Addressing Abuse, Harassment, and Bullying in Sports
Providing practical research-based guidance on how you can develop a safe and healthy environment for all athletes.
In response to the recent high-profile media cases of athlete abuse by coaches, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) reiterates that providing and maintaining a safe environment for athletes is the first priority for all strength and conditioning coaches.
This environment should be safe in terms of physical, psychological, and emotional health. Athletes must be able to feel safe and comfortable in their training setting in order to gain the most benefit from the program. The purpose of this article is to provide practical research-based guidance on how coaches can develop a safe and healthy environment for all athletes.
Role of the Strength and Conditioning Coach
While many may view the main role of coaches as maximizing athletic performance, the primary role of strength and conditioning coaches is providing athletes a safe and healthy environment in which to train. Decreasing the likelihood of injury is implicitly understood and is reflected in demonstrating proper exercise technique, monitoring athletes for safe technique, progressing athletes safely and effectively, using an appropriate progression of exercise protocols, and ensuring equipment is safe and effective (1).
Strength and conditioning coaches must also work within their scope of practice. This means that if an athlete has physical injuries, the coach should defer to the athletic training staff or team doctor. The cooperative communication between these professionals ensures the safest and most effective environment for the health and success of all athletes.
In conjunction, all facilities should have a Policies and Procedures Manual which includes an emergency action plan specific to each venue and sport (2). If an injury to an athlete occurs, there should be a “first responder,” namely a coach that takes action to prevent further harm and enacts a chain of events set forth in the emergency action plan.
Further, it should be clearly understood and communicated to and between all strength and conditioning coaches and other health professionals, that it is their responsibility to ensure all athletic environments are free of abuse, harassment, and bullying.
“Research indicates that sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels,” and as such, all coaches of all athletes should actively implement policies and procedures which promote a safe and positive environment (3).
All facilities should have a Policies and Procedures Manual which includes guidelines set forth regarding prevention and reporting of abuse. Regardless of setting, this is a crucial issue that protects athletes and coaches. Strength and conditioning professionals must be proactive in order to develop and maintain a safe environment for all athletes, and as such, practical procedures should be implemented and encouraged.
A specific policy for athlete protection should be in place which includes applicable codes of practice, education and training opportunities for athletes, coaches and parents, complaint and support mechanisms, and monitoring and evaluation systems (5). Central to these practices to prevent abuse, strength and conditioning professionals must remain focused on the well-being of athletes at all times (5).
Strength and conditioning professionals should ensure coaches and athletes continue to be educated about abuse prevention and what to do should abuse be reported or suspected (4). Education should include an understanding that abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or negligent ill-treatment), and harassment and bullying (physical, verbal, or psychological) are based on an abuse of power and trust, and thus it should be acknowledged that coaches and peer athletes may act as the perpetrators (5).
One-step strength and conditioning professionals should take is to be the best example, at all times, displaying and promoting the utmost professionalism and respect for the coach-athlete relationship. For example, on occasion, an athlete may feel uncomfortable with coaching cues that involve physical contact. Coaches should be aware of this and adjust their coaching style accordingly.
If this is the case, the coach can find other means to teach such as visual cues on a video screen, tablet, or smart phone; or by having other athletes, who are comfortable with physical cues, demonstrate what coaches are trying to teach. Auditory cues are always the safest way to prevent misconception of physical abuse. When a coach uses auditory cues, with the visual cues of using their own body as an example, there will be no physical contact with the athlete. This is one of the best ways to allow the athlete to remain comfortable within the training environment.
Another opportunity to be proactively engaged in abuse prevention is to provide regular abuse prevention workshops or seminars to athletes, coaches, and parents. These should be utilized on a regular basis before, during, and after the training season. As part of this process, coaches should provide other activities which aim to develop strong partnerships with parents who can also assist in preventing and reporting abuse (5).
Creating a Positive Atmosphere
Another role of strength and conditioning coaches is to create a positive atmosphere for athletes. The coach should serve as a positive role model and be constantly thinking of ways to help cultivate success in the lives of their athletes. The responsibilities of strength and conditioning coaches are not finished when the training session is completed; it goes beyond the walls of a building, or lines of a field/court. Helping athletes to realize their potential in other areas, besides athletics, is something coaches should also foster as a part of their program.
Culture of Training Atmosphere
Athletes react positively or negatively to the actions and emotions around them. This becomes harmful if the coach uses negative reinforcement and/or disciplinary actions when such actions are not necessary. According to the recent Inter-Association Task Force on Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions, physical activity should never be used as a form of discipline, and coaches should not physically punish their athletes for infractions, poor athletic or academic performance, or bad behavior (2).
Such actions are never warranted, may cause physical harm, or decrease an athlete’s willingness to train; not to mention the impact these actions can have on athletic performance. As mentioned previously, the primary role of strength and conditioning coaches is providing athletes a safe and healthy environment in which to train, which includes decreasing the likelihood of injuries in athletes, and not putting them in potentially harmful situations.
Strength and conditioning professionals should have experience working with individuals and teams in a fast-paced, energetic environment. However, coaches cannot be effective, positive influences if they put athletes through physical activity, or physical or mental abuse, as punishment for poor performance or bad behavior. Additionally, they should have a certification credentialed by an independent accreditation agency, such as CSCS®. This certification should also have competency standards, ongoing assessment, and continuing education requirements, which creates a higher standard to which coaches are held (2).
What to Do if an Athlete Reports Abuse, Harassment, or Bullying
If an athlete reports an act of abuse, harassment, or bullying to a strength and conditioning professional, they should not attempt to provide counseling. They are not to give advice, but to listen to the athlete, mirror what they say to confirm understanding, and then refer them to an appropriate professional, and the authorities, if necessary (1,5). All such incidents or meetings should be documented (1).
What to Do if You Suspect Abuse, Harassment or Bullying
Strength and conditioning coaches should be aware of the potential signs and symptoms of abuse, harassment, and bullying which include, but are not restricted to: unexplained or unwarranted injuries, decline in performance, poor self-image, aggressive or disruptive behavior, depression, avoidance of certain places or individuals, and fear of certain peers or adults (5). These symptoms are non-specific and may be attributed to various causes. So, while they should be given serious consideration and follow-up, caution should be taken in ascribing them solely to abuse, harassment, or bullying (4,5).
If a strength and conditioning professional suspects an athlete is being abused, harassed, or bullied, they should not attempt to provide counseling. They should instead refer their suspicions to an appropriate professional and supervisor immediately. All such concerns should also be well documented.
Summary of Recommendations (3):
- Develop and implement policies and procedures for the prevention and reporting of abuse, harassment, and bullying.
- Monitor and evaluate the implementation of these policies and procedures.
- Develop and maintain an education and training program on abuse, harassment, and bullying for coaches, athletes, and parents.
- Encourage and promote equitable, respectful, and ethical leadership among coaches, athletes, and parents.
- Develop and maintain strong partnerships with parents and medical professionals in the prevention of abuse, harassment, and bullying.
- Baechle, TR, and Earle, RW. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. (3rd ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008.
- Casa, D, Anderson, S, and Baker, L. The Inter-Association Task Force for Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions: Best Practice Recommendations. Journal of Athletic Training 47(4): 477-480, 2012.
- International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on “Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport.” Retrieved from, http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_1125.pdf. 2007.
- Matthews, DD. Child Abuse Sourcebook. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics; 2004.
- Stirling, AE, Bridges, EJ, Cruz, EL, and Mountjoy, ML. Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine Position Paper: Abuse, Harassment, and Bullying in Sport. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 21(5): 385-391, 2011.
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