Bullying doesn’t just happen to athletes. It has a profound and rippling impact across sports as a whole; impacting athletes, coaches, referees, families and communities. Defined as intentional and repetitive behavior, bullying requires an imbalance of power between the bully and their target.
Any time a group of people come together, like sport teams and organizations, there will always be some who feel it is their right to have power over others. While anyone can become a target, there are certain demographics more at risk:
Indigenous Communities and People of Colour
Lower Socioeconomic-Status Athletes
Athletes above or below skill level (ex. Elite Athletes)
During her interview on the Sporting Change Podcast, Lisa Dixon-Wells, founder and Executive Director of Dare to Care, identified that there is one group of athletes often overlooked and mislabeled — those with hidden challenges or disabilities. By this definition, Lisa is referring to neurodiverse athletes such as those who exhibit behaviors on the autism spectrum or with ADHD tendencies. This group of athletes will make-up anywhere from 10-15% of a sport team/organization.
At Dare to Care they have coined the term “Provocative Athletes” to describe these individuals. These athletes often provoke those around them (both teammates and coaches) who may become frustrated or irritated by their behaviour. The terms neurodiverse and provocative can be used interchangeably when referring to this group of athletes.
Common Characteristics of Neurodiverse & Provocative Athletes
Recognizing and identifying these behaviours is critical in offering athletes the support needed to be successful, early identification of bullying dynamics, and creating positive sport spaces. Lisa shares that clubs can work together to support, understand and protect these athletes which in turn will lead to strong bully prevention efforts in sports.
There are common characteristics shared by many of these athletes. For example, social skills can be problematic for provocative and neurodiverse athletes. Neurodiverse athletes may come across as awkward or annoying to others which can further alienate them from their teammates and coaches. Two of the most common social skills that these athletes often struggle with are personal space and reading social cues such as body language or tone of voice. That means they may struggle to identify how they come across to others, or as we know it, “reading the room”. Other social skills that may be lacking include interrupting, incessantly talking, speaking loudly, or making disruptive noises.
Sometimes (and unconsciously), those in positions of power begin to dismiss these individuals and label them as trouble-makers. Other athletes pick up on this subtle shift in energy and use this as an opportunity to start teasing, excluding or demonstrating bullying behaviours towards these neurodiverse teammates.
Provocative athletes often exhibit an overinflated sense of fairness. This means they might step in to help during conflict, however because they lack certain social skills, it can sometimes worsen an already sensitive situation. These athletes will stand-up for others; often putting themselves in the middle of a situation or redirecting a bullies attention onto themselves.
Getting to know these athletes one-on-one is a brilliant first step in bully prevention. Breaking the cycle starts with those in leadership positions, such as coaches, taking the time to connect with these athletes and reframing how they approach neurodiverse athletes. We must learn to have more patience, understanding and stop labeling them “bullies” or “trouble-makers”.
Coaching Strategies to Support Provocative & Neurodiverse Athletes
Once these behaviors have been identified and shared between the club and parents, both parties can step back and observe the athlete as they interact with others. Next, make a list of the social skills to be improved and prioritize the list from most to least important (work on one skill at a time).
2. Working with Guardians and Schools
The first tool is to work with the guardians and schools to create a strong support network. Social skills can be taught, so if parents can share helpful information with coaches and schools (and vice versa), clubs can begin reframing their understanding of the behaviour.
3. Working with Guardians and Schools
Neurodiverse individuals are visual learners, which means they interact better by seeing and experiencing, not hearing. Videotaping sessions (with the parent's permission) and role-playing are two ways provocative athletes can identify their own nuanced behavior and learn from it.
For example, if a child talks or asks a lot of questions during sessions, together you could come up with a timeout symbol to use as visual feedback when it is time for the athlete to quiet-down and listen.
4. Get creative
Every sports group has neurodiverse children who present differently. No two athletes are the same and creating a customized approach to set-up that athlete for success is critical. Two popular approaches include providing a printout of the workout schedule (which can be helpful for athletes who like to know what to expect) or limiting them to a set number of questions they can ask each practice.
Self-regulation is a common issue for neurodiverse athletes. Providing time and space for these athletes to calm down before the warm-up could be another great strategy. Incorporating a group breathing exercise before workouts can benefit any athlete. We encourage you to give “Hot Chocolate Breathing” a try with your team before next practice.
Imagine you’re holding a steaming cup of hot chocolate. Breathe in through your nose for three seconds to inhale the smell. Hold for a second. Now, exhale through your mouth for three seconds; blowing to cool down your hot chocolate. Repeat for five rounds as a collective team and you will notice an immediate energy shift.
Next steps for Coaches and Clubs to Better Support Provocative Athletes
These insights into fostering respect and support for neurodiverse athletes is just the tip of the iceberg. For more information tune in to the Sporting Change Podcast as they welcome Lisa Dixon-Wells, founder and Executive Director of Dare to Care. From fostering open dialogue to avoiding labels and creating safe spaces, Lisa provides invaluable guidance applicable to coaches at all levels. Head to the podcast to ensure you have all the tools to support and nurture a positive team environment.