Identifying risk factors for sex abuse in children’s sports

Feb 26, 2021 | Sexual Abuse

The frequent updates in the news about sex abuse in gymnastics have brought attention to the fact that coaches and other adults involved in sports are in prime positions to abuse their roles and harm children. According to CoachingBest, there are over 10 million U.S. children under 16 years old who participate in organized sports. 

To protect their children, what are the risk factors that parents should be alert to? 

Sports culture

While any young athlete may be vulnerable, some sport cultures and environments result in the acceptance of inappropriate behaviors. The fact that parents and children often trust their coaches to do whatever is necessary to produce a winning team or athlete can allow children to believe that their own well-being is secondary to winning. 

The relationship between coach and athlete

When coaches set healthy boundaries and focus on becoming a positive influence, it can change children’s lives forever. Parents trust that coaches will set and respect those boundaries, but blind trust can create vulnerability. 

Sports organizations

Many organizations do not have the knowledge or the resources to screen each person in contact with young people. Without professional associations to provide training and certifications, coaches do not typically have credentials to reassure parents of their qualifications. Some sports groups do not even perform a basic background check. 

Lack of guidelines

Parents should ask about guidelines that an organization, team or facility has in place. If there are none, Psychology Today recommends healthy guidelines for interactions between coaches and children, as well as between the children themselves. They include a zero-tolerance policy for sexual jokes or comments, no one-on-one interactions, no physical contact except as necessary for safety, open-door policies and supervision by two adults at a time in areas such as changing rooms. 

Parents may help their children to be alert to risk factors, as well, letting them know that they should say “no” when they are uncomfortable with a situation and that it is good to speak up when they see or experience something wrong.