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Preventing Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Youth Sports: What Parents Can Do

Children playing sports often make strong connections and develop a special trusting relationship with their coaches and instructors.  The power a coach has over an athlete sometimes results in sexual abuse, subjecting a child to severe psychological injuries that may last a lifetime.

The problem is that sexual abuse in sports is a problem that no one really wants to talk about.

Here are some steps experts say parents can take to minimize the risk that their child will be the victim of abuse and harassment in sports:

  • Ask if there is a policy in place. When you register your child for a sports program, ask if it has a harassment/abuse policy in place. If not, suggest that it implement one as soon as possible, even during the season.
  • Ask if the club does background checks on coaches. Find out if the club requires background checks of coaches. At a minimum, coaches should have job descriptions that define and limit their authority, references should be checked, and there should be ongoing monitoring and evaluation. In higher risk situations (such as when the coach frequently travels out of town on unsupervised trips with young athletes) background checks should be performed. Part of keeping children safe is not taking offense when asked about your own background. If you volunteer, and are asked to take part in screening, accept this as a positive step to keeping children safe.
  • Ask if coaches are certified and follow a code of ethics. Ask if the club's coach is certified and a member of a coaching association with a code of ethics. 
  • Establish expectations. Get involved and get to know your child's coach. Talk to the coach before the season starts. Discuss your expectations for the season. Ask the coach to involve your child in age-appropriate decisions. Better yet, hold a pre-season meeting to set physical, social and sexual boundaries.
  • Maintain open lines of communication. Maintain open and frank communication with the coach as the season progresses. If things occur that disturb you, talk to the coach about them. You may also wish to pursue any issues with the club executive or league. Speak out when you hear language or attitudes that contribute to the problem. Work to change policies you disagree with. If necessary, talk to the league, or the state or national sport organization.
  • Don't put the coach on a pedestal. The tendency is to give tremendous license to a coach with a good won-lost record. Interviewed for a 1994 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service article on sexual abuse in youth sports, Nancy Sears of New Brunswick, Canada said she complained about the abuse swim coach who was training her daughter, but that other parents and athletes tolerated his behavior because they were caught up in the drive for medals. The lesson: be careful not to put coaches on pedestals. As the Jerry Sandusky case makes clear, no coach is above reproach.
  • Teach your child that it is okay to say no. Don't tell your children to "listen to the coach and do everything the coach tells you to do." You need to teach your child to be assertive and establish strong personal boundaries. Tell your children that it's okay to say "no" if the coach is doing something that makes them feel creepy or uncomfortable in any way.
  • Attend practices and games. Make an effort to attend practices and games whenever you can. Your child will appreciate your interest, and you will have the opportunity to watch the coach in action, and see how she/he interacts with the athletes. Private or closed practices are a warning sign of abuse. If the coach wants to exclude you from practices, ask why.
  • Watch out for the kids of other parents. Keep an eye out for other children whose parents are unable to attend practices or games.
  • Recognize the warning signs of possible sexual abuse. For a listing of signs click here.
  • Don't be part of the problem. Make sure you are not part of the problem yourself by verbally abusing referees, coaches, or the competition. Children learn by example so model fair play by applauding good performances of both your child and his/her opponents. Make your child feel like a winner every time by offering praise for competing fairly and trying hard. Never emotionally abuse your child, such as by ridiculing him or her for making a mistake or losing. Encourage your child to play by the rules and resolve conflicts without resorting to hostility.
  • Prevention begins at home. For recommendations on what to say to your child about sexual abuse click here

Most recently revised August 14, 2014