volunteers so that they’re aware of the action to take if a child is experiencing bullying behaviour. This could be achieved by including policies in a welcome or induction pack. 

The Anti-Bullying Alliance also suggests developing a shared definition of bullying to help everyone to identify bullying behaviour. 

How sports clubs can provide support

Actions to help the young person experiencing bullying behaviour and to prevent bullying in sport include:

  • take all signs of bullying seriously
  • help the person experiencing bullying behaviour to speak out
  • create a culture that encourages all children to speak out against bullying and share any concerns they may have
  • if you’re concerned that a young person may be at risk of self-harm seek professional help immediately
  • reassure the person experiencing bullying behaviour that you can be trusted and will help them - but don't promise to tell no one else
  • keep records of what is said (what happened, by whom, when)
  • report any concerns or allegations to the activity's designated safeguarding lead or organiser (or wherever the bullying is occurring) as per the anti-bullying policy

Dealing with bullying behaviour

Talk with the young person displaying bullying behaviour and explain the situation. You can try to get them to understand the consequences of their behaviour through a restorative approach by:

  • developing, maintaining and repairing positive relationships
  • helping young people learn and develop the skills to make good choices
  • enabling young people to recognise when they have harmed another person and how to put it right
  • encouraging young people to consider their feelings and the feelings of others
  • encouraging all children to consider the impact their behaviour has on others

There are some questions you might want to ask the young people in order to enable them to recognise their feelings and behaviour and choose a way forward:

  • Tell me what happened
  • What were you feeling that lead you to behave that way?
  • Who has been affected by your behaviour?
  • Can you tell me what that person may be feeling about your behaviour?
  • What do you think we need to do to make things right?  

Other actions to consider:

  • try to seek an apology from the person displaying bullying behaviour to the recipient
  • inform the parents of the person(s) displaying bullying behaviour so that they might talk to their child about the behaviour too
  • impose sanctions that are relevant and proportionate as necessary
  • hold meetings with the families to report on progress
  • keep a written record of action taken
  • review any learning from having to respond to bullying behaviour

You can encourage a shift in behaviour by developing a sense of shared concern for anyone who is experiencing bullying behaviour. It can help to be open with the whole team or club about their feelings about bullying behaviour and refer back to the codes of conduct and anti-bullying policy.

Serious bullying and referrals

Isolated and low-level incidents may be dealt with at the time by coaches or volunteers, and the parents informed.

However, if the bullying behaviour is repeated then all incidents should be referred to the designated safeguarding lead or organiser. 

If bullying is severe – such as a serious assault – then the designated safeguarding lead or organiser may need to liaise with statutory agencies. 

Related documents


Here are links to a variety of resources to combat bullying, whether it occurs within sport or off the playing field.

CPSU resources

Wider NSPCC resources

Other useful resources and websites

Further information for children and young people