Guest commentary by Susan Woessner, USA Swimming Director of Safe Sport
There are many reasons why a child should participate in sports. Sports teach important life lessons including goal-setting, teamwork and self-confidence, not to mention the great exercise it provides athletes.
Unfortunately, competitive sports can also be a high-risk environment for misconduct, including physical and sexual abuse. These types of abuse can also have long-term damaging effects on a child’s psychological well-being.
Sports have always been a big part of my life. I grew up loving the water and eventually swam in college and was a member of the U.S. National Team. When I retired from competitive swimming, I earned a masters degree in social work and I now work as the Director of Safe Sport for USA Swimming, the national governing body of competitive swimming in the United States with 450,000 member athletes.
For the past three years, USA Swimming has worked to increase awareness to reduce the risk for abuse in the sport through its Safe Sport Program. While I am fortunate to have so many wonderful memories and life lessons from my time as an athlete, it’s a heartbreaking truth that victims of abuse often have the opposite experience.
The safety and well-being of children is the responsibility of all adults who work with kids. Here are five tips to help parents understand, identify, and prevent misconduct in sports to keep kids safe:
1. Learn about the Topic
Education is the most important tool we have to combat misconduct. Look for resources that can help you understand how abuse occurs and what you can do to address it. At USA Swimming, we provide free training for our non-athlete members, parents and our athletes. The training teaches individuals how to recognize signs of grooming behavior and boundary violations and what to do when you recognize red flag behavior or violations.
2. Create Healthy Boundaries
As with any relationship, it’s important to establish healthy boundaries between athletes and coaches and have clear expectations about the coach’s role. Coaches are very influential in the lives of young people and can have positive, long lasting effects on their athletes. This is an extremely powerful position for the coach, and every coach should recognize that responsibility.
A coach can often serve as a teacher, a mentor, or a role model for a young person. A coach is not there to be the athlete’s friend, their peer, or their romantic partner. A youth sports organization should have policies that establish the behavior it expects from its members. At USA Swimming, we have a member Code of Conduct, which spells out prohibited behavior, as well as Best Practices, which focus on creating strong boundaries between adults and athletes.
3. Identify and Address High Risk Areas
In order to commit misconduct, an offender needs privacy, access, and control. One way to reduce the risk for abuse is to create strategies designed specifically to address these high-risk areas. For USA Swimming, these high risk areas include travel, locker rooms, and electronic communication and we require our member clubs to adopt policies that spell out expectations for and create boundaries around each of these situations. For example, regardless of gender, a coach can’t share a hotel room or other sleeping arrangement with an athlete. We know that hotel rooms create an opportunity for privacy, so this rule removes that opportunity.
4. Speak Up
If you do recognize red flag behaviors or policy violations, say something! Your youth sports organization should designate someone – maybe the coach, the team administrator or a parent advocate – who is there to hear your concerns or take a report of inappropriate behavior. It is important that your organization designate one or two people to report to and then make sure that all athletes, parents and coaches involved in the club know who that person is. Sometimes several parents or athletes have a concern about an adult involved in the organization. Individually, the concerns could seem innocent or unintentional, but when viewed together, these concerns can clearly illustrate behavior that requires action.
5. Talk to your Kids!
Physical and sexual misconduct can be a hard topic for parents to talk about with their children but having these important conversations is extremely important and can help prevent your child from being a victim of abuse. By having open and ongoing conversations with children about their bodies and appropriate boundaries, it will be easier for them to talk to you if anyone is making them feel uncomfortable and ask you to help.
Susan has worked with USA Swimming since 2004 and became Safe Sport Director in 2010. She received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas and swam competitively for Indiana University. Find out more about Safe Sport or contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.