A recent article in the journal Pediatrics suggests that student bullying isn’t limited to students, but that the relationship between students and sports coaches can often be characterized by bullying as well. The conclusions of this article are supported by recent studies of youth athletes.

A 2011 study of over 6000 youth athletes from the United Kingdom found that 75 percent of the respondents reported at least one incident of “emotional harm” during their time playing sports, with one-third of the students identifying their coach as the perpetrator of that harm. Similarly, a 2005 study of U.S. youth athletes found that 45 percent reported having a coach that “angrily yelled at a player for making a mistake” or “made fun of a member of the team.”

As noted by the authors of the Pediatrics article, the lack of a commonly accepted definition of bullying makes it difficult to determine when a coach’s behavior crosses the line and can cause harm to students. In Connecticut, for example, bullying is defined as student versus student behavior, and does not encompass the behavior of adults, including teachers and coaches.

The traditional view of what has been historically acceptable for the coach-athlete relationship can often be in conflict with current definitions and perceptions of bullying behavior. Given the power that coaches hold over student-athletes, and that the interaction between coaches and students often takes places away from other adults and supervisors, school districts are well-advised to have clear guidelines for acceptable coaching behavior, and to regularly supervise and evaluate their coaches.