Preventing bullying in sport

Last updated: 29 Apr 2024
Bullying in sport

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

As in many settings, bullying can and does happen in sport. All sport and activity providers have an important role to play in creating a positive culture that challenges bullying behaviour. This guidance will help your sports club or activity to develop an environment where everyone respects each other and works together to stop bullying.

Understanding bullying behaviour

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 virtually."

Bullying can involve people of any age and can take place anywhere; at home, school, sports club or activity, or whilst using online platforms, games or technologies (cyberbullying). Bullying can be more common in particular ‘hotspots’, these locations might be more secluded or have fewer witnesses, such as changing rooms or toilets.

How bullying behaviour may appear in your sport or activity

Bullying can include a range of different actions and behaviours; these could take place on their own or be combined and involve 2 individuals, a group of people, peers or spectators.

Possible bullying actions and behaviours

  • physical – hitting, pushing, kicking, poking, biting, pinching or any other sort of physical assault and unwanted physical contact or touching

  • verbal – abusive comments, name calling, insults, banter, spreading rumours, belittling, sarcasm and inappropriate sexual proposition
  • emotional - threatening, humiliating, undermining, constant criticism, using hand gestures, excluding, isolating, manipulation, coercion and excluding a child from a friendship group or activities

  • online or cyberbullying - sending threatening, upsetting, abusive or harassing messages via text or on social media, chat rooms or online games (trolling). Cyberbullying can also include creating and sharing embarrassing or malicious images or videos, excluding someone from an online games, hoax calls, voting against someone in an abusive poll, setting up hate groups, chats or sites about a particular individual and creating fake accounts, hijacking or stealing online identities to embarrass a young person or cause trouble using their name

For more information, take a look at our banter vs bullying webinar and the NSPCC Learning's protecting children from bullying and cyberbullying guidance.

Identity based bullying

Bullying can be based on any aspect of an individual’s characteristics such as a person's actual or perceived; gender, age, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or their appearance and mannerisms.

Racism or racial bullying in sport

Racism or racial bullying 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.

Children from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities are more likely to be bullied than other groups. This bullying can extend beyond the individual to impact the wider community and some groups are more likely to be racially bullied (including Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller, asylum seeker, refugee and children with a mixed ethnic background).

Racial bullying is often seen in sport and has been widely reported by the media featuring some high-profile individuals such as Marcus Rashford MBE, Sir Lewis Hamilton and Priyanaz Chatterji who have spoken out about experiencing racism in their chosen sports.

For further information visit Kick it out, an anti-racism sport campaign.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying

Homophobic bullying is discrimination against an individual, treating them unfairly because they are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Transphobic bullying is discrimination against an individual because their gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth or perhaps because they do not conform to stereotypical gender identities.

Coaches, officials, staff and volunteers should be aware of gender identity and how to recognise homophobic and transphobic language and behaviours. This language and behaviour should be avoided and challenged. It is also useful to include what language and behaviours are acceptable within your sport club or activities codes of conduct.

For further guidance, see our safeguarding LGBTQ+ young people.

Bullying, disability and neurodiversity

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 than children with no disabilities.

These added risks for d/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 talk to somebody about any worries or concerns
  • 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.

The impact of bullying

The impact of bullying in sport

Bullying behaviours can cause negative experiences for children and young people taking part in sport. It could lead to individuals:

  • not wanting to take part or attend at all to avoid hurtful comments or bullying behaviour
  • feeling overwhelmed by pressure to perform or over-train due to previous criticism from peers
  • experiencing poor mental wellbeing due to the stress of bullying (sadness, depression and anxiety)
  • avoiding changing areas, toilets or other quiet areas due to bullying behaviours or negative comments
  • having less online presence than usual on their social media and messaging channels, to avoid any negative comments, messages, and direct messages (DMs), leading to social exclusion

Bullying can affect other members of a team or club who witness this behaviour, others could be drawn into retaliation or escalation, which impacts the whole group.

For more information, take a look at our banter vs bullying in sport webinar.

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

The effects of bullying behaviour for bystanders

Bystanders may witness bullying behaviour but may not feel comfortable to challenge it directly, which in turn may affect the individual’s experience at your club or activity. You can have conversations with young people about how to challenge bullying behaviour to empower a bystander to feel confident to intervene and respond to any bullying.

The Anti-bullying Alliance has resources and guidance available to encourage bystanders to become defenders or 'upstanders' in bullying situations.

Challenging bullying behaviour

Challenging bullying behaviour

Many children and young people take part in some form of sport or physical activity, so while they are in your care it’s important that you’re creating a positive culture. It should be made clear that bullying will not be tolerated, and it will be challenged.

Sport and activity should be a place where young people can express themselves and feel able to tell someone if they have any worries or concerns. Your organisation may also provide support when a child is experiencing bullying in other parts of their life, away from sport.

For further information visit our who can support you or deal with a concern guidance. It would also be useful to promote Childline to all children and young people taking part in your club or activity.

Getting conversations about bullying started

Have open conversations with staff, volunteers, children, parents and carers about the following topics:

  • what bullying behaviour looks like
  • how bullying behaviour may appear in your sport or activity
  • the impact of bullying on the people involved
  • who to turn to for help and support
  • what to do if you witness bullying
  • how to report it

Visit NSPCC Learning for information on having difficult conversations with children.

Preventative actions

The environment or venue

Are there any areas where bullying might be more likely to take place? Such as pitch side, courtside, poolside, changing room, toilets, or secluded areas. You can take steps to make these areas safer, by outlining your organisations codes of conduct for everyone, and making sure staff do regular checks of quieter areas.

Your staff and volunteers

Are they alert to the dynamics of young people’s relationships? Consider what might be appropriate to prevent any situations that might escalate into bullying behaviour. This could include talking to children and young people in your sessions or having smaller group discussions.

Often bullying involves more complex dynamics and roles than the traditional view of bullying where there is a 'victim' and a 'bully’.

Addressing and reporting bullying

Addressing and reporting bullying

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

Your club or activity’s culture should make it clear that bullying behaviour will be taken seriously and acted on. Let everyone know the impact that bullying can have on the individuals involved, the wider team or club and how any concerns can be raised and managed.

Anti-bullying policy and reporting procedures

There are several policies and procedures that your club should have in place to address bullying, both in terms of prevention and response. These include:

Policies and procedures should be regularly reviewed and updated. These should be read and understood by all members of staff, volunteers, parents, carers, children, and young people, so everyone is aware of what action to take to challenge and respond to bullying behaviour.

Your club or activity could include your members when reviewing or updating your policies or codes of conducts. For further information on consultation with children and young people, visit our guidance on how to involve children and young people.

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

How you can provide support

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

  • take all signs of bullying seriously
  • help the individual experiencing bullying to speak out
  • create a culture that encourages all children to speak out against bullying and share any concerns they may have
  • reassure the individual experiencing bullying that you will help them - but don't promise that you won’t tell anyone else
  • keep records of what is said (what happened, by whom, when)
  • report any concerns or allegations to the designated safeguarding lead or organiser as per the anti-bullying policy
  • include your policies in a welcome or induction pack
  • if a young person has experienced bullying, consider the impact this may have on their mental health and wellbeing and seek professional help to support your club or activity

Dealing with bullying behaviour

Talk with the Individual displaying bullying behaviour and explain the situation. You can try and get them to understand the consequences of their behaviour 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

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

Escalating concerns and referrals

Isolated and lower level incidents may be dealt with at the time by coaches, officials or volunteers, and the parents. However, if the bullying behaviour is repeated, 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.


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