Combating Bullying and Abuse in School and College Sports for 40 + years; Author and Former College Football Player and Coach Outlines a 4-Step Program

Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies Author Matt Paknis teaches coaches how to
detect, address, prevent and transcend bullying

MARION, Mass., Jan. 10, 2019—Reports of rampant bullying in school sports programs by coaches, officials and players resulting in injury, depression and even player deaths, have raised awareness of the need for education and preventative programs designed to protect youth. Matt Paknis, a leadership consultant, former college football coach and champion lineman who is himself a survivor of childhood abuse, teaches how to build healthy sports cultures that help student athletes thrive with a program to detect, address, prevent and transcend bullying.

“It’s time to stop this devastating tailspin of bullying in America, starting with high school sports,” said Matt, author of the newly released book, Successful Leaders Aren't Bullies: How to Stop Abuse at Work and Build Exceptional Organizations. “The brutal hazing and locker room sexual abuse among high school teammates in Damascus, Maryland and Sayreville, New Jersey, the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, and other atrocities show that scholastic and collegiate sports programs appear to be teaching bullies to exercise power through the humiliation of their targets.”

Propelled by his personal mission to protect others from suffering the consequences of acute abuse and trauma, Matt drew on his personal experience as a survivor of abuse, his almost two decades of leading teams to championships as a player and coach, and his 27 years of management consulting with global organizations to develop his four-step program for sports. He asks: “How did American sport degenerate to where children think it is ok to assault a teammate? What type of team encourages a boy at fifteen to seek to control, as bullies do, to compensate for feeling inadequate or incompetent?”

In every organization where Matt addressed abusive situations, senior officials in powerful positions were aware of the abuse and chose to ignore it. As a result, inappropriate behaviors were never publicized, and no reporting processes were implemented to stop, shed light upon, transcend, or prevent abusive and bullying behaviors. To help keep student athletes safe, he advocates the following four-step anti-bullying program for schools:

Detect – Bullying is aggressive and repetitive behavior, resulting in an imbalance of power. Bullying results when athletes don’t separate these actions in sport from interpersonal transactions. Unhealthy high school teams are marked by sick egos and cliques where prima donnas, or a coach’s favorites, are allowed to control with deceptions and abuse, where some athletes are in power often at the expense of safety, performance and retaining great talent. Being a member of these teams is not fun but perceived to be mandatory for survival.

Bullying and "horseplay" can be confused. What some consider silly others perceive as offensive or malicious. Teasing and horseplay cross over to bullying when the comments and contact are no longer a form of bonding and instead an aggressive and repetitive manner to demean a teammate.

Reporting bullying behavior is very taboo among teen groups where research shows 10 percent are targets, five percent initiate the bullying, and almost 85 percent are bystanders. Bystanders do not instigate but can enable or encourage bullying. Most bystanders oppose bullying, yet feel helpless to stop it. This destroys trust, the essential ingredient in great teams and relationships.

Address – The best way to address bullying is for leaders, e.g., coaches, athletic directors, principals, captains, and teammates, to model healthy behaviors and to publicize, intervene, and stop all forms of bullying. Coaches and athletic officials and principals are hired to know what’s happening on their teams. Matt recalls that his championship high school teams had no bullying because his coach never tolerated it.

Prevent – Bullies are narcissists who are convinced they’re special, yet they are threatened by talent in others. To prevent bullying, parents and athletes need to help these insecure players and coaches to see themselves rationally—to realize that only two percent of high school athletes get college scholarships, and only two percent of college athletes turn professional. In addition, if everyone on the team can distinguish inappropriate from appropriate behaviors and is encouraged and empowered to demonstrate healthy transactions and to report bullying to team and school officials, the culture will shift. High school team bullies, regardless of talent or favoritism, should be given consequences commensurate with their crime and administered with a consistent and stern discipline process, up to and including expulsion from the team.

Transcend – Coaches and school officials must establish, display, and monitor core values and beliefs reflected by behavioral standards, ensuring everyone feels welcome and safe. Athletes prone to bully either change or leave. People respect and trust each other. They value differences. They gauge themselves by, and collectively strive to improve, their weakest members’ growth. The team swarms to protect each other and to help or address problems. A deep desire exists to influence each other in positive ways with collaboration, shared accountability, and trust. Coaches are honest and transparent. They use film and behaviors to recognize and correct performance. They use facts. Parents stay on the perimeter and trust all coaching decisions.

“The original Hellenic intent of sport was to uplift thought and conduct, to test human potential, and to better society,” said Matt. “If a sport doesn’t uplift society, it should cease to exist in its destructive form.”


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