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on Leading the Next Generation


A Definition for Bullying

Here’s a question for you: is it bullying when a high school football team beats another team 91-0? That’s quite a blowout — but what do you think?


The accusation of “bullying” is exactly what one parent claimed after the Fort Worth, Texas team, Western Hills High School, lost a lopsided game to Aledo High School. The parent filed a bullying complaint on the school’s website arguing that Aledo coaches should have let up at some point in the blowout.

The story is getting mixed reviews. Some agree with the parent saying folks should be nicer to each other, especially when one team has far more talent than another. Still another suggested these two teams simply shouldn’t be playing each other, as Aledo High School has graduates heading to colleges like Ohio State University. Yet another argued that calling a football game “bullying” is inappropriate given the real problems our country faces with school bullying.

May I chime in?

I do agree — we must find a way to cultivate empathy among students today, in a world where portable devices with screens on them has led to increased bullying and even cyber-bullying…as well as diminishing emotional intelligence. I have said it before, and I will say it again: as technology goes up, empathy goes down. I have spoken at countless schools about the bullying issue, and suggested that we must help kids see the big picture, envision the future and act like leaders.

However — take a moment and think about this parent’s comment.

To intervene and accuse coaches of “bullying” because of a game score is not unlike intervening and telling a teacher not to give an “F” on a paper, or not to criticize a student’s assignment. When our kids are young (under 12-years-old), it is helpful to tell them exactly how to behave, and perhaps even what to think. By the time they’re teens, however, this intervention is embarrassing. Here’s why:

1. Healthy teens don’t want adults to intervene for them as it relates to a peer. It’s embarrassing. Some males have even compared it to shaving the mane off of a lion… the teen guys feel humiliated and weak. The parent may feel they’ve done a favor to the adolescent, but in reality, it’s quite the opposite.

2. A football score is nothing like a genuine bullying incident. Real bullying harms others. Losing a football game by a large score happens every week of the fall, in America. It’s all part of life. To safeguard teens from this kind of thing actually hinders the development of their coping skills as they mature.

I lost plenty of games as a kid athlete growing up. In fact, in one Little League baseball season, our team lost every single game by large margins. What I loved about the experience was our manager never tried to sugarcoat the losses, but instead discussed with us what we’d learned and how we could improve. This prepared me for the adult world I was growing up into at the time.

No one would have dreamed of calling our “blowout” losses “bullying.” It would have been an insult to real bully incidents that actually went on during the 1970s just like they do now. The difference between then and now is this: the adults in my childhood (from parents, to teachers to coaches to youth workers) all helped us navigate them rather than removing them from our lives. They knew that “hurt” does not equal “harm.” Today — I think many are quite confused about this.

So — I think schools need to create a guide for parents, teachers and students, defining just what bullying is. What do you think?

Do I sound like I lack compassion? What are your thoughts?


  1. barnes8694 on November 1, 2013 at 6:53 am

    That game was not bullying. The winning team coaches played every kid on the roster, and sat the starters in the first quarter. They only ran 32 offensive plays. What do you expect them to do? Should they simply take a snap and fall down? What does that teach? What the parents should have done is simply put an arm around a kid, say something like “You really got whipped today”, and then try to figure out what to work on to make sure you never lost like that again. When Coach K started at Duke, they had a game where they simply were crushed. Someone asked him if they were just going to forget that game and move forward. He said they would move forward, yet they would never, ever forget and would do everything in their power to make sure that type thing never happened again while he coached Duke basketball. That is how to respond.

    • Tim Elmore on November 1, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Well put, thanks for your comment. I think it’s safe to say Coach K’s career and his athletes turned out okay even with a few bad games along the way:)

  2. charlene.fonseca on November 1, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Bullying in the traditional sense of the word? Absolutely not. I’m hearing the word change its definitions in the past few years now, though, and the definition appears to have become something like this: for those who are stronger, for groups who make up the “majority,” or for anyone who chooses to maintain morals that do not coincide with the new societal norms, those people are not considered nice enough for the rest of the world; hence, bullies. This is a touchy subject, I’m aware.

    • TMax01 on December 4, 2013 at 10:17 am

      Whining about how you are being bullied because you wish you were still had a majority that could dictate “societal norms” is bullying. It just isn’t a very effective form of bullying, anymore.

  3. Gary Lehmann on November 1, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Bullying? No. I had many “Aha!” moments reading your article. I helped coach my son’s Little League team through a winless 19 game season, where we lost most games by double digits. Not once did I, my fellow coaches, players, or parents ever say or imply we were being bullied. We got beat, we talked about what went well for us, and what did not go well, and we tried to get better going into the next game – great life lessons for all. I thought your point about ‘hurt vs. harm’ is spot on – too many parents/adults are confused about those terms, and that confusion is hurting their kids now, and has the potential to harm their kids in the future. Lastly, I totally agree that equating a crushing, apparently ‘sportsmanship conducted’ youth sports event result with bullying detracts from the seriousness of actual youth-on-youth bullying.

    • Tim Elmore on November 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm

      Thanks for your comment Gary. I’m happy to hear you’ve taken a different approach with your athletes and have helped them learn and grow through disappointing games. I appreciate your leadership.

  4. Donnie Anderson on November 1, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Unfortunately this term “bully” is being bantered about and so overused that it loses it’s effectiveness in describing a true bullying situation. Anything that is negative is now being touted as “bullying”. Much like the old story about crying wolf, it now is becoming so overused that when a true situation arises it will be less believable. I also find it amusing that the parents don’t have a problem with the kids dressing in pads and going out and hit each other as hard as possible, tackling each other and even giving a high five and celebrating after a good sack or tackle, but they classify the score as being the “bully” factor. If the score was the opposite they would have been bragging at work the next day about how awesome a game it was and how THEIR child will make the NFL, drafted first round and circumventing all the rules against it because THEIR child is so AWESOME! I am a former school teacher and currently a children’s pastor and even the kids are getting things confused now. I have had kids say they are being “bullied” because they simply don’t get along with someone in their group or if they don’t get the “first” of whatever they want, place in line, snack, chair etc. Welcome to the real world where you will not always get along with everyone and you will not always get everything you want or be first at everything.

    • Tim Elmore on November 1, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Absolutely. I love what you said about celebrating after a sack or tackle yet considering the score as a “bully factor”. Thanks for your thoughts Donnie!

    • Jeff Miller on November 1, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      Very well put and you are right…the word bullying is becoming a word that is being taking out of context and what bullying really is.

  5. Deagan on November 1, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I agree not bullying. However maybe in the process of putting together a bullying guideline we can also teach sportsmanship to our coaches and young athletes!

    • Tim Elmore on November 1, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      That’s a great thought Deagan. Maybe an increased focus on sportsmanship would eliminate some of the bullying episodes.

  6. chrysp11 on November 1, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I appreciate your points about adults interfering and embarrassing our kids. Parents are too protective and combative…and kids don’t learn to work it out on their own or handle adversity that way.
    I played basketball all my life…and like the coach K story, I remember the embarassing game where we lost 83-13 my freshman year. It hurt but it never occurred to us to call that bullying. We were outmatched…it was the “Agony of defeat” and those lessons are just as important as the lessons where we WIN 83-13!
    We must be very careful teaching our kids what these terms mean and how we handle situations. What I don’t want is my daughter growing up with “victim” syndrome, always pointing the finger at someone else for her hardship instead of looking in the mirror and saying “how can I do better?”
    Thanks for the insight.

  7. Jeff Miller on November 1, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    I agree with number 2. Running up a football score is not is just a game and one team obviously had more talent and better coaching…maybe the parents of the team that had zero, needs to take it up with their coach..Bullying is someone who threatens another person constantly by words or physical abuse to the point of one becoming discouraged or depressed or emotionally withdrawn..I should know, I was the receipiant of being bullyed but I turned out alright.
    The parents of the losing team needs to have some common sense in all this and just kep encouraging their kids to try harder.

  8. Jeff Fessler on November 2, 2013 at 9:11 am

    I almost agree with 100% of this article, save one thing: the seeming inference that technology is to blame for a lack of empathy. While I do believe that our use of technology and lack of responsible training in technology carries some of the blame, it is irresponsible and misleading to lay blame at the foot of an inanimate entity. Technology is not a human being, not can it be blamed, lest we promote irresponsibility.

    In our “no fault” oriented society, encouraging parents, teachers, professors and other technical leaders to blame the technology is going to create even bigger problems down the road. However, if we begin to incorporate some of the other instructions Tim has expressed for using technology to teach empathy, we will be far less likely to experience a culture that simply blames inorganic concepts and more likely to see responsible tech leaders step up to make a difference.

    • Tim Elmore on November 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment and input. I agree with what you say, but it seems we have a misunderstanding. I don’t blame technology for a lack of empathy. I am saying there is a correlation here. How we use technology causes the lack of empathy. People are still responsible.

      • Jeff Fessler on November 5, 2013 at 10:41 pm

        Ah, yes, that is most certainly different…thank you for the update to the original article! Blessings.

  9. Richard Jr. Copeland on November 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    As a kid I played football for the 12-13 year old league. In two seasons the only game we won was when the other team’s bus got lost and only half the opposing players showed up, so the coach forfeited the game. The irony here is that 32 of his players did show up and we had a total of 15 players on our team. Most games we played over those two seasons we would only have 15 people or less to the games. I think we only scored 2 touchdowns in two years as well.
    We never considered the other teams as bullying, we put more of the blame on the lack of players and willingness to continue. Every player on my team had to learn two or three positions on both defense and offense. We played hard, enjoyed the practices and loved the game. To this day when I see my old coach I still thank him for taking us and coaching football. We all learned valuable lessons of how to deal with defeat and continuing to give 100% even when we know we can’t win the game.
    To call this 91-0 game bullying is to deny the losing team valuable life lessons. In the “real world” we don’t get to call foul when we put our heart into work and a seemingly less deserving co-worker gets the promotion we were striving for. We don’t get to complain to mommy and daddy when our boss tells us to cancel our weekend plans because the company is behind schedule.
    To call this bullying also robs the feeling of victory from those players that worked hard to achieve that win. They worked hard, they played hard, they won and they deserved that win. Maybe the practice more, maybe they have more players to deal with exhaustion, maybe they are more intelligent or more talented, in any case they won and they should have their 5 minutes of fame, not belittled and called bullies.
    Parents need to stop thinking of the children as children but think of their children as future adults.

    • Tim Elmore on November 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm

      Hi Richard. Thank you so much for the comment. You have some great insights.

  10. STLblue on November 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I agree that the game was not bullying, life is not always fair. Although, I do think that coaches and teachers need to understand the definition of bullying. My daughter’s HS swim coach told my daughter that “she swims better when she’s not taking her anxiety meds” is unacceptable and a detriment to physical well-being. And then, her knowing that my daughter is struggling emotionally and allows her team mates make “Ugly” comments about her. The coach did not put a stop to the team mates behavior, but instead brushes my daughter off and forces her to make a decision if she’s swimming or not in a public forum. Stating “well, we’ve got (another swimmer) so that’s fine if your not going to swim”. My daughter has been swimming since she was five and this coach/teacher crushed her passion for the sport and reinforced that the team mates behavior is acceptable. As a parent, I’m not one to fight my kids fights, because they need to learn that there will always be people in their lives that disappoint and humiliate them. But, this coaches/teachers’ favoritism and actions, I feel are a form of bullying, because she is a person of authority in these young kids lives and can make or break them.

    • Tim Elmore on November 5, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      So sorry to hear the struggles your daughter is facing. I agree with you. The coach is not leading well. Every school needs to understand the true definition of bullying.

  11. Elizabeth on November 4, 2013 at 12:33 am

    I would not call winning a game by a large margin in a competitive sport bullying. There may be some things to say about overdoing things when it comes to blowouts, but I really do think that the word “bullying” should be restricted to other kinds of things.
    I feel like in our society there is a victim mentality. Some people seem willing to do anything to either get their name out so people will take a side, or try to get some form of payment for their “loss.” Losing isn’t fun, but it can be handled graciously. We can turn the other cheek when we are wronged. We can learn to be willing to be humble and then get back up when we are wrong.
    People are able to learn from losing. That is a wonderful gift, and one that I think many are missing out on in our society.

    • Tim Elmore on November 5, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for the comment. There is so much to be learned from losses.

  12. Jen76 on November 4, 2013 at 9:00 am

    I completely agree Tim! This is not bullying, from everything I have read the team that won played a classy game. My son recently played against a higher caliber hockey team and lost 17-2, the players and coaches from the other team were a great group and our boys came off the ice feeling great, knowing that they had played their hearts out and had nothing to be upset about. The kids from the other team came into the arena lobby telling their parents how proud they were for not celebrating goals and making multiple passes before shooting on net. It doesn’t always turn out that way but even with a less classy team I would never judge a dominate team as a bully.

    • Tim Elmore on November 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Hi Jen. I agree with what you have read. Everything that I have read shows that the other team played a classy game. Glad to hear your son’s team was able to experience that, and come away stronger. Thank you for the comment!

  13. TMax01 on December 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

    I think the parent who called it bullying was bullying. Of course, Dr. Tim is now bullying the parent (in absentia), because guess what? Sometimes hurt does equal harm, and, no, all the adults in your youth were not wise and reasonable while now they all suck.
    People have been taught by post-modernism that bullying is defined by the effect it has on the victim, which is inaccurate. Bullying can only be defined by the intent of the bully.
    I think schools creating guides defining bullying, is also bullying.

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A Definition for Bullying