There’s been a massive amount of long-overdue publicity lately about the issue of sexual abuse by coaches in youth sports, especially with the highly publicized and horrific case of USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar. Swimming has recently had its own high profile case with Ariana Kukors coming out and accusing her long-time coach Sean Hutchison of sexually assaulting her for over a decade, starting when she was 13. It’s not my goal here to discuss these cases, as many extremely capable journalists have done – see recent articles by Craig Lord of Swim Vortex (here, here and here).
Instead my goal here is to draw attention to the underlying conditions that can lead to these situations, and to address strategies to prevent these conditions from occurring.
NOTE: Throughout this post I use the term coach, but this can really mean any adult who is in an influential position on a team, including trainers, support personnel, doctors, etc.
All Youth Sports
Gymnastics and swimming have garnered much of the recent attention – combined these two sports have over 200 coaches on banned lists for sexually assaulting children. However, journalists and activists who have followed this topic uniformly report that every sport has this problem. The scary part is that the vast majority of sports don’t even have a published list of banned coaches, and may not even have a private list. We have no way of knowing. Sports experts have acknowledged that a coach banned in one sport can easily jump to another sport and start over again, with nobody the wiser.
We also have no way of knowing how many young athletes have been abused. However, simple extrapolation of the data for the millions of American children in sports would indicate that it numbers in the many thousands, if not tens of thousands in the US alone. The global number could only be obscenely larger.
So let’s be clear here. The abuse problem is not sport-specific, and it’s not location-specific. And the conditions that allow it to happen don’t appear to be random. Those conditions are related to the type of team environment that’s been created, and how the inevitable power imbalance is expressed.
Here are the keys elements that I think can lead to an abusive coach-athlete relationship.
- The coach is given authoritarian control over kids, with a voice that does not tolerate dissent. In fact, any form of questioning or unwillingness to go along with the coach is generally viewed as weakness and a sign of a troublemaker.
- Families and spectators are generally shut out of the training/competition process. Practices are often closed off so that parents cannot watch. This concept has been a source of much debate in coaching circles, where many swim teams still remain adamant that parents should not be present during training, and should not even observe training.
- One-on-one meetings behind closed doors with any coach are considered normal and a necessary part of the process. This can also include alone time with the coach when travelling, or just driving to and from practices.
- Parents cede normal parental control over to the coach. This sounds strange, but for some teams in our area, parents are not even allowed to stay in the same hotel, or travel with the team during away meets. Coaches and coach-appointed chaperones end up taking over the normal parental responsibilities. (This was considered normal when I was swimming decades ago. Only now do I understand how potentially abusive that could have been.)
Much has been made of the concept of grooming the athlete for future abuse. That’s where the coach starts out with innocent actions, such as shaking hands or high-5s, and slowly advances those actions into areas that are far from innocent. This is a very important aspect of the sexual assault process, and shouldn’t be ignored. However, it’s also an area that seems to be greatly misunderstood.
The fact that grooming could start out with shaking hands or high-5s should not mean we automatically rule those out. Those are innocent actions by themselves. The key element to the grooming process is that it eventually it must hide from public view. The escalation from innocent to inappropriate cannot happen if proper supervision and transparency is in place.
Steps We Can Take
Most of the steps we can take directly address the bullet points at the top of this post.
- A coach should never have unquestioned authority over their athletes, or unquestioned authority over their Board. Questions, and reasoned, intelligent answers are the give and take of any healthy relationship. This doesn’t mean that disrespect or disruptiveness should be encouraged. It just means that a level of respect for all parties is required.
- I know many coaches disagree with this, but training should never be closed off to the parents and family. The transparency of the training process is a vital part of developing trust in the coach, and ensuring the safety of the athletes. Abuse needs secrecy to survive.
- One-on-one meetings between the coach and athlete should NEVER be hidden from view. If a quiet one-on-one conversation is required, it should be completely visible to others even if they can’t hear the discussion. Parents should be allowed to ask about the nature of the conversation afterwards, and the athlete should always be allowed to inform their parents of the discussion. Transparency!
- Parents need to take appropriate responsibility for their children. This means they can travel with the team, and stay in the same hotel. Chaperones should have provided the team with a recent criminal record check.
- This next point is highly problematic for me. According to USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Policies – section 305.5, when a coach and athlete must travel together to away meets, all that is required is written permission from the parent/guardian. And yet everything about this screams out at me that this situation is ready-made for abuse. I understand that costs and schedules may preclude parents from being on that trip, but if proper protection for the athlete cannot be provided, then the trip should not happen. Period.
So, my suggestion. At no time should an athlete and coach travel alone to a meet. If another adult with security clearance cannot accompany them, the trip does not happen.
- Finally, we need to talk to our children, and let them know that it’s ok to say no. That if something doesn’t feel right, they have the right to get out of that situation. I fully realize that this may create awkward moments for everyone involved. But empowering our kids to say no to adults, and to challenge the power imbalance, is ultimately the most effective way to prevent abuse.
There is an unfortunate similarity between this issue of sexual assault of youths by state-complicit sports organizations, and another very dark time in sport.
During the 1970s and 1980s, East German sports officials forced many thousands of their elite athletes to take experimental drugs, resulting in massive numbers of Olympic medals, but also horrible health problems for these athletes for the rest of their lives. It was only after we learned of the details of this program did we understand how little the health of those athlete’s meant when compared to international sporting success.
Those decades are considered by many to represent the lowest point in modern sports. Unfortunately, the gradual unveiling and recognition of the sexual and psychological abuse of thousands of young athletes around the world indicates that we could be in a period of time just as dark.
Sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children is very real, and probably far more prevalent than most people think. It remains the responsibility of all parties involved (coach, support staff, athlete, parents, boards, sports organization) to be serious about their role in the process, and for everyone to actively ensure safety for the athletes. This has to be a higher priority than Olympic medals, or keeping your job.