January 2019

Boy sitting on ball

Last year the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its Final Report into sport, recreation, arts, culture, community and hobby groups. It marked a significant milestone in our collective awareness and understanding of child abuse in sport. The public hearings, private sessions and research of the Royal Commission gave us valuable insights into the characteristics of, and risk factors for, child sexual abuse in sport and recreation. These were encapsulated in Volume 14 of the Royal Commission and are worth considering as they help us better understand why abuse occurs, how we might prevent it occurring in the first place and how we might respond if it does occur.

In this article we will focus on simple strategies you can put in place to help prevent abuse occurring in your sport.

Risk factor 1 - Grooming

Grooming is essentially where a perpetrator builds trust with a child, and often the parents, in order to exploit and abuse the child. The Royal Commission noted that grooming in sport and recreation followed similar patterns to other institutional contexts.

However, the two types of grooming identified that were most prevalent in sport and recreation were:

  • manipulative techniques, such as coaxing and cajoling, and
  • coercive techniques, such as blackmail and threats.

In this context, we can look at the common strategies used for grooming and, importantly, some ways to help prevent them occurring in the future.

Coaching relationships

Coaches or instructors in sport are in a position of power and authority over their athletes. Trust is a vital component of any good coaching relationship. Coaches and athletes get to know each other well, often over years where the boundaries between a coaching relationship and a personal relationship can become blurred. Perpetrators can exploit this situation. It can be difficult for sports clubs to identify manipulative and controlling behaviours of perpetrators where small changes are made over time as ‘special relationships’ are formed with young athletes. This is further complicated where coaches use social media to communicate with athletes.

So what can be done to help prevent grooming situations developing over time?

  • provide regular education and training for coaches and instructors. This should include discussions and information about professional and personal boundaries so that all coaches and personnel are aware of what the boundaries are.
  • develop guidelines and codes of behaviour that specifically identify expectations of coaches and instructors, including use of social media. Make sure everyone is aware of these and sign off on them.
  • listen and talk to children and young people. Watch out for signs and indicators that personal boundaries are being crossed.

Inappropriate activity and adult material

Perpetrators of child abuse can use alcohol and other enticements as part of grooming. This is all part of building trust and a bond that is often hidden from others yet forms an important part of the grooming technique. Similarly, chocolates, illicit drugs and cigarettes can be used and seen as a favour or secret understanding between coach and athlete.

Even adult material, such as pornographic magazines, can be used to build a bond and desensitise young people to sexual behaviour. Perpetrators can gage the young persons reaction to pornography as part of grooming.

So what can be done to help prevent inappropriate activity?

  • develop alcohol and gift policies that specifically state what is not allowed and what should be declared.
  • make sure everyone, particularly young people, know that gifts and favours are not part of the usual coach - athlete relationship. This can be done through education, newsletters, posters and induction/welcome material.
  • while it can be difficult to identify these type of behaviours, watch out for signs, such as comments or perceived jokes about favours and gifts. If you have concerns then talk to a colleague or official at the club.

Erosion of interpersonal boundaries

Perpetrators may be able to employ subtle behaviours aimed at eroding the interpersonal boundaries of the child. The Royal Commission described this as a process of ‘gradual entrapment’. Here, the perpetrator seeks to disempower the athlete and reduce their personal autonomy. The athlete becomes more dependent on the perpetrator and, hence, the perpetrator has more control over the athletes life.

Many sports involve direct physical contact between children and their instructors. Most often there are legitimate reasons for this. However, lines can be crossed between what is appropriate and acceptable contact and what is inappropriate.

In the Royal Commission private sessions survivors of child abuse said they did not feel confident enough to talk about inappropriate touching and others, even though they were not fully comfortable with situations, failed to call out to stop it.

So what can be done to help prevent erosion of interpersonal boundaries?

  • ensure that coaches and/or instructors ask permission to touch an athlete. Even if they have been coaching/instructing for a long time coaches and instructors should regularly ask for permission, particularly if it is a new form of touching. This can be done through education or the development of codes and guidelines.
  • ensure young athletes have an avenue to speak up when they feel uncomfortable. This can be done through athlete committees or being given an adult contact (such as a Welfare Officer) that is confidential and available at all times.
  • talk about it. If people don’t talk about it does not mean it is not an issue. Raising awareness and understanding is sometimes as simple as talking about it - in meetings, formally or informally.

Targeting vulnerability

Some children are more vulnerable to abuse than others. Perpetrators understand this. If a young persons home life is unsettled and insecure, with conflict, poor relationships or even violence, then that makes them vulnerable.

Sport can be a welcome reprieve from difficult family situations. Perpetrators can assume the ‘parental figure’ in a young persons life to build trust and affection. Sport also provides particular circumstances, such as camps or excursions, where perpetrators can exploit a young persons vulnerability.

Young people with communication difficulties or disabilities may be particularly vulnerable.

So what can be done to help prevent targeting vulnerability?

  • recognise when a young person is having problems in their home life. Have they become more withdrawn and quiet? Are they reluctant to go home? Are parents suddenly absent or not ‘picking up’ children?
  • provide an avenue for young people to talk. A Welfare Officer can be a good contact who can also keep relevant people informed and educated when situations change.
  • again, talk about the welfare of young people at your club and come to a collective understanding about changing circumstances. A ‘team’ approach to welfare means more people looking out for and identifying situations and where particular young people are vulnerable.

Risk factor 2 - Societal and community cultures

Sport and recreation clubs reflect the communities they are in. Sports clubs are generally very welcoming and open to anyone in the community. They are often the centre of community life.

The Royal Commissions research has shown that sport and recreation clubs are influenced by local cultures which can lead to and create risk factors for child abuse. Circumstances in which this may occur include:

Normalised violence and harassment

In some circumstances where sports over-emphasise competition and competitive contexts, violent and aggressive behaviours can become normalised. Violent and aggressive behaviour can be part of expressing masculinity and viewed as an important part of being a member of a club.

Harassment can be normalised too - in the form of verbal abuse, trash talk, sledging or pranks. Again, these become ‘just what is done around here’!

Two types of harmful behaviours were identified by the Royal Commission:

  • Bullying - unwanted, repeated and intentional, aggressive behaviour usually among peers. This can occur online as well as face-to-face.
  • Hazing - an organised, usually team based, form of bullying. This is part of a club or team initiation usually perpetrated by senior team members. It’s difficult to identify as it relies on secrecy.

These kind of practices makes young people vulnerable and isolated.

So what can be done to help prevent normalised violence and harassment?

  • prevention begins by understanding the issue. Education is key. Make harassment and discrimination training mandatory for coaches and officials at the club (link)
  • Specifically state in policies and codes that bullying and hazing practices are not tolerated in any circumstances. Ensure people are aware of these codes and policies by posting them on websites, on posters and in newsletters.
  • pick up on small cues and indicators such as crude comments and jokes that may indicate particular forms of harassment or discrimination.

Normalised sexualised cultures

Some sport and recreation environments lend themselves to sexualised behaviours being seen as normal. Where these type of behaviours are encouraged or ignored it can create particularly risky situations.

Sexualised conversations, even involving children, can become normalised over time, making it difficult to identify and remedy.

Perpetrators can escalate normalised sexualised behaviours, exploit situations and evade detection. What may be seen as harmless fun by some can be seen as an opportunity for perpetrators of child abuse.

So what can be done to help prevent normalised sexualised cultures?

  • make an effort to understand your club culture. Conduct your own cultural review.
  • listen to what people are saying. Write the words down and use them as part of the cultural review to demonstrate the types of cultures that have been created. Comments and conversations that are taken away from their original context can be very telling and stark!
  • cultures are habits that build over time. Make a list of individual and organisational habits - do any of these contribute to normalising sexualised behaviours?

Valuing adults over children

Sometimes, the prestige and position of coaches and instructors in sport and recreation can take precedence over the welfare of children. Experienced coaches and instructors are high value, particularly when there is a great importance placed on athletic and team success. Clubs want to succeed and want the best coaches and instructors possible. This drive to succeed can lead to clubs and communities being blind to vulnerability and exploitation.

As the Royal Commission pointed out ‘the power, authority and influence that some perpetrators hold can be far reaching.’

In extreme situations survivors of child abuse have recounted the way some sport and recreation communities alienated them and treated them as complicit or responsible.

So what can be done to help prevent a culture of valuing adults over children?

  • make child welfare the highest priority in your club. Ensure members and volunteers know that child welfare is the highest priority by communicating through meetings, brochures, posters, social media etc
  • appoint a Child Welfare Officer who’s role it is to put in place strategies and processes to protect children.

Level of involvement

Interestingly, the Royal Commission found evidence that further supports the link between the level of involvement in sport and an increased risk of abuse. The pressures on aspiring and elite performers can be intense, with heavy training routines and a lot of travelling to competitions and events. This can be socially isolating and a challenge for an athletes physical and psychological wellbeing.

The makes young people vulnerable to abuse, particularly where perpetrators are in positions of power and authority.

So what can be done to help prevent vulnerability due to level of involvement?

  • again, make athlete welfare the highest priority. This does not have to mean compromise on performance or quality. A happy and relaxed athlete performs at their best.
  • take a team approach to athlete welfare and make discussions on welfare a regular part of the routine for supporting your athletes.
  • ensure there are proper codes and policies in place that support athlete welfare.

The simple strategies outlined above are doable for any club. They are not meant to be exhaustive or detailed. They are intended to help give you a way forward to address child safety in response to the most comprehensive and far reaching examination of child safety in sport and recreation ever conducted in this country.

Below are further resources you can access to help move forward and ensure that sport and recreation is a safe place to be for children and young people.