Last updated: 07 Jun 2017
Bullying in sport

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

As in most environments, bullying can and does happen in sport. Sports organisations play an important role in creating a positive club ethos that challenges it.

In a report about children's experiences of sport by the NSPCC (2011), children reported that while 2/3 of bullying behaviour occurred mainly between teammates and peers, 1/3 of those reporting it said coaches were involved, either directly by participating or indirectly by creating an ethos where such behaviour was condoned or not effectively dealt with.

These pages aim to help you ensure that everyone taking part in your sport respects each other and works together to stop bullying, whether it's in your sports setting our outside of it.

How common is bullying?

A study of school-aged children (2016) by the Department for Education found that:

  • 40% of young people were bullied in the last 12 months
  • 6% of all young people had experienced bullying behaviour daily and 9% between once a week and once a month
  • the most common form of bullying was name-calling (including via text and email) at 26%, followed by exclusion from social groups at 18%

The impact of bullying in sport

There are a number of different ways the emotional and sometimes physical harm associated with bullying can have an impact on a child’s enjoyment of sport and could prevent them from taking part. These can include:

  • being unable to take part in activities due to physical injury as a result of bullying
  • feeling pressured to perform or over-train due to criticism of a previous performance
  • not wanting to take part for fear of hurtful comments or bullying behaviour surrounding body image
  • experiencing poor wellbeing due to the stress of bullying happening either in or outside of their sport

In addition to the impact it has on individuals, retaliation and escalation of bullying behaviour is often also a risk and can draw other children in to the behaviour, impacting a whole team.

Further resources

  • see our anti-bullying resources by clicking on the tab above (or below, on mobile devices)
  • visit our resource library for more anti-bullying resources 

For children and young people

See Childline's Bullying pages for information and how to get help and support.

What is bullying?

What is bullying? 

During 2020/21, our Childline counsellors delivered 6,654 sessions about bullying*. This makes it one of the top 3 concerns (alongside mental and emotional health, and family relationships). 

Note: The terms 'child' and 'young person' describe any person under the age of 18. References to 'parents' should be read as parents and carers inclusively. 

Bullying is behaviour that hurts someone else – such as name-calling, hitting, pushing, spreading rumours, threatening or undermining someone.

It can happen anywhere – in a club, at school, at home or online (cyberbullying). It’s usually repeated over a long period of time and can hurt a child both physically and emotionally. Bullying behaviour can often stay confined to ‘bullying hotspots’, which are locations in a school, club or venue that might be more secluded or have fewer witnesses, such as changing rooms.

Research has found that bullying between children and young people involves much more complex dynamics and roles than the traditional view of bullying where there is a 'victim' and a 'bully'. Watch this video made by the Anti-Bullying Alliance for more information about the dynamics of bullying as a group behaviour.  

Examples of bullying

Bullying can take many forms including:

  • Physical – hitting, pushing, kicking or other physical assault
  • Verbal abuse – offensive name-calling, insults or gossiping
  • Non-verbal abuse – offensive hand signs or text messages
  • Racial, sexist or homophobic – racist remarks, sexist jokes or comments, or homophobic, transphobic or gender-related jokes or comments
  • Sexual – abusive sexualised name-calling, inappropriate and uninvited touching, or an inappropriate sexual proposition
  • Indirect – spreading nasty stories or rumours about someone, intimidation, exclusion from social groups, manipulating or constantly undermining someone

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

Bullying and disability

Children and young people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to bullying behaviour for a variety of reasons. Recent 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 outside contacts than non-disabled children, and perhaps having limited access to someone to disclose bullying to
  • an impaired capacity to resist, avoid or understand bullying
  • being viewed as a ‘safe target’ for people displaying bullying behaviour

If your sport is accessible to all, disabled young children could be more vulnerable than if participating in a disability sport, so it's important to consider creating a positive and accepting environment for all players. 

*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

Racist bullying is a form of bullying behaviour which focusses on race, ethnicity, or culture. This can include racist jokes (jokes about someone’s colour, nationality, race, or culture) or it can be calling a person offensive names, physical or verbal attacks or engaging in micro-aggressions.

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 mixed-race children and young people.

Racist bullying is often seen in the sporting world and in some cases has been widely reported on by the media. Some high-profile individuals such as Marcus Rashford MBE, Lewis Hamilton and Priyanaz Chatterji have all spoken out about experiencing various forms of 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 racist bullying on the Anti-Bullying alliance website.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying

Nearly half (45%) of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) young people reported being bullied for being LGBT at school according to a recent report by Stonewall

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

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 roles or 'norms'.

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 trans, even if this isn't the case. 

We've produced a briefing paper on homophobic bullying in youth sport, which offers guidance on how to support LGBT young people who have been subject to bullying of this kind. 

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


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 more direct, 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, with 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
  • sending explicit images, also known as 'sexting'
  • sending abusive text messages

For more information, take a look at the NSPCC pages on bullying and cyberbullying.

*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. 

More information about body image and bullying and be found on the BEAT website.

Related documents

How sports can address 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 to children and young people that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated, and that if someone is experiencing bullying they should tell an adult immediately. Let children know that if they report bullying they will be taken seriously and it will be acted upon. 

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. 

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, as some young people have committed suicide as a result of bullying
  • reassure the person experiencing bullying behaviour that you can be trusted and will help them, although you can'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 club's welfare or safeguarding officer or the school (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 to also revisit your codes of conduct and anti-bullying policy in an appropriate way.

Serious bullying and referrals

Most 'low level' bullying incidents will be dealt with at the time by coaches and volunteers informally but parents should still be informed.

However, if it persists despite efforts to deal with it, incidents should be referred to the designated welfare or safeguarding officer.

If bullying is severe – such as a serious assault – then statutory agencies may need to be contacted. 

Related documents


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

CPSU webinars

CPSU resources

Wider NSPCC resources

Other useful resources and websites

Further information for children and young people