Bullying, Exclusion, Social-Emotional Intelligence: The Value of Play in Social Learning

In this second part, we will explore some ways that we as coaches, PE teachers, and trainers can contribute to solving the problems of exclusion and bullying. 


What IS the Solution?
The solution seems fairly obvious to me.  Find ways to mix competition with cooperation.  Instead of choosing your young athletes based on their perceived potential, be about the business of helping all kids enjoy sports.  When you see these ego-driven, bullying / dominance situations – discuss this with kids.  Ask the right questions to help them understand implications.  Do I as a coach or trainer truly understand competition?  Do I realize that if there is true competition, we want everyone else to have the same advantages?  Otherwise, it seems there is never a true competition. 


Where We Come In
We are the guides.  Instead of thinking about lessons to be taught, we can think of lessons to be learned. This requires sometimes asking questions instead of making statements. 


Learning to Interact
To help guide kids away from the behaviors that lead to exclusion and bullying, we can design our programs to address certain behaviors in such a way that helps kids learn the consequences themselves.    Putting them in situations where these things may happen (not that we are hoping they do), can better build their own concept of the relationships between behavior and consequence. 


Specific Value of Physical Play
Many schools and facilities have tried to outlaw physical play, especially the variety that requires children to touch one another, or pull, push and shove.  This thinking may actually be backwards.  The fact is, anything the brain is to do, especially with regard to higher order functions like thought and social interaction – it must learn to do.  Sure I have seen things get out of control in dodge ball games, and tag.  It is this rough and tumble play that first gives us the ability to explore the possibility of adverse, hierarchical interactions.   In other words, sometimes kids will bully and gang up on each other.  They will form cliques and ridicule others.  This is a great opportunity to explore this behavior and its consequences with the kids.  Also, because it is FUN, then the pressure isn’t so life or death! Of course, the coach is responsible for making sure the FUN factor is in fact there.   


Empathy through Play
When someone gets tagged too hard, or picked on, it’s obvious visually, unlike the subtle verbal comments and texting that may occur during and after school hours.  Now, since we’ve seen an obvious physical behavior, we can explore questions like: “How would that have made you feel?”  “What could you have done differently?”


Infinite Games – No Ego Required
Infinite games are those that allow children to explore a skill / set of skills without the question of hierarchy or dominance, as is the case in organized sports and purely competitive situations. 


An example is taking tug of war and instead of having one team win; having the teams provide resistance for one another with the goal of keeping the game going.  Why end something this fun?  End it when you get tired!


Executive Function
Kids, quite frankly, don’t need you to tell them everything.  Would anyone think of training an executive to run a corporation by telling them exactly how to perform each task and make each decision?  The Art of Coaching is not about telling, but about facilitating an exploration. 


If we simply tell the child to “stop it”, they will likely continue the behavior after we are no longer present.  If we help the young learner explore the effects of his / her behavior and the reasons that it is helpful or destructive, then this will help develop the ability internally to consider this behavior in the future.  It’s really that simple! 


Dr. Kwame M. Brown, Ph.D., YFS2, CSCS

Toby BrooksKwame M. Brown received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georgetown University. In addition to being the Fitness Director for the Oak Marr REC Center (Fairfax County Park Authority, VA) he currently serves on the Board of Directors for the IYCA and as a consultant on motor development for Cris Carter’s FAST Program in Coral Springs, FL.

11 Responses

  1. Brian Racer says:

    This is a great post. I fully agree that the physical part of physical education is often missing. Do they let kids wrestle one another in schools anymore. What about three-legged races and team pyramid building. These require proper technique, cooperation, and using the strengths that one kid may have over another. Can they get hurt? Sure. But maybe in the long run they avoid getting hurt as a result of the skills, balance, and core strength they learn from the experience. Maybe they also learn that you can absorb some pain, still have fun, and keep going. That’s a lesson that we all need to learn to have a fulfilling life.

  2. skye nacel says:


    what a great article in every way. so true that we can’t always make statements but instead often need to ask questions. the idea of building camaraderie and “team” is often far removed from formal competition. many of the lessons i’m currently learning and applying are often about stepping back from the “i;m in charge here and this is how its gonna be” and instead build trust within the team and ask questions and more often we all find a solution.
    keep the great stuff coming and great to see this address the non-sports portion of the youth based movement/fun!


  3. Thanks for the great articles Kwame. I teach PE in Tucson, AZ and have experienced the bullying and name calling among students at all grade levels. One thing I’ve noticed is that by placing Team Building Games Right after the warm up and right before larger competetive group games there are way less instances of name calling and bullying. The Team Building Games build a positive experience that is shared by all students. This positive experiece carries over into the competition of that day. We always talk about that competition is wanting to win but that you also want the other teams to play hard and do their best. Some of my favorite team building games can be found at Creative Spirit and PE Universe.

  4. Great topic, Dr. Brown!!
    Not much time to comment right now, but I encourage you all to check out this great article on bullying by a past president of the APA (American Psychological Association).

  5. Vincent Brunelle DC says:


    Great piece on Bullying,
    I am new to the info have you written any articles on Coaches, how they intimidate physically and verbally. We are going through this as I write this in my son’s high school with a hockey coach.

    Vincent Brunelle DC

  6. Dr. Kwame M. Brown says:


    Here is one article on Coach bullying:


  7. Bill says:

    Traditional sports-centered P.E., which has done nothing to promote physical fitness for those boys who are the most physically unfit, has also done more to promote bullying in the schools than anything else. Why must nonathletic boys be forced to participate in competitive team sports? How does this promote physical fitness? Some boys actually have no interest in sports. Most coaches seem to view nonathletic boys as sissies or fags. So, is it any surprise that bullying is rampant in traditional sports-centered P.E. classes? There is a crying need for the reform of P.E. Programs such as PE4Life have been shown to actually reduce bullying AND promote physical fitness. Traditional P.E. should be kept as an elective for the athletic boys who want to participate in sports. Forcing nonathletic boys to take P.E. with athletes is like transferring basic math students to a calculus class. It just doesn’t make sense. The fact of the matter is that historically the purpose of P.E. was not to promote physical fitness; its real purpose was only to promote sports. The high schools can achieve their most cherished goal of having a winning football team WITHOUT forcing nonathletic boys to take P.E. classes that do not even provide any exercise programs for them, but subject them to bullying. Sometimes even physical violence that goes unpunished.

  8. Bill says:

    Dr. Brown, I hope you don’t mind my posting again. Your concern about bullying shows that you’re a decent man, but you seem to be reasoning from a false premise. You seem to be assuming that all boys like sports. This simply is not true. Some boys just don’t like sports. You seem to be thinking along the lines of reforming a system that has always been inherently flawed; namely, the traditional approach for mandatory P.E. that the class be centered exclusively around sports. As a “baby boomer” I speak from personal experience. This sports-centered approach will always encourage athletic boys to bully nonathletic boys, whose presence on their teams in P.E. classes is always resented. Our sports-saturated culture has gotten to be so ridiculous that masculinity is defined in terms of athletic prowess, which means that nonathletic boys are stigmatized, frequently even before they reach their teenage years. This is apparent even in the language that some P.E. coaches use. If a boy throws a baseball poorly, he is said to throw “like a girl.” What is the solution? The solution is to recognize that there is a different between promoting sports and promoting physical fitness. Traditional sports-centered P.E. classes should be retained for athletic kids as an elective. Nonathletes should not be forced to take them and be subjected to bullying. As long as nonathletic boys are forced to take sports-centered P.E. classes, the bullying will continue. No attempts at reforming this flawed system will ever work. The fact must be recognized that the physical fitness needs of athletic and nonathletic kids are different. Even nonathletic kids have different physical fitness needs. Team sports in the schools will not suffer if the traditional P.E. (as opposed to genuine fitness classes) becomes optional. Those kids who aspire to participate in team sports don’t need to be forced to take P.E. Fitness classes should be provided for nonathletic kids. PE4Life is an excellent example of such a class. Otherwise, let their parents send them to a health club. You would be surprised by how many guys there are who have attained a high level of physical fitness without participating in sports. I’ve been working on a bodybuilding program at a health club. The experience has been great. I’m a confirmed gym rat. But the sports-centered P.E. classes that I was forced to take when I was in school did not encourage me but actually discouraged me from becoming physically active. Now I get more exercise in a single workout session than I ever did in a single year of mandatory sports-centered P.E. I know what I’m talking about because I’ve experienced it.

  9. Dr. Kwame M. Brown says:


    Sorry I am just posting now, but I only saw this recently when printing out some of my old blog posts. I felt compelled to respond. If you don’t see it, maybe subsequent readers will.

    I am curious as to why you assume I am talking about boys, when I never mentioned gender in the article.

    I am also curious as to why you seem to think I am advocating a “sports-centered approach” when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

    If you read back through the article, I am talking about MIXING competition with non-competitive activities. I think you are making an assumption that competitive kids can’t learn to be non-competitive and yet another assumption that kids that shy away from competition can’t be helped to feel more comfortable.

    Unfortunately, my friend, I think it is you that is reasoning from a false premise, assuming some ideas that I was not promoting. However, I am glad that you are at least aware of these issues, and thank you for posting.

    Furthermore, children left to their own natural inclinations are inherently athletic. It is our exclusionary society that separates the more immediately efficient performers from the less efficient ones.

    Finally, you mentioned the history of P.E. Your comment is a little off. What you are talking about with sports promotion came late in the game. The original P.E. was about developing strength and body awareness. In fact, Joseph Pilates himself got some of his ideas about movement from what was going on in physical education.

    Again, you injected some things in the discussion that I just did not say. Read the article again and hopefully you will see that.

  10. Bill says:

    Dr. Brown:

    Thank you for responding to my posts. You could have chosen to ignore them because of the unpopular views I expressed.

    Before I continue, let me say that I commend you for your enlightened views. I deeply appreciate your calling attention to the problem of bullying in P.E. Many people in this country defend bullying in the schools with a “blame the victim” mentality, saying that bullying is a “rite of passage” or “just part of life” or a “character-building” experience. I also recognize that you have taken an innovative approach to P.E. I honor you and wish that you could be cloned for every junior high and high school.

    You say that you’re curious as to why I assumed you were talking about boys and not girls. Historically boys and girls have had separate P.E. classes. I was speaking from the standpoint of my childhood experience.

    I realize that you advocate mixing competitive with noncompetitive activities; and, again, I highly commend you for taking this innovative approach to P.E.

    But I still say there are boys who simply have no interest in sports, and these are the ones who dread sports-centered P.E (for good reason). I ought to know because I was one of them. (Again, am I sedentary today? No, I’m still working on a bodybuilding program at a health club; and I usually take brisk, nonstop hour-long walks on those days when I don’t work out. So, I’m very active physically, but definitely not because of sports.)

    You say that “sports promotion came late in the game” and that “(t)he original P.E. was about developing strength and body awareness.” Unfortunately, the mandatory boys’ P.E. of the “baby boom” generation was completely removed from what you call the “original” P.E. (If you don’t believe me, ask other nonathletic middle-aged people about their own experiences.) I would have benefited immensely from such an approach. But that was not the reality when I was a boy, and I dare say that sports-centered mandatory P.E. had already been the norm for generations. In all the P.E. classes I was forced to take, I never so much as even heard the words “exercise program” or “bodybuilding”; and, furthermore, I got very little exercise! These P.E. classes were exclusively centered around sports. Like all the other boys who weren’t good at sports, I dreaded my P.E. class each year so much because of the humiliation I would face daily that I still remember which periods I had P.E.; and I’m 60 years old. I’ve forgotten which periods I had most of my other classes, but not P.E. Nonathletic boys suffered in P.E. classes, but these boys were not considered to be deserving of any consideration or concern.

    This is what I’ve observed ever since I was forced to take P.E. classes that were useless to me and other nonathletic boys: There is a negative culture, a particular brand of machismo, that is associated with certain popular sports (with football perhaps being the worst offender). Since I don’t want to be misunderstood, I will immediately point out that this culture is not associated with every sport and is not intrinsically a part of any sport. I recognize that any culture can be changed. For the sake of simplicity, I will simply refer to “the sports culture.”

    The sports culture denigrates nonathletic boys, who are viewed as being inferior and deserving of contempt. For example, earlier this year a childhood friend of mine who played football in high school (and is still very much a fan today) told me that most of his teammates looked down on all the nonathletic guys at their school as being inferior to them. The basis for this mindset is the false definition of masculinity solely in terms of athletic prowess. Nonathletic boys have been called “sissies,” “wimps,” and “fags” (which currently seems to be the favorite pejorative). They are labeled as “feminized males” and are often subjected to bullying simply because they have no interest in sports. There are even psychologists today who ludicrously claim that any boy who has no interest in sports should be suspected of having homosexual tendencies.

    This mindset has continued to the current generation, despite much evidence to the contrary. There have been men of great courage who never participated in sports. Concerning the separate issue of sexual preference, homosexual men have always participated in rough contact sports, just as they have participated in just about every other realm of human activity. The stigmatization of nonathletic boys often begins when they are very young; and they are taught to be ashamed for not being good at sports, as if this were a major failing in their lives. Sometimes this false shame is internalized to their psychological detriment even as adults. And for what purpose? Frankly, this reminds me of racism or some other form of bigotry.

    Historically more bullying has taken place in mandatory P.E. classes than in all of the academic classes combined. This bullying often goes way beyond name-calling and is quite demeaning physically. For example, an online friend of mine who is British and 29 years of age told me about the physical bullying that he as a scrawny boy was constantly subjected to in the sports-centered P.E. he was required to take in London. (Again, no exercise programs were provided for the nonathletic boys.) His P.E. class once was split into two opposing teams for a game of cricket. (Remember, my friend was not even interested in cricket. He was forced to play in this game.) He was blamed for his team’s loss. So, when the game was over, one of the athletic members of his team assaulted him by smashing his face with a cricket bat and breaking his nose. This punk was merely suspended for a few days. (He committed a crime; he should have been sent to juvenile detention.) When he returned to school, he shoved my friend into a locker. Would you be surprised to know that my friend is not exactly a sports fan today? And to think that some people would wonder why.

    I’m very active physically today, but not because of mandatory sports-centered P.E. classes that were useless to me. I’m very active physically today, but not because a
    psychologist sent me at the age of 15 to a boneheaded white judo instructor who had previously played football at a university and viewed nonathletic men as not being “real men.” I’m very active physically today because the personal trainers I’ve worked with at my health club have respected and encouraged me (while I have paid close attention to them and have pushed myself hard in my workouts).

    There’s so much more that I could say, but my post is already way too long. I trust you understand that I am speaking with civility. I have tried to avoid ranting. My purpose has been only to help you understand the point of view of nonathletes. Clearly you’re one of the good guys. Yes, I know there are individual school athletes who are not even arrogant; but the culture that promotes the bullying is still intact and is supported by many people. I have always respected athletic achievement, just as I would any other endeavor that requires self-discipline. I favor the retention of sports-centered P.E. as an elective for the school athletes and any other students who want to participate in sports. And, again, I am not saying that you advocate the sort of P.E. that historically has caused nonathletic boys such misery. I agree with your coaching philosophy and wish you the best.

  11. Bill says:

    Perhaps I did rant a bit. I speak out of pain. You have my apologies. Sorry.

Leave a Reply

Comment using: