How to prevent hazing in your organization

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A recent google search for “hazing” in the news turned up 128,000 hits this morning. I’ve been asked a few times about hazing and it’s impact:  Is it happening more now than ever? Is there a difference between physically, mentally and emotionally abusive hazing? What can coaches and organizations do about the problem?  It’s got me thinking about the subject and doing a little research.

From my own experience, as a freshman in college back in the early ’90s I was hazed. Both as a member of the soccer team and a fraternity. And I also doled it out as an upperclassman.  I suspect I am like millions of people for whom hazing did not have much of a lasting negative effect. So little effect that I never really considered that I was “hazed” until I started writing this article.  However, it is safe to say that there are countless others for whom hazing has had a seriously negative impact.

My situation is not unique. In one study, 47% of high school athletes reported being hazed, but only 8% identified the behaviors as “hazing.” While hazing did not have a negative impact on me, it definitely has the propensity to get out of control and have severe negative effects, such as emotional trauma, physical injury and in rare cases, death.  As athletic directors, coaches, and parents, we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

Before we discuss how to stop the overblown types of hazing and it’s negative effects, and replace with positive team building rituals, we have to understand why it happens in the first place. What is hazing? Why is hazing even a thing in the first place? What do athletes get out of it? What need is it serving a team?

What is hazing?  Hazing can be defined as embarrassing, ridiculous, cruel, and sometimes abusive rituals and events used to initiate new members into a group.  Hazing is most frequently known to happen among high school and collegiate sports teams, fraternities and sororities, social clubsgangs, the military and other groups.

Why is hazing even a thing?

“Love born from pain is the real thing” – Matisyahu “Love Born”

As the song lyrics above infer,  sometimes negativity does bring people together. Going through pain and hardship together and surviving it does build a bond. Doing challenging tasks together can promote solidarity, conformity, and social identity, all important qualities for athletic teams. Hazing plays on the human need to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  And not only that, but the harder it seems to join a group, or the more a member has to do to earn entry, the more perceived meaning membership in that group has.  In other words, belonging to a groups means more to the members when it’s harder to join.

What makes hazing so dangerous?  So hazing’s origins got started with good enough intentions: rituals for new members to go through to prove themselves worthy of the group, conform, and build bonds with the other members.  But we know where good intentions can end up.

Hazing rituals become traditions over time, where, once a new member goes through the process, they are “in.”  Then the following year, they are on the other side, have gone through the ritual, and get to apply it instead of being subjected to it.   The most negative of mutations of these rituals occur when a once-hazed freshman now has the power. And why just keep doing the same old boring rituals when I thought of this newer, better, version?  And it escalates until you have something tragic happen.

Teams want unity, they want bonding, and they want to feel ownership and belonging.  So it is up to leaders: athletic directors, coaching directors, head coaches, assistant coaches, and parents to provide these things for their teams.

How do you know if hazing is happening within your organization?  Chances are there is some type of team rituals or hazing going on, whether it is completely benign or downright illegal.  Here are some of the main challenges for athletic directors, coaches and parents:

1 – Most hazing occurs in secret, without the coaches’ knowledge – this is part of the allure – bonding between the members of the team without the authority figure.

2 – New members of the team are likely to be afraid to report it, due to alienating themselves from the team or being seen as soft, weak, or not down with the team.

3 – Groups may see it as team building or team bonding, but not hazing (there could be a fine line between the two).

4 – Some players (maybe the majority) aren’t phased by it so “what’s the big deal?”

How can leaders stop hazing within their organization?  Like most issues that a team faces, it depends on the culture and the context in which it’s happening.   How can a coach break a cycle of hazing within a program? Some hazing rituals are built into the fabric of the school or program for generations – can a coach stop it?

1 – Know it likely exists in some form or another within your team. Don’t be an ostrich, with your head in the sand, hoping that it’s not going on.

2 – Create and promote a positive culture through Vision, Mission and Core Values.  A culture where hazing is not needed because you fill the need it serves!

         –  Provide plenty of positive team building, create your own challenging, yet safe and positive rituals

         –  Provide an environment where the team has ownership

3 – Communicate your Vision, Mission, and Core Values to all members of the team

         – Communicate frequently with team leaders and more experience members of the team

         – Provide communication lines and protocols between coach and players so that everyone feels a responsibility to the health of the team

3- Continually evolve your culture to meet the need of the players.

It’s up to the leaders to create a culture where athletes learn, grow, improve, thrive, and build character on an individual level.  And a culture that promotes team unity, leadership and communication. Hazing is without question a huge threat to individuals and teams.  To pretend it doesn’t exist, or to deal with it only on a reactive basis is not a good plan.  Be proactive, and model the behaviors and traits you want to see in your athletes, teams, and organizations.

For more information on how to build a winning culture from top to bottom, check out our AMPlify program.

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