Bullying in Sports: The Definition Depends on Who You Ask

Author: Charles R. Bachand

Corresponding Author:
Charles R. Bachand, MS
112 Rock Lake Road
Longwood, Florida 32750

Charles Bachand is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Central Florida and an athletic coaching educator/lecturer.  

Bullying in Sports: The Definition Depends on Who You Ask

Research has been conducted regarding bullying in multiple fields of study for many years. The lack of a generally identified definition has limited not only the ability to compare research studies but the ability of organizations to promote rules and regulations consistently. The purpose of this literature review was to potentially find an existing definition that encompasses all aspects of bullying and if one was not identified, to create a comprehensive definition of bullying by using seminal definitions selected based on specific criterion. Methods used to identify these definitions included data base searches using key terms and criterion based in the subject area of education, medical, psychology, and sociology. Results show that there was no definition that included all ten coded indicators of bullying, which indicated there is no existing definition that fully identifies the action of bullying. The development of a complete definition of bullying was created using the coded indicators to assist in future research studies, data collection, coaching education, and the development of rules and regulations in athletic organizations as well as those organizations outside of athletics.

Keywords: coaching, education, athletics, organization, comprehensive, review

The effects of bullying have been studied extensively in recent years. The study of bullying has become an important aspect of discussion in not only athletics but across multiple areas. Researchers have attempted to not only conceptualize what bullying is, but to also create a definition that can be used in research studies. These definitions can be considered incomplete and potentially ineffective. The central issue is the validity of data and research related to bullying using such definitions.

The increased prevalence of bullying has been well documented. Bullying has been discussed in its present form since the late 1970s. Over this time, changes to the definitions used have evolved but in such a manner that they have the potential to misrepresent the complete view of bullying. Because of this misrepresentation, the details of bullying from the victims could be misunderstood as something other than bullying in research and allowing for underrepresentation of victims.

Schinnerer (2009) stated that a clear definition of bullying is somewhat elusive and for this reason makes it hard to quantify or measure. To be able to develop a clear picture of what bullying is, the broad range of behaviors in the conceptualization of bullying must be explained in detail (Elinoff, Chafouleas, & Sassu, 2004). These defining features are vague in nature and difficult to evaluate (Evans & Smokowski, 2016). However, it is not clear whether a definition can be modified to eliminate the broad range of behaviors or the vagueness of evaluations. These differences need to be analyzed to understand the potential issues related to these seminal definitions.

Prior research on bullying and the effects on athletes has been vast, but these studies were conducted using incomplete definitions and are therefore suspect. Any suggested interventions related to the protection of the victims become increasingly unreliable when findings cannot be compared to one another based on the use of definitions that are not directly comparable or leave out key aspects of bullying, which leads to confusion of not only researchers but organizations trying to develop regulations for the protection of athletes. Thus, no theory appears to have been developed regarding why a comprehensive definition has not been established in athletics to protect the athletes from this form of victimization.

Because of the lack of a universal definition the question remains, “How much has bullying in athletics actually increased or decreased?” The findings in studies related to athlete victimization connected directly to bullying need to be reanalyzed using a definition that is all inclusive or it should be reconducted using a standard definition. Hence, additional studies of bullying in athletics are needed to determine if the understanding of if the interventions being used by athletic organizations are working or if the definitions provided by these organizations have affected the results.
Of course, many individuals may disagree with the assertion that athletic organizations statistical data related to bullying will need to be reviewed. The researcher’s argument is not limited to the organizations themselves. Research that has been conducted using an incomplete definition of bullying must also be reevaluated.

The purpose of this research is to create a comprehensive definition of the term bullying to assist in the development of guidelines and regulations across athletic organizations as well as provide a standard for comparison among data related to athlete safety. Though the use of the findings in this review are not limited to sports organizations, the focus of the review involves areas of study that can affect athlete wellbeing. As past research has indicated, there is not one definition that has been accepted across fields of study. The lack of a universal definition is also true to athletic organizations, which creates not only confusion regarding disciplinary actions but also when attempting to create an educational format for coaches to learn. The researcher’s aim of the present study was to clarify variation of accepted definitions in research to attempt and create a clearly written definition of bullying that is all inclusive.

This article studies an initial sample of 724 documents from four areas of academic research for potential inclusion in this research. This article uses a three-step process described in the methods section, which included database search criterion, hand review evaluation, and coding of key terms to establish a grouping of seminal definitions of bullying. This approach provides evidence that the individual fields of research have not established accepted definitions of bullying. There is also evidence that might indicate an unestablished understanding of what bullying is based on the variations of these definitions.

The remainder of this article is divided into five sections including a review of literature, methods of the inclusion/exclusion process, measures used for coding the seminal definitions, results of the research, and conclusion.

The U.S. has approximately 45 million youth athletes ranging in age from 6 to 18 years old (DiFiori, et al., 2014). Youth sports in the U.S. have numerous positive effects on participants when the environment is protective and nurturing. However, per the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice, 28% of all students in the U.S. in Grades six through twelve have experienced bullying or have felt bullied (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). In comparison, one in three youth athletes will be the victim of an act of bullying either by their fellow athletes or their coaches (Lereya, Copeland, Costello, & Wolke, 2015). It is of interest to compare statistics between the school and athletic environments, because in the U.S., these two coexist in education.

Research has proven that an increased risk in young adults of mentally related health issues such as anxiety, depression, and self-harm or suicide are directly related to bullying. These same findings also advise that being bullied has comparable, and in some cases worse, long-term adverse effects on the mental health of young adults when compared to being maltreated (Lereya, Copeland, Costello, & Wolke, 2015).

Based on research, 90% of all students between fourth and eighth grade have been victims of bullying at some point in their lives (Schinnerer, 2009). With this number, it is safe to assume that these incidents are not peer bullying. Schinnerer (2009) also reported that 45% of teachers surveyed reported conducting themselves in a bullying manner and based on these results, it could be concluded that 50% of coaches have bullied an athlete. This percentage does not specify how many athletes in total were bullied, but just the number of individual coaches who have used bullying techniques.

In recent years, there has been wide interest in bullying and the effects it has on the victims. The hypothesis that the term bullying is defined similarly across fields is potentially accurate but without a unified definition with inclusion of areas that are effected is counterproductive to research and prevention. There is a great possibility that everyone who reads this literature review will have a different idea of what bullying means and the perception of the identifying terms that can be related to their personal experiences and surrounding. Because of this, the term bullying can be misused, which can undermine any possibility of identifying victims and punishing the bully (Rivers, 2013). Though the researcher agrees with Rivers’ assessment that the term bullying can be misused, he overlooked what the researcher considers an important point that this misuse is a direct consequence of an incomplete definition.

The standard procedure for assessing bullying has been challenged. Many researchers have recently studied the effects of bullying as a one-item measure. One-item measures of bullying are insufficient given the intricacy of behaviors related to bullying, nevertheless, researchers have attempted to measure bullying with one-item measures. The absence of a dependable definition of bullying results in a variety of measures used to assess varying aspects of bullying making it difficult to compare studies from not only comparable fields, but the attempt to compare across fields nearly impossible (Evans & Smokowski, 2016). If Evans and Smokowski are correct, then attempts to compare results across fields are impossible because of the lack of an accepted definition. Hence, all results and data collected by these studies need to be reassessed.

The coach-athlete relationship can be considered one of the most important and potentially influential relationships a young athlete will experience (Gervin & Dunn, 2004). Coaches may have power over athletes based on their age, gender (male coach/female athlete), knowledge and access to resources, authority to make choices and to reward and discipline, as well as their past successes (Tomlinson & Yorganci, 1997). Both the time around these coaches and the influence they have can place great pressure on a youth athlete to tolerate actions that normally would be unacceptable.

The increased prevalence of suggested bullying acts has been well documented. Effective responses to bullying will require a clear understanding of bullying, its antecedents, and all its variations if practitioners are to recognize it effectively and know how to respond (Swearer & Doll, 2001). This understanding will be assisted with the development of a comprehensive definition that can clearly define bullying across fields and then the pieces of such a definition clearly evaluated and developed.

Bullying research has evolved to be multidisciplinary and has started to include multiple areas of study (Marini & Volk, 2017). In 2014, Volk, Dane, and Marini attempted to redefine bullying by stating that “bullying is aggressive goal-directed behavior that harms another individual within the context of a power imbalance” (p. 327). Though the researcher concedes that this definition is clear and concise and clarification is included within the article, the researcher still insists that there are multiple aspects that are not included. If researchers are to use this definition, the need for completely redeveloping the assigned definition and including all aspects of the article should be considered.

The general features of bullying are well known, but the comparison to other forms of victimization may not be as obvious. Courts have found it hard to criminalize bullying based on how unclear bullying is defined and that the criteria of bullying cross other types of victimization such as assault, battery, and harassment. This literature review will begin this process with those areas assigned in this article and allow for other researchers to build on this comprehensive definition and provide clarifications. The developed comprehensive definition will then be compared to other forms of victimization discussed prior for similarities. This process will allow for a developed idea of what is useful to differentiate bullying from other forms of victimization.

Pörhölä et al. (2006) stated the majority of research studies related to bullying defined it using three criteria; a) bullying is when someone directs destructive behavior in the direction of another party or the intent to hurt or harm, b) bullying is an act that happens repeatedly over time, c) there is a disproportion of power executing bullying and a party being subjected to bullying that is unable to defend oneself. However, it is not clear whether the use of these criteria can be modified to be more inclusive and descriptive based on the vast variety of accepted definitions.

Tyler Clementi, of Rutgers University, committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate posted a video of him engaging in sexual intercourse with another male. This shocking incident brings attention to the fact that bullying does not have an age specific range (Faucher, Cassidy, & Jackson, 2015) and is clearly misunderstood. Perception is believed to play an important role in justifying bullying from an outsider’s opinion, and can cause issues with legal cases and discipline across fields.

Definitions that have been published in research have tried to specify that only youth can be victims of bullying. It has been accepted that both children and adults can experience bullying because bullying is based on an imbalance of power between two individuals; coach/youth athlete, coach/adult athlete, youth athlete/youth athlete, adult athlete/adult athlete, adult athlete/youth athlete (Stirling, Bridges, Cruz, & Mountjoy, 2011). This imbalance of power related to the age of the victim is valid in a sports environment because athletes come from any age demographic.

Byrne et al. (2016) stated that the single largest methodological issue with comparing research regarding bullying is the lack of a standard definition used across all research. It is well established that without a standard definition the ability to understand the scale of this issue is almost impossible (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014). Though the researcher agrees with Byrnes’ statement regarding the lack of a standard definition causing issues in research, prior studies have also failed to recognize the potential for cross definitions related to other acts of victimization. These approaches become increasingly unreliable when not only is there the lack of a comprehensive definition of bullying, but other than the occasional use of the term harassment there is little to no mention of assault or battery in these studies (Olweus D., 1991; Ma, Stewin, & Mah, 2001; Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2011; Hutchinson, 2013; Faucher, Cassidy, & Jackson, 2015).

The comprehensive definition created from this literature review will include articles from multiple areas and fields of study including education, psychology, sociology, and medicine. The databases assigned to this search were ERIC (Education), PsycINFO (Psychology), Sociological Abstract (Sociology), and MEDLINE (Medicine) (See Table 1 and Table 2).

Table 1

Table 2

Databases were searched using key terms that would allow for a multitude of variation to increase the potential of finding definitions used beyond that normally cited. The key terms entered into these databases were ‘bullying’ and ‘definition of’ simultaneously.

Articles were then searched for those that were published in peer-reviewed academic/scholarly journals. The development of this criterion allows for only articles with an academic foundation and reviewed by others in the field to assure there is a strong base for the use of the chosen definitions in these articles.

The exclusion criterion was then established that the original language of publication being English was used to eliminate the potential for any information being translated to represent other then what was originally meant by the researcher(s). Though this criterion was searched using these databases, it was used again later in the exclusion criterion to validate the consistency of the articles being originally published in English.
The use of the individual databases was then combined into two groupings. The first grouping was ERIC, PsycINFO, and MEDLINE which were combined using the EBSCO search engine and the other group included Sociological Abstract. These groupings were created to eliminate any duplicate articles that may exist between different databases.

The articles were again reviewed for English as being the original language of publication. The review for English articles was done manually and the group using the EBSCO search engine produced 35 articles that were not found to fitting the criteria using an electronic search.

Articles remaining were searched for word groupings that could indicate a seminal definition based on the writing of the author(s). For purposes of this review, word groupings such as commonly excepted/define, often cited definition, often defined as, widely used/cited, influential definition, gold standard, most accepted, generally defined as, and any word grouping that suggests a definition being specific to a particular field.

Measures were established based on coding using common themes of the 32 seminal definitions established by the inclusion and exclusion criterion. As common themes were identified, descriptions were established for each coded range and are explained as follows:

Time Span Requirement
An amount of time being a requirement for bullying was identified as a common theme among the included definitions in this literature review. For the definition to be considered inclusive of this criterion, suggestions of a specific amount of time or indication that the act related to bullying must happen over a period will be needed.

Male /Female Victim
Smith et al. (2008) found that even with the difference in bullying behaviors between genders, there is little to no difference between the genders when defining bullying. Gender specific bullying related to the victims was indicated during the coding process. Requirement for the definition to be inclusive is that the definition include words such as he/she, male/female, himself/herself, or any inference of gender.

Age Specific
The inference of age being a requirement was used as an indicator of bullying with repeated appearances in the definitions. Words such as youth, workers, employees, or specific gender terms such as boy/girl or men/women would be considered as age specific terms.

Physical Bullying
As suggested by Stirling and Kerr (2009), physical bullying includes such acts (but not limited to hitting, kicking, punching, shoving, slapping, or biting). Physical bullying will be implied as any indication of bodily harm or the inference any action that makes contact to the victim.

Emotional Bullying
Emotional bullying suggests that the action must influence the victim in a manner that would cause mental harm. Such encounters will have no action of the physical nature or any contact necessary to be classified as emotional bullying. Teasing, spreading rumors, threatening comments, name-calling, humiliation, ridicule of a peer (Stirling & Kerr, 2009), or any indication of actions related to these will indicate inclusion of the definition.

Social Bullying
The inference that social atmosphere of the victim being deliberately inhibited for inclusion must be present in the definition. Such indications include an isolation from social groups, non-acceptance into peer groups, or hazing in the manner of initiation activities that have no indication of physical contact or harm.

Property Damage/Theft
Many researchers have indicated that theft of property would be considered physical bullying. Though the action of theft is the stealing of a physical item, it should not be included as an indication of physical bullying. This review will include theft and property damage as one code. The indication of property damage/theft being present in a definition must indicate an action to the victim’s property that would render it in lesser condition then before the action took place. Property damage/theft will also include any action that removes the item from the victims control with no intent to return.

Cyber Bullying
For purposes of this review, inclusion of the word cyber will be the indication of the direct terms cyber or cyberbullying in the definition or the inference that an electronic device was used as a means for emotional bullying.

Asymmetry of Power
Asymmetry of power is an imbalance of power between the person inflicting harm and the victim and may be physical or psychological. Indicators such as age, a position of power, or strength (physical) must be implied for the definition to be considered as inclusive.

The comparison of the 32 definitions containing all inclusion measures indicates that no one definition is comprised of all the coded criteria (see Table 3). This comparison indicates that what was thought to be understood regarding bullying may not be clear based on any one definition. Thus, no one definition appears to explain the bullying phenomenon.

Table 3

Olweus’ (1993) definition of bullying was cited 36 times in the articles that fit this reviews criterion. This definition was not used specifically in articles directly related to one of the areas of study as stated prior but was not the most comprehensive definition based on the coded areas included in these findings. Smith et al. (2008) was found to be the most comprehensive definition with eight coded areas being indicated in the definition but was only cited seven times among articles fitting the criteria. The requirement of the act of bullying to happen over a span of time was found in 28 of the 32 definitions. The appearance of span of time being found in most definitions indicates that this area is noteworthy to all those that discuss bullying as a harmful act.

Based on the results of this review, a comprehensive definition of bullying would read as follows:

“Bullying is the act of causing harm on any individual(s) by another individual or group of individuals having some indication of an asymmetry of power. The victim(s) nor the individuals involved in the act of harm are not gender specific and can identify in any manner based on their beliefs and can be of any age. The victimization of the individual(s) is conducted in a continuous manner over a nonspecific period. Bullying can takes the form of physical abuse (any action that causes physical harm such as hitting, kicking, biting, overworking to the point of physical damage, etc..), emotional abuse (any acts that cause emotional distress such as name calling, verbal harassment, intimidation, etc..), social abuse (any act that creates isolation or exclusion from a group or social atmosphere), the theft or damage of an individual’s property that is being victimized, or the use of a form of electronic device to produce the results of abuse on social media to the victim.”

For the purposes of this review, the indication that no definition should be considered complete is shocking. The fact that research studies using incomplete definitions while collecting data from human subjects offers too much subjectivity. When asking an individual if they identify with a definition to classify themselves as a victim of an act leaves something to interpretation initially but then to offer an incomplete definition makes for a risky analysis.

Research must continue to review the comprehensive definition found in this review. Although the researcher grants that the comprehensive definition suggested in this article is limited to the inclusion/exclusion criteria, the researcher still maintains that its level of completeness is better for evaluation purposes than many other available definitions currently.

Some individuals will review this article and see parts of the definition created that might be classified as other forms of victimization. Victimization is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as to treat (someone) cruelly and unfairly: to make a victim of (someone): to harm or commit a crime against (someone) (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, n.d.). Four forms of victimization that would be of interest for further review in comparison are all forms of assault, battery, harassment, and criminal mischief. Further evaluation regarding the potential overlap of these forms of victimization has the potential to clarify some misunderstandings of bullying and provide a clear understanding of what individuals believe is bullying compared to these other victimizations.

Recently in sports, bullying by both coaches and athletes has come into the public eye. As generations change and the thought process of both the participants and those running the organizations evolve, creating a comprehensive definition of bullying for those in charge to not only understand but use in the development of rules and regulations is needed. The inclusion of such definition provides a starting point for not only discussion of the subject but the potential for consistency among organizations.

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