We don’t listen to children when it comes to abuse in sport

Tackling a big issue. Neil Marshman

Sky Sports presenter Charlie Webster has said she revealed details about sexual abuse by her coach when she was young in order to “break the taboo about abuse as a whole.”

There are certainly issues within sport where too often, poor practice and abuse is tolerated. Who can forget the unravelling of the systematic abuse and cover up of football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and his subsequent jailing for 30 years in 2012?

A series of high profile cases, including a British Olympic swimming coach convicted for two rapes, and reports did lead to a change in official procedures and the creation of the NSPCC Child Protection in Sport Unit in 2001. This has driven the adoption of safeguarding standards within sport. But there is no evidence that this process has led to an increased awareness by children about their rights, the behaviour they should expect from adults and who they should turn to if they experience abuse.

A recent study, published by researchers from Edinburgh University and the NSPCC, found that although “participating in organised sport is a positive experience for most children and young people … a negative sporting culture exists, is accepted ‘as the norm’ and is perpetuated by peers, coaches and other adults.” The study reported widespread emotionally harmful treatment (75%) and unacceptable levels of sexual harassment (29%).

There are still plenty of anecdotal accounts of children experiencing bullying, adult pressure and exclusion, which has resulted in the Football Association’s Respect Campaign and grassroots campaigns such as Give us Back our Game.

The implementation of the Children Act 2004 gave emphasis to safeguarding within sport, particularly as this made it clear that promoting the welfare of children was not simply a professional task but the responsibility of all adults, many of whom in sport act in a voluntary capacity. A network of welfare officers now exist on a national, regional and club level in order to promote best practice and to provide a mechanism to deal with complaints or concerns.

For many children sport is a chance to be with friends and experience freedom away from the confines of school or home. This has associated benefits as children who take part in organised activities are more likely to experience a sense of well-being and achieve success. And participating in sports promotes resilience and self-sufficiency. But the way they experience sport is shaped by adults who determine the content, rules and expectations.

Celia Brackenridge, the foremost authority on child protection in sport, said , “Social control is adeptly applied in youth sport where adults choose, organise, deliver and evaluate activities without inviting comments or contributions from those who consume them – children.”

Being on the winning team

The culture of denial and silence is rooted in the reality that children’s sport replicates the professional game where winning is the prime motivation. This means that children compete for spaces in teams and at the elite end are under pressure to conform in order not to undermine their prospects of future success. In this context, to speak out is to risk being left out or incur the displeasure of the coach. A recent Guardian article brought into sharp focus the contrast between the glitter of the Premier League when compared to what it termed “the abuse, death threats, and withering numbers in grassroots football.”

An inevitably, a culture of denial or silence means that bullying, shouting and criticism, exclusion and hostility to opponents can go unchallenged. In Canada when a series of sexual abuse cases came to light in ice hockey, it was found that parent after parent was suspicious of the coach’s behaviour and attitude but buried their concerns for fear of scuppering their children’s chance at success. On a more routine level, there is a resigned acceptance that poor behaviour and unfair practice is just part of the deal.

Policy vacuum

There is a policy vacuum at national and local level. In 2010 the FA conducted a consultation that suggested that many young people had little or no knowledge of the FA’s safeguarding procedures or where they could get more information, advice and support.

Rectifying this will involve creating a culture where young people feel able to set their own priorities. The FA’s consultation on youth football included a series of road shows entitled Your Kids, Your Say. But where are the children’s voices in this?

Some good things have been happening. A project developed by PTS undertook work on behalf of organisations including the FA, British Judo and Sports Leaders UK to capture the voices of children resulted in training materials and a film that focused on young people’s priorities, such as more say in decisions usually the preserve of adults, such as choosing the captain of a team. The film featured a coach patting all his players on the back after a penalty shoot out but ignoring the child who missed the penalty that lost the game. One leading coach said the film should “have adults squirming on their backsides”.

PTS also developed a model of youth leadership, and a children’s consultation that identified what was important to children about being in sport and how this related to policies to keep them safe. Children who participated in an FA conference said they wanted an environment of fun, friendship, inclusion and safety that takes precedence over a competitive adult agenda.

One ten-year-old said: “The quality of relationships and experience is more important than the outcome”. Listening to and involving children is fundamental to ensuring that children speak out. If children are involved in decisions, they are more likely to trust adults and voice concerns.