Courtesy: Donna Hale
One of the most vital aspects of any team, whether it is high school, club, summer or the NCAA, is creating a culture of kindness and caring – no matter what the sport. Swimming is no exception.
We like to think this culture is woven in every team, but the harsh reality is this is not true. Bullying and hazing still happen in too many places. Coaches look the other way, are oblivious to it, or in the worst cases are participants. Many teams develop anti-bullying policies, but they are in name only. And too many athletes suffer and experience depression, anxiety, and in some cases the worst happens. Some consider suicide and others take their own lives. Many famous swimmers have written about their depression and self doubt. And team dynamics play a role in how athletes view their journeys.
Bullying happens on social media, in practices of all sports, and of course when certain teammates get together. Put bluntly: there is no justification and no defense. And it starts with coaches, extends to the captains, and of course applies to teammates. Bullying and hazing is wrong. The NCAA has taken tough stances on this as they should.
But what about the hidden cases of bullying where no one acts and it seems no one cares.? What about situations where bullies are rewarded? These situations are no less serious and downright sad. Bullying includes shaming, spreading rumors, and excluding teammates from the group. Often it is subtle, but causes painful anguish for the victims.
Research on this topic indicates that bullying is hard to stop once it is viewed as the norm or as even rewarded by the leadership. It becomes so embedded in the culture that it seems hopeless and without solution. There are solutions to this issue. Here are a few:
1. Start at the top. Every coach has to set an example every day. This means coaches always talk to swimmers and never about them. Being around this sport, I have seen this in action. It is sad and disheartening. Character, compassion, and building a culture of support should be at the top of every job description for coaches. Every swimmer deserves this.
2. Athlete expectations should be clear from the start. Bullying will not be tolerated. Period. If you are an athlete, no matter how much talent you possess nothing says loser louder than someone who bullies. Treating others with such disrespect demeans you, your team, and everyone around you. You succeed by building people up not by tearing them down. These are lessons in character that define you as both a person and athlete.
3. Develop and communicate a culture of positivity. Standing by and watching others being mistreated is wrong. Fear and mean-spirited behavior will impact performance. It destroys morale. Athletes must realize that they are part of something greater than themselves and act accordingly. My own daughter was taught at a young age to respect teammates and opponents. Always. You never know the hidden battles many are fighting. Being kind costs nothing and means everything.
4. Bonding matters so build this into every program whenever possible. This bonding should never be an afterthought, but at the core of a program. This matters as much as workouts and talent. Maybe more. Athletics should always be about character. Try to surround yourself with teammates who are role models of kindness. Set the example and live it.
5. Finally standout against bullying everyday. Speak up and speak out. Your support could literally mean everything to someone who is hurting. Honor your sport and yourself. Do not gossip. Do not let cliques harm your team culture. It is a tough thing to do. But one day you will look back and be glad how you will be remembered. Be able to look in the mirror and be proud of the reflection: a kind and supportive person to everyone.
Kindness matters all the days of your life. Be that person. You never know who you might inspire.
Donna Hale is 15 year swim mom veteran. Her daughter is a sophomore in NCAA.