Child protection in sport coaching is the responsibility of every individual involved in any sporting organisation. No parent, coach, board member or community member wants to wake up one day to learn that there needs to be an investigation into a coach’s or organisation’s conduct relating to child safety. Fortunately, there are some fundamental steps that can be taken to minimise the risk of this occurring in your club or organisation.
While there will always be some clearly obvious child safety measures that all coaching staff and employees should adhere to and be alert to, there is no doubt that some elements can prove challenging for coaches. New research carried out in Europe and released in late 2021 showed that 44% of respondents experienced physical violence inside sport as children, 35% reported non-contact sexual violence and 20% reported contact sexual violence. Abuse was highest amongst those competing in international sport compared to recreational sport, and most commonly the perpetrator was the athlete’s coach.
The challenge for coaches
Coaches are largely employed on the basis that they have the skills to assist athletes to reach their sporting potential. In some environments, that might include shouting or getting angry at athletes to motivate them, in another touch will be essential. How coaches get their results varies.
Occasionally, this can lead to blurred lines between what is acceptable or not acceptable in terms of the treatment of athletes. It is a coach’s job to employ techniques to reach new levels, but not when those techniques may be considered a potential well-being and safety issue. For example, in the recent case of Liddick v Gymnastics Australia and Sport Integrity Australia, the National Sports Tribunal (NST) found that Liddick (former senior national coach for the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Team) had committed two breaches of the relevant Member Protection Policy (MPP): one breach involved a threat to lock the complainant and her teammates in their rooms and feed them “peas and carrots under a door”; and a second involved telling the complainant and some of her teammates that they were overweight and this was the reason for their underperformance at the Olympic Games.
However, notably, the NST found that three of the five complaints heard by the NST did not amount to harassment or abuse under the MPP. In relation to one allegation, the NST found “as the national coach asking questions or making comments about the performance of the team as alleged in Allegation 5 does not amount to harassment, abuse or ridicule within the meaning of MPP Version 4” – that allegation was therefore dismissed. This case demonstrates the difficulties in differentiating between appropriate coaching behaviour and behaviour which constitutes harassment or abuse.
Given the varying coaching styles and athlete needs, how can an organisation truly ensure that its children and adult athletes are not put at risk? How can coaches be supported to know exactly what is and isn’t permitted in your organisation? What can be done to ensure the parameters are clear and still allow your organisation to maintain the levels of high performance that it is known for?
It is a coach’s role to find ways for individual athletes to reach their potential. How one athlete responds to training techniques will be different from another athlete. Coaching can be a difficult role to perform and as sport lawyers we empathise with the challenges that people in these roles face. However, we also want to ensure that coaches can be sufficiently supported to protect their own reputation and legacy in their sport and that sports organisations and clubs can feel secure in the knowledge that they are doing everything they can to protect their members, athletes and volunteers.
From a club or organisation perspective, the consequences of an investigation can be significant and long-term. For instance, most parents will think twice about having their children participate in a sport or environment, if there are concerns about children being harmed or if it could be an unsafe culture.
Drawing a line in the sand
As you will be aware, harm can take many forms including physical, verbal, sexual, or emotional abuse. Overtraining also needs to be considered as part of this conversation. Even if your organisation only has adults, your organisation’s reputation can still be at risk when parents and children associate, for instance, a harmful diet culture or sexual abuse with a particular sport.
With high profile cases in gymnastics, women’s football (soccer) and more recently swimming, each involving varying forms of child abuse, the need for organisations at all levels to revisit and ensure their child safety policies and procedures are comprehensive, is essential. Even in organisations where children are not actively involved, it can still be important to ensure that a healthy culture is maintained within the sport to ensure continued participation.
Why child safety is relevant in all sport environments
Participation from a young age is always crucial for any sport, even if it is not child-focused. Why? Because every sport requires a pool of talent coming through the ranks and not being pushed out of the sport due to an unsafe culture. Every sport is entirely reliant upon children participating at the grassroots level. If there are fewer children participating, then there will be fewer adults participating, fewer adults watching or supporting the sport at the elite level and less funding available to the sporting organisations involved in the sport.
Child protection in sport coaching
In recent times, Swimming Australia issued an unreserved apology to the elite female swimmers who faced mistreatment and a toxic culture, at the hands of the coaching staff. We heard young swimmers discussing the critique of their body, with pressure on them to lose weight and restrict their food consumption to the point that it harmed their performance. In some cases, resulting in Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S). Such revelations are likely to harm the sport.
As mentioned above, the Liddick case demonstrates that there have likely been similar issues occurring in the sport of gymnastics. A review of the sport in 2020 by the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed persistent use of highly authoritarian coaching techniques, the prevalence of inappropriate and harmful weight management and body shaming practices leading to eating disorders and disordered eating, and a sense amongst the gymnastics’ community that there was a “toxic” culture. Gymnastics Australia has responded to these findings by (amongst other things) adopting new procedures for dealing with complaints.
High profile cases like these have meant all sporting organisations and coaches need to reexamine if they have the balance right between pushing people to perform at their best, and ensuring child safety and athlete mental well-being are of equal importance.
There have also been revelations of child sexual abuse across a range of sports in Australia and internationally.
So, what is involved in making sure what you have in place currently, is adequate to assist coaches to do their job effectively as well as manage potential safety risks?
What is needed to ensure there is 100% clarity about guidelines for coaches to follow, and ensure that child protection and safety in general, is not compromised?
Minimising risk and consequences in your sporting environment
Creating clear child safety policies and procedures is the starting point to help manage these risks. Policies that cover all sides including teachers, coaches and trainers, as well as the athletes. This likely means a need for separate policies and codes of conduct for coaches, volunteers, staff, club executives and athletes.
Having these policies is only one step in this process. The second piece is ensuring coaches are well-trained and have a clear understanding about what is and is not acceptable within your organisation or club. Additionally, making sure everyone is aware of the policies, has read them, and knows the consequences if any policies and procedures are not followed, is essential.
The education piece is often the most overlooked element, and yet it is one of the best ways to avoid these issues. Sitting alongside education is the general club culture on this issue – where there is broad knowledge that child abuse won’t be tolerated, members will be prepared to speak up and report early incidents they observe. The wrong type of members will move on or be moved on quickly.
But all of this is only as good as the detail included in the policies and code of conduct that are put in place.
A satisfactory or comprehensive approach?
You will likely already have some policies in place. Any policies you have in place should clearly detail what the process is if a concern is raised, and if these issues will be investigated internally or with the assistance of a third party.
A good child safety policy will also detail what duty of care each person has, and who any concerns should be flagged with. These policies should also provide details for what to do in the event there are concerns about an issue not being investigated properly.
If your club or organisation is serious about safety and avoiding these issues, then you also need to have good procedures in place. One example might be to ask an athlete, member or employee on their onboarding form if they have any previous sexual offence charges against them. In this instance, you would then need to have a policy in place detailing what action would be taken if someone were to answer ‘yes’ to this question. Would all parents, athletes, team members and management be notified?
There are a range of elements that can be included in these types of policies to significantly reduce risks for children, athletes and members as well as reduce the financial and reputational risks to your organisation.
Generic child safety policy and procedures will, most times, not go far enough in significantly reducing these risks. To be confident that you are doing the right thing by your coaches, athletes, members and the organisation at large, you should have these policies reviewed annually. They may need to be customised to ensure they will meet the unique needs of your sport, people, organisation and community.
As we have seen in many cases where safety has been compromised in sporting environments, it can sometimes take years for allegations to come to light. If years down the track it is ascertained that 2022 was the year that the alleged offence occurred, the child safety policies and procedures that your organisation has in place now, will be investigated. And if the alleged offences are proven, a decision will be made as to how culpable the coaches, management and organisations were.
Article by Alexandria Anthony
Related Articles: It’s Not Child’s Play: Sports Organisations and Child Safety Offences
At SportsLawyer we are specialists in child safety policies and procedures. We partner with your club, membership group or sporting organisation to review effective policies that meet your organisational needs. We also assist with the delivery and education of these policies to ensure the policies are not just in place, but can be clearly followed. Get in touch with our team, discuss how we can work together for the success of your sporting club or organisation here.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be relied upon as legal advice. The contents of this article should be regarded as information only, and for specific legal matters, independent advice should always be sought. Please contact Paul Horvath on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (03) 9642 0435 to discuss any matter or to arrange an appointment.