Dear David Coleman: My son is being bullied for not playing sports at school

My son attends a rural secondary school. He plays competitive sport outside school, but doesn’t play on the school team for soccer or GAA. If they miss class for sport, the boys are required to ‘catch up’. However, my son is always pressurised by his classmates to play for the school. Recently, there was a game away that they lost and he was subsequently bullied for ‘letting the team down’. How can I support my son with the bullying about sport?

David replies: Be careful about characterising the hassle he gotten recently as bullying. Once-off hassle doesn’t count as bullying. Bullying only occurs if the hassle is regular and ongoing. Perhaps it is a regular experience for your son, but it isn’t clear from the query.

In terms of responding to any negative commentary from his friends, I’d also like to know who made the decision that your son doesn’t play school sports? If it is his choice, then any hassle he gets will be easy to deal with, since he has obviously made a personal choice not to play for the school, and so, can just stand by the strength of his convictions. It is much easier to resist negative attention when we have made choices that we believe in.

If he gets a hard time for not playing for the school, he does need to have assertive responses ready, such that he can show that he hears the complaints and the negative commentary about not playing school sports, but that he isn’t bothered by those comments, since he is satisfied with his choice.

However, if not playing for the school is not his choice, but rather is yours, then it will be much harder to expect him to withstand any negativity that it draws on him.

If it is your choice, then I assume that you are basing it on the time he might miss? Is this important to him too?

If he is happy not to play, then, like I mention above, he can just stand by his convictions. But if he is not happy that he can’t play for the school, and he is also bothered that this attracts loads of hassle from his classmates, then it might be time to reconsider your decision.

I would suggest that you sit down with him to discuss it openly, reviewing your earlier decision in light of the impact that it is currently having.

I am not suggesting that it is right that he gets hassle from his classmates, but you might want to compare the academic cost that he might suffer (by missing class time) against the social cost of not being able to be part of the sporting life of the school.

It is not the case that one is more important than the other, and so it really does require an open discussion about the pros and cons of each.

He will find it difficult to sustain the negative pressure he might be under from classmates if he, too, feels that it is the wrong decision for him. Maybe he would like to change this?

One option that you might like to try is to experiment, for the rest of this school year, with letting him play sports for the school. This will allow both you and him to establish just how much time he actually misses and whether the “catching up” is too onerous for him, or is actually manageable for him.

If he copes okay with the demands of sport and academics, then you may want to consider letting him continue to play sports with the school next year. If the six weeks to the end of this year prove to be too overwhelming and either his enjoyment of sports suffers, or his academic performance falls off significantly, then you and he can return to the current status quo.

But at least your son will be able to feel like the decision not to play is also his, and so, it will be easier for him to stand behind it if it attracts further hassle.

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