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Safeguarding in Sport

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In light of the recent allegations of sexual abuse in sport, new enquiries and appeals have been launched to try to uncover how extreme some cases were, with 4 police forces investigating the allegations in football and more than 20 former footballers coming forward. In the wake of the scandal coming to light, NSPCC has set up a hotline and has confirmed it has had more than 100 calls to report abuse in sport. It has now come into question how safe are children in Sport, and could more be done to protect them? Click here for more information.

Having been involved in sport at an early age, I then started coaching gymnastics and trampolining. I did various sports when I was younger including swimming and dancing, but gymnastics was a sport my family invested a lot of time in and having competed in trampolining at a National level, I decided I wanted to pass my knowledge on and have the same impact in other gymnasts lives as my coaches had in mine.

When I first started coaching at the age of 14, I was made to attend my first ‘Safeguarding and Protecting Children’ workshop. I have now been on 4 of these workshops to keep my certificate up to date. I attended the workshops through ‘SportsCoachUK’, who state that by attending, all participants will be able to:
• Identify and recognize good coaching practice and the implications for your coaching
• Explore your values and feelings in relation to child abuse, and recognize their potential impact on your response
• Recognise and respond to possible signs of child abuse
• Take appropriate action if concerns about a child arise

In summary, the workshop claims to help coaches to recognise all signs of abuse, how to deal with it and to ensure you protect yourself. Click here to find more information. 

The workshop lasts approximately 3 hours, with some renewal workshops lasting only an hour and a half. Under British Gymnastics (BG) guidelines, all coaches and volunteers must provide proof of attending a workshop every 3 years, along with an enhanced DBS check (also every 3 years) in order to register with BG which enables coaches/helpers to attend courses to get qualifications and covers them for insurance. Having spoken to other UK sports governing bodies, I have found these policies are the same in most sports including Football, Rugby and Cricket.

All adults involved in any sport have a duty to listen and report any concerns, even if it is only rumours or gossip they have heard in passing- to turn a blind eye to any accusation or concern could possibly be to allow it to continue. Having said that, I believe that to accuse anybody of any form of child abuse could be potentially life-ruining, so distinguishing between real and false accusations is of the utmost importance for any welfare officer before escalating the matter further.

Anybody who works with children should know how important it is to never put themselves in a situation where an accusation can be made- to be left alone with a child or a group of children in a closed environment could be detrimental if there ever is an allegation. With this in mind, it never fails to amaze me how many coaches will still naively put themselves in this situation without thinking anything of it, purely because they believe they are trusted by the gymnasts and parents.

Thankfully, I haven’t heard of many sexual abuse cases in gymnastics over the past decade, but that isn’t to say there haven’t been any. The few accusations I have heard about in gymnastics are ‘inappropriate touching’, a lot of which have been thrown out of court. The reason for this is that due to gymnastics being such a dangerous sport, a lot of hands-on coaching/ supporting techniques are used in order to keep the gymnasts safe whilst learning new skills… sometimes if a gymnast is falling (probably onto their head as they like to do this!), most coaches instincts will be to catch them wherever possible to save them from hurting themselves.

So what happens if a coach saves a gymnast from breaking their neck, but happens to catch them in an ‘inappropriate’ area? Should the coach then be penalized for saving the gymnast? If coaches are being convicted for saving a child, will coaches will be too scared to support their gymnasts?

So how do we ensure that we protect everybody within sport?

It could be argued that as these allegations all took place 20+ years ago, the current safeguarding procedures are working and child protection laws that have been put in place have put a stop to any major abuse in sport, but how can we be sure? As criminals get smarter, they will continue to find ways to overcome obstacles in their way, which adds pressure to ensure that we are always 2 steps ahead.

I personally believe that the guidelines in place for safeguarding, although good, could definitely be improved. All adults involved in sport should have to do their safeguarding workshops more frequently- at least once a year. The guidelines for welfare officers in clubs, although there, are extremely relaxed with a lot of parents/ participants having never even met their welfare officers. I believe all clubs should hold a ‘monthly welfare meeting’ where athletes, parents, coaches etc. have the opportunity to approach their welfare officer with any issues they feel may need recording, and each sport need to make all of their members more aware of how to report any issues or concerns they have. This should be essential to clubs gaining either their BG insurance or their GymMark certificate, and monitored by both the welfare officer and head coach.

Unfortunately, there will always be people in positions to abuse children, but I firmly believe that education and communication is key to catching these individuals before they have the chance to cause any real damage.

For more information of British Gymnastics and their guidelines click here.
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