Bullying is an epidemic in our society today. And it’s especially a problem in sports.

A recent survey of 22,000 high school students across the U.S. found that 48 percent of the respondents had been targets of hazing–a form of bullying in which kids are humiliated or required to take part in dangerous activities.

What Bullying Does

Athletes who are subjected to bullying will often lose focus, play or perform tentatively, feel anxious, drop out of tournaments or competitions, or quit sports altogether.

In addition, they’re reluctant to tell their parents or coaches they’ve been bullied because they’re embarrassed or feel shame.

Solution to Bullying

But here’s the good news: Whether you’re a coach or a parent, you can help your young athletes stay mentally tough in the face of bullies–and you can help them learn critical life lessons from this experience.

Bullies target all kinds of young athletes. They can set their sights on kids who are overweight, small or who lack confidence, for instance.

Bullies also target gifted athletes, generally because the bullies are jealous and want to intimidate the gifted athletes into leaving the competitive arena. No matter what the reason for the negative behavior, your job is to stop the bullying.

Role of Coaches

Coaches set the stage for how kids on a team treat one another. They should be very clear that they want to create an atmosphere of respect, support and team unity. They should also state clearly that they won’t tolerate players bullying each other or members of other teams.

“The coach can say, ‘On my team, this is how we are going to communicate and treat each other,'” says Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Why Good Kids Act Cruel.

If they don’t show that kind of leadership, their team members may engage in what he calls “social cruelty.”

“At the beginning of the season I say: ‘If I hear you talk negatively about anyone on our team, anyone on other teams, or the referees, or umpires, you will sit,'” says youth sports coach Doug Donaldson, president of PlaySportsTV.

“I make it something they understand from day one. The key is to really make sure they understand the impact their behavior has on the rest of the team.”

If coaches or parents witness or become aware of teasing, exclusion, threats or other forms of bullying, they need to take action.

Parents should talk directly to the coach and not try to talk to the bully’s parents. Parents shouldn’t accuse coaches for being responsible for the kids’ behavior, but should solicit their help.

How to Keep Athletes Mentally Tough

Parents and coaches can help kids by sharing with them tips from bullying experts like Pickhardt.

First of all, kids should understand it’s okay to feel afraid of bullies, says Pickhardt. However, they shouldn’t show that they’re afraid. In fact, they should identify how kids look when they’re afraid, and purposefully avoid looking like that.

For example, they should not slump their shoulders and should not avoid eye contact with the bully. Their goal is to look confident–even if they don’t feel it.

Next, kids should throw the bully off-guard, says Pickhardt. “Just when he thinks you’ll step away from him, step up and maybe say something friendly.” Young athletes might say, “After you’re done teasing me, maybe we can shoot a few hoops together.”

What Parents Can Do

Parents can be very helpful at this stage. “The goal of the parent is to coach the bullied child and give that child choices. They have choices they can try out.” Parents, for example, might help their kids come up with one-line responses to bullies, Pickhardt says.

When young athletes step up and respond to bullies with seeming confidence, they will likely throw the bully off-guard. Athletes can take this idea one step further. Next time they see the bully, they should approach him or her and say, “Hi, how are you?” or ask a question about sports.

“Bullies aren’t looking for people who will take the initiative,” Pickhardt says. “They are looking for people who will manifest fear.”

If adults can help children take these steps, the young athletes will learn critical life lessons. They’ll discover that they can handle very difficult situations–a discovery that will likely boost their confidence and enjoyment in sports.

Award-winning parenting writer Lisa Cohn and Youth Sports Psychology expert Dr. Patrick Cohn are co-founders of The Ultimate Sports Parent. Pick up their free e-book, “Ten Tips to Improve Confidence and Success in Young Athletes.