Bullying, Exclusion, Social-Emotional Intelligence – Our Issue, Too

by Dr. Kwame M Brown


This will be the first of two parts, exploring the connections between social awareness and bullying / exclusion. The purpose of this first part is to call out the issue in the larger scope of the lives of children / teens. The second part will explore some ways those of us who work with children can attempt to change the landscape as it currently exists. Since these articles are appearing in a blog, they will obviously not be a full dissertation, exploring every detail. The purpose here is to start a valuable discussion.


A significant feature of the play environment we provide our children these days is exclusion (from coaches and teams) and bullying (from both peers and coaches). Children who don’t make a team are already made to feel “less than”. Many coaches and teachers tend to value the more talented children, even to the point of excusing certain behaviors. On the flip side, many coaches and teachers engage in bullying behaviors. Yes, these issues have been around for a while, but have greater consequences now with the electronic age. Social media and modern communication devices confer the ability for bullying and exclusion to follow a child around, literally. The obsession we have with elitism, and promoting the elite performers of sports almost exclusively, also may contribute to the behavioral trait of subjugation and ridicule of others.


To compound this environment, there is the issue of social-emotional skill in kids. A study by McKown et. al. (Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 38(6), 858-871, 2009) studied the behaviors that may “cause” social competence. Among these “behaviors” are social-emotional skill, which is basically the ability to read signals in social situations, and the ability to regulate behavior. I am sure that we can all call up instances where kids, parents, or coaches seem unable to regulate behavior. I also believe that there is this overall sense that this ability is sorely lacking in general within both professional and youth sports. Lack of the aforementioned skills, especially self-regulation, can lead to exclusion and bullying (Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol. 21 No. 1, February 2001, 29-49).


"Everyone gets bullied and rejected, what’s the big deal, you get through it…" I can’t tell you how often I hear this from peers, teachers, coaches, and even parents (though rarely the parent of the one getting bullied). Keep reading…


Did you know that the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with physical pain, has been show to light up the same exact way on functional MRI from social rejection (Panksepp, Science, 10/10/03)? Although fMRI certainly has its limitations, and the detailed circuitry could be a bit different for physical pain, this series of studies shows a pretty big overlap between the two. How would you feel about your kid or kids under your charge getting punched in the face every day? It may feel the same way to them to be excluded, rejected socially, or be bullied. In other words – not too funny – Unless of course, you are the proud parent of a cartoon. Then it’s funny.


Still don’t believe this is an issue for kids? They will get over it, and it won’t have an impact on their future? Studies have shown that there are lasting effects of bullying well into adulthood not only for the victim, but for the bully themselves. These lasting effects can include an increased likelihood of criminal activity, depression, and other maladaptive behaviors. This is reviewed nicely by Haynie et. al. (Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol. 21 No. 1, February 2001, 29-49). The article contains many more resources for your reading pleasure.


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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.

10 Responses

  1. The analogy of “kids getting pinched in the face” to illustrated overactivity of the cyngulate gurus is brilliant. We must strive to create positive environments that keep childreen safe from physical harm. What many people have not realized yet is how psychology affects physiology. Great post!

  2. Stephen Baca says:

    Great post!
    I taught for 15 years as well as coaching sports (mostly wrestling) during that same period of time.
    I have been fortunate/privileged to have great success as a teacher/coach due to what I believe is simply not leaving anyone out.
    Whether in the classroom or in the practice room I never forgot who was there.
    I made it a point early in my career, and continue to do so, to acknowledge every individual in my charge in a most positive moment/way to recognize their contribution and effort.
    At times I had those who we consider “trouble maker”/ bullies who changed their way of thinking when they were getting their butts handed to them in the wrestling room and had an organized/structured/disciplined/fun area to perform their talents.
    I am not at all a believer in ADD/ADHD and have used my positive/temperate/patient-discipline with the production of awesome young men.
    Thank you for the information provided and hope and pray we can use your guidance to better control our socially endangered nation.

  3. david pocock says:

    Great subject! I have seen Emotional Intelligence Quotient play out in adult behavior in many business and leadership situations. Awareness and self-regulation are critical on and off the field, no doubt! Two foundational conditions to promote awareness and self-regulation in my experience are the establishment of personal values and accountability.

    Practices such as creating individual mission statements or creating a set of (written) personal values helps set the personal standard of behavior and promotes the kind of introspection that leads to personal growth.

    Parents, coaches and other mentors who have established a relationship of trust and guidance can provide opportunities for accountabilty with just a few questions when observing athletes on and off the field. Self-regulation can often be supported by an “accountabiltiy partner” like a coach or parent.

    I do not have a degree or scientific research to support these observations – just life experience enough to see both ends of the spectrum, and an appreciation for those like Dr Kwame Brown who draw our attention to these subjects and how they impact our children and athletes.

  4. Great post. Indeed, bullying has lasting effects on children, particularly on self-esteem and confidence. Many youth fitness programs perpetuate this exclusion form of bullying you discuss. The more skilled children get more attention from the coaches, while the less athletic children get lost in the process. A solid kids foundation program should not have its main focus be on improving athletic performance, but on increasing confidence.
    I look forward to reading part 2!

  5. I am seeing more social behaviors in teen age girls ages 12-16 yrs of age, with serious anger issues. What i do is harness that negative energy and focus it inward. We climb mountains. Each plateau we reach is a challenge faced and conquered. Before they know it 5 miles has past and with having them talk and walk they manage to release that negative energy. At the top of the summit we have some work on the focus mitts of which the girls love.

    This is one of the best investment I’ve made in my fitness career. I am a proud member and will continue to spread the word of all the IYCA provides. See you all in a few days.

  6. Joel Garcia says:

    This is exactly why I joined the IYCA. There’s more to athletics, sport and movement than just the upwards filtration of talent. Physical activity should not be another form of domination or exclusion by those that physically develop quicker. My mission is not about physical development, it is about helping in the process and placing kids on the pathway (through physical means) towards becoming well-adjusted adults.

    The quote,”Everyone gets bullied and rejected, what’s the big deal, you get through it…” is a perfect illustration of how people absolve themselves of the underlying issue and project their subjective reality as a general fact of life. But the true reality is that once you become aware you become responsible, it’s that simple.

    Great post.

  7. Jeremy Boone says:

    Dr. Brown,
    A colleague just referred me to your blog post which I found very interesting as this has been as area of research I have also been involved with. Below are a few comments based on your post as well as some of the other replies:

    • If the more skilled children get more attention from the coaches, that is a coach issue not an athlete issue. The underlying factor is identifying what do the coaches value most and how does that reflect in the training environment they design. For example, if they value a winning performance as top priority, than the previous example would follow…no surprises there.

    • Regarding Melissa’s comment, self-confidence is often fragile and is an emotional attribute based on ‘doing’ and ‘role awareness’ and involves two parts. The first part is developing skill competency to be able to play followed by the coach then designing situational drills for the athlete to have the opportunity to then display these skills successfully.

    The second part is helping the athlete develop an emergency checklist so that they can tolerate/cope with situations beyond their current skill level and abilities. For example, when something happens during play that is beyond the ability of the player to successfully contribute, they quickly focus on what they can’t do and their self-confidence bombs! Instead, by addressing their ‘emergency checklist’, they can learn to consciously respond in that situation and refocus on what they CAN do rather than what they cannot.

    Self-confidence goes south quickly for younger athletes because they cannot handle ’emergencies’ (situations beyond their capabilities).

    • Bullying can be attributed to one of the ‘threats’ of the brain…status. When I compare myself to you and feel like my status needs to be raised, bullying is the quick fix! In doing so, it is perceived as raising my status by lowering yours!

    The problem here is that comparison is externally driven, me vs you, rather than internally driven, me vs me, and then combined with a lack of internal clarity including self-esteem, self-worth, role awareness, self-identity, self-concept, self-direction, etc. Having administered profiles to over a few thousand athletes, this has shown to be the most common pattern across the board.

    • The last point I would make is that kids most often cannot separate their performance from ‘who’ they are which is why the whole bullying thing hurts even worse! And while self-confidence goes down the drain, self-worth and self-esteem disappear.

    The bottom line is that coaching matters! A lot! And as many of you here intuitively know this, our data clearly proves it time and time again! But more important, it is more than what the coach ‘does’ and the great ‘system’ they use when developing young athletes, it starts with ‘who’ they are, and the values that drive their decision making which in turn creates the training environment!

    Looking forward to reading part two as well,
    Jeremy Boone

  8. Guy McKim says:

    Over the years I have been frustrated as an athlete, coach, administrator and parent by what I see going on in sport, at all levels, and have often been treated like the ‘village idiot’ when I mention my observations. I read, I talk/debate with players, coaches and administrators, I contemplate, I watch and I sigh! I try to apply the principles I have learned through sports about being a good person I guess I have been blessed by a few good role models in my time (my dad told me to dream about playing in the national hockey league, but I had better be a good student and behave in the mean time), to how I work with young people in the ‘arena of development we call sport.’ I like Joel’s comment “how people absolve themselves” and Melissa points out “the more skilled children get more attention” and Jason talks about “serious anger issues” – maybe if enough of us keep speaking out we will eventually reach the critical mass when things start to change. Bless you for addressing the issue, as Winston Churchill said ‘we will never surrender’, but speaking for myself I am getting tired of ‘issues’ in sport.

  9. Doug Parra says:

    What a great topic. I loved reading all the comments and have learned a lot from each of them. I really enjoyed Jeremy’s post as he really broke down the issue. The etiology or cause must be addressed and he explained it perfectly- ” it starts with ‘who’ they are, and the values
    that drive their decision making which in turn creates the training environment!”.

  10. Vincent Baldwin says:

    Agree this is a great topic. Guys I am posting this blog all the way from Ireland. I first became interested in coaching kids after I finish my sporting career 4 years ago and I started taking my own kid to soccer training and Gaelic football (Irish Football).

    The coaches then were there to win at all cost basically to polish their own egos and to completely forget about the kids who were not proficient. Many times I would see kids been told they were not good enough even at the age of 8, (which was basically down to the coaches lack of coaching knowledge) been told they were rubbish and that they weren’t getting a game. I would see coaches ignoring other kids berating the kids that couldn’t kick the ball right.

    It wasn’t hard to see that smile and buzz those kids had at first when they came in the gate disappearing quickly.

    After looking at a few training sessions I had to express my views to these coaches but they were left on deaf ears. I even went to the chairman of the club to speak out about this but again no response.

    After one season being exposed to this despicable behaviour I decided to get involve the following season. First things first was I got as many coaching courses as possible before the next season started and took on these supposedly group of no hopers (with some help from their parents) were I ensure every child got the best of training and they all got the equal amount of playing time. In that season we finish 2nd in the league 4 places above the first team and were unluckily beaten in the cup final while our first team were put out in the Q-final by the team we beat in the semi-final.

    Well well, the next year I was given a seat on the Juvenile committee and was made the coaching co-ordinator. With this I introduce club polices that all coaches had to obtain the basic coaching course and attend “code of ethics and best practises” course too.

    We now have great numbers at the club. In every age group we would have 4 coaches and the kids who are less proficient would spend more time with the more experience coaches while the stronger players with the less experience coaches.

    When our Juvenile meetings would take place I would always state to the other coaches that every child is different and will progress at a different rates but it is important for us to keep them all involve (it is their basic right).

    A great saying I got from an old friend was “You should strive for excellence not for success” was another thing I would preach at these meetings and youth was always about development.

    Just this year I got a sign put up over the gate as you enter the football ground which says “Good enough is Good enough here” you don’t have to be perfect as long as you try your best that is what counts.

    I have to say it wasn’t easy at first but I listen to some great role models and did a lot homework on this. I have to say too that listening to Brian Grasso on debates about this subject help provide me with a great vocabulary when speaking at these Juvenile meetings

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