Inappropriate conduct and bullying in sports

In recent years, there have been a number of instances of inappropriate behaviour, discrimination and harassment in sports and exercise. The objective of FINCIS’ operations is to prevent inappropriate behaviour in sports in co-operation with other operators and to promote ethically sound sports culture.

Definitions of inappropriate behaviour and bullying

Inappropriate behaviour is a broad concept and may be understood to include, for example, various forms of discrimination, harassment, abuse and ill behaviour.  Bullying refers tointentional, repetitive and psychological or physical violence towards a specific individual. Bullying can include, for example, bad-mouthing, ridicule, commenting on social media, pushing and shoving, hitting or excluding someone from a group. A dispute between two equal persons or occasional attacks against random people do not constitute bullying. 

Inappropriate treatment occurs in sports

Several national studies indicate that bullying, harassment, discrimination and other inappropriate treatment experienced by children and young people is quite common in hobbies related to sports and exercise. 

The prevalence of inappropriate treatment in sports was observed in 2016, when the LIITU survey on sports behaviour among children and young people found that, after school and the internet, hobbies involving sports or exercise are the third most common place for bullying. This is a particularly worrying observation, since participation in sports activities is voluntary. Pupils and students cannot quit school, for example, the same way as they can stop going to their hobbies. 

Inappropriate behaviour and bullying in sports has only been investigated on a larger scale and in greater detail in recent years. According to the recreational survey conducted by the Finnish Youth Research Society in 2019, nearly one-third of children and young people have experienced discrimination, inappropriate behaviour or bullying in a sports-related hobby. Inappropriate behaviour and bullying has also been observed in FINCIS’ surveys. More extensive research data is required on this subject. A statement released by the National Sports Council in 2020 also notes that the knowledge base on discrimination, harassment and inappropriate behaviour in sports and exercise should be expanded.

Manifestation of bullying

The most common forms of bullying are verbal, social and physical, in the order mentioned above. Physical bullying most often takes place at practice, after which the next most common places to be bullied are competitions and other environments.

Typically, bullying takes place in the locker room before practice. Children and young people rarely tell others about bullying. When they do, the most likely party they talk to is their parents. Coaches can also bully children and young people. Studies show that some coaches deliberately use psychological violence towards athletes as part of their coaching methods. This kind of authoritarian coaching style has traditionally been regarded as an acceptable way of coaching in sports and in the rest of society. As knowledge has increased, people have started to examine these practices more critically. 

Bullying in sports assumes different roles. It has been observed that the roles of the bully and the bullied in sports, for example, sometimes stem from similar roles at school. Heteronormative and homophobic mentalities are prevalent in sports and exercise activities, often resulting in bullying and discrimination, especially against minority groups.

Studies have also shown that a pro-bullying atmosphere is fuelled by the competitive nature of sports, limited supervision and unscheduled periods of time. The prevalence of bullying is difficult to measure due to conceptual challenges. In recent Finnish surveys, the prevalence of bullying has varied between 13% and 20%. From a sport-specific point of view, bullying occurs in all types of sports. However, it seems to occur somewhat more frequently in team sports compared to individual sports.

Bullying can be addressed and prevented

Bullying and other inappropriate behaviour can cause athletes to experience various physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioural, psychological and social symptoms. These symptoms also have a number of negative effects on the organisations in which they occur.

Bullying and inappropriate behaviour can be prevented and addressed by dismantling the masculine and heteronormative values of sports culture, instilling ethically sustainable values at an early stage of recreational activities, and investing in education, awareness raising and the creation of an open culture of discussion. In addition, these phenomena can be addressed, for example, by creating low-threshold tools and operating models for reporting and tackling inappropriate behaviour, by using role models and by increasing co-operation between different operators, such as schools and hobby organisations. Legislation also provides means of dealing with these phenomena.