In this article
Research from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) indicates that inactive children are likely to become inactive adults, putting young people at risk of developing life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and cancer in later life.
GOSH’s research shows that physical activities are of great benefit to children’s health and personal development by, for example:
- Improving fitness.
- Providing an opportunity to socialise.
- Increasing concentration.
- Improving academic scores.
- Building a stronger heart, bones and healthier muscles.
- Encouraging healthy growth and development.
- Improving self-esteem.
- Improving posture and balance.
- Lowering stress.
- Encouraging a better night’s sleep.
In the United Kingdom there are thousands of clubs and groups providing a wide variety of extra-curricular sports and physical activities for children and young people.
Some of the most popular of these are swimming, football, tennis, cricket, gymnastics, athletics and martial arts. Every week hundreds of thousands of children take part in and enjoy these sports and activities, developing their skills, improving their health and making new friends.
However, paradoxically, whilst children and young people participate in sporting activities to improve their health and wellbeing, serious risks to children and young people’s health and wellbeing have been highlighted by a number of high-profile sport cases regarding negative safeguarding; these have thrown a shadow over the world of young people’s sport.
Andy Woodward disclosed publicly that he had been sexually abused by a coach when he was a youth player at Crewe Alexandra Football Club. Following his disclosure, more than 20 former footballers have come forward regarding allegations of sexual abuse.
The Football Association published the independent review into historical sexual abuse conducted by Clive Sheldon QC in March 2021, and another former victim of abuse, Ian Ackley, has been working with the FA on improving its child safeguarding protocols.
These cases have not been restricted to football; another high-profile case is that of tennis coach Claire Lyte who was found guilty of child molestation in 2005. Since the allegations, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) has restructured its youth academy scheme and safeguarding protocols.
Less high profile but just as concerning is the story of a young boy who we can call Josh.
Having moved to a new area, Josh’s mother encouraged him to join the local athletics club to meet and make new friends, and to help him to become more active and lose a little weight.
The first few weeks seemed to be having a positive effect on Josh, he was losing weight and recounted tales of the other young members’ achievements when he got home.
However, as the weeks passed his mother noticed that Josh was losing an enormous amount of weight and he was becoming more introverted. Unable to elicit anything from Josh, she decided that she needed to speak to the athletics coach to find out if there were any issues.
What she learned horrified her. The coach recounted that Josh was not a natural athlete and that sometimes the other boys would name call when he came last in races; however, his attitude was “boys will be boys” and that it was nothing to be really worried about. The coach’s attitude was that this was character building rather than bullying.
Josh’s mother instantly withdrew Josh from the club and reported the coach to the club’s management. The management apologised and promised to look into its safeguarding procedures and training, promising that this type of peer bullying would not be tolerated. Unfortunately, this was too little too late for Josh who now has little or no interest in sports.
What can parents do to safeguard their child(ren) in sport?
When you take your children to these sports clubs and groups, neither you nor your children should ever have to worry about abuse or harassment whilst they participate in these leisure interests. But how do you make sure your child(ren) is in a safe space where they can play sport and be active whilst being kept safe and happy?
There are some questions that all parents should ask before their child(ren) joins a sports club/group to ensure that the club, sport or activity takes the safety and wellbeing of their child seriously.
- Is the club/group a member of an accreditation scheme or responsible to a governing body? Most accreditations ask for evidence of the club/group’s commitment to creating a safe and inclusive environment for children and young people.
- Does the club/group have an up-to-date safeguarding policy in place? All clubs/groups should have a safeguarding policy in place containing clear procedures for dealing with poor practice complaints or concerns about risks of abuse. Ask for a copy of the safeguarding policy before registering your child for membership.
- If you or your child has a safeguarding concern, who is the point of contact to raise the concern with? All clubs/groups should have an identified person who leads on safeguarding within the club/group. Make sure that you and your child have their contact details.
- Does the club have a code of conduct in place for coaches / volunteers / children / parents? All clubs/groups should have a written code of conduct showing what is required of coaches, volunteers and participants (including children and their families). The code should cover what is unacceptable behaviour, for example bullying, physical intimidation or harm, racism, sexism or any other kind of oppressive behaviour. It should also cover clear guidelines about appropriate relationships and boundaries between coaches, volunteers, participating young people and their families. Ask for a copy of the code of conduct before registering your child for membership.
- What checks does the club/group carry out when recruiting staff and volunteers to work with children and young people? All clubs/groups should have taken all necessary measures to ensure their coaches and volunteers are the right people to be working with children and young people. This should include reference checks and police background checks such as DBS.
What is safeguarding in sport?
- Protecting children and young people from abuse and maltreatment.
- Preventing harm to children and young people’s health or development.
- Ensuring children and young people grow up with the provision of safe and effective care.
- Taking action to enable all children and young people to have the best outcomes.
Child abuse is any form of physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment or lack of care that leads to injury or harm. Children and young people can be abused by adults or by other children and can also be harmed through bullying and poor practice.
It is therefore essential that anyone who works or volunteers with children or young people has the knowledge and skills needed to help keep children safe.
Is child protection the same as safeguarding?
Child protection is part of the safeguarding children and young people process, protecting individual children and young people identified as suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. This includes the child protection procedures which detail how to respond to concerns about a child.
Legal responsibilities and what sport providers require to safeguard children and young people
Any club, organisation, group or association that offers a sport or activity to children or young people has a legal responsibility to safeguard them. The law states that people who work with children and young people have a duty of care to keep them safe.
This legislation is set out in the Children Act 2004. There is also further guidance in the Government document Working Together to Safeguard Children; it outlines the duties of all organisations that work with children.
These can be summarised as having:
- A designated safeguarding lead (with support).
- A senior board lead on safeguarding.
- Clear lines of accountability.
- Effective recruitment procedures including safeguarding checks, for example DBS and reference checks.
- A culture of listening to and consulting with children.
- Arrangements to share information with other organisations.
- Effective supervision, support and training for staff and volunteers.
- Clear safeguarding policies including how to respond to concerns, Health and Safety policy, Equality policy.
- Relevant Public Liability and Professional Indemnity insurances.
These duties are reflected in the Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) Standards for Safeguarding and Protecting Children in Sport and in the Clubmark criteria, much of which has been developed and enhanced following the high-profile safeguarding in sport cases.
They seek to provide a benchmark to help those involved in sport make informed decisions, and to promote good practice and challenge poor practice.
The 10 standards are:
1. Policy and procedures for responding to concerns.
2. Operating systems.
4. Codes of ethics and conduct.
7. Education and training.
8. Access to advice and support.
9. Implementation and monitoring.
The CPSU have provided a self-assessment tool to help organisations to evaluate whether they are doing everything they can to keep children and young people safe in sport and it also provides guidance on how to create and implement the appropriate policies and procedures required.
Who needs to be safeguarded in sport?
Everyone who is involved in sport has a responsibility for safeguarding and that includes the clubs, groups and associations, their coaches, staff and volunteers, and the children, young people and their families.
Abuse can take many forms, and in most cases is perpetrated against a child or young person; however, in some circumstances the wider community can be at risk of “grooming” by the perpetrators.
Some examples of risk factors to safeguarding in sport can include:
- Children having high aspirations to become professionals in the sport and where having the attention of an expert coach, or being identified by a talent seeker, can be critical to their success as a player. This immediately gives the coach or scout a position of considerable power and trust.
- Over-aspirational parent(s) who pushes their child(ren) beyond their capabilities and endurance or who instigates nutrition and weight loss regimes that lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or other health problems.
- Inappropriate facilities and/or poorly maintained equipment at the sports club/group.
- Clubs requiring young athletes to play when injured or allowing injuries to occur through forced risk-taking in dangerous situations.
- Psychological degradation or humiliation based on gender, body shape or performance by other children or adults.
- Initiations consisting of hazardous behaviours and activities required of newcomers by team or group members as a condition of their membership, or to maintain full status on a team or group. Such behaviours have typically been considered pranks, but they can be very damaging.
- Coaches being respected figures in the sports and often the wider community, even those working on a voluntary basis, will have put dedicated time and energy into the club or game. In some cases, this means that perpetrators are, in effect, “grooming” the community, making them more difficult to challenge if something goes wrong.
- Doping or the provision of performance-enhancing substances to improve performance of children and young people by their coaches or parents.
The issues of trust, power imbalance, organisational culture and negligence, and the opportunity to separate children from their families can all contribute to the risks of harm to children and young people participating in sport. Having systems and procedures in place should provide clear step-by-step guidance on what action clubs/groups will take in different circumstances.
Recognising the signs of harm or abuse
There is no simple checklist for recognising signs and symptoms of child abuse. However, you may be in a position where you may notice something unusual about a child or young person, for example:
- Has there been a change in the child or young person’s behaviour?
- Has the child or young person recently become introverted?
- Has the child or young person lost confidence?
- Does the child or young person lose their temper quickly or shout unnecessarily?
- Has the child or young person said something to you that has caused you concern?
- Has another adult or child told you their concerns about a child or another adult?
- Does the child or young person have unexplained bruising or injuries?
How to respond and report to concerns
Anyone who thinks a child is in immediate danger or requires medical attention, should call the emergency services on 999. The NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 will also take reports on immediate safeguarding risks.
If there is no immediate danger to the child and they are not injured:
- You should refer to the individual club/group’s safeguarding procedures about who to report the concerns to. Their policy must have a dedicated safeguarding lead and details of how to contact them.
- If the club/group is affiliated to a national governing body, you can also report via their safeguarding procedures or their complaints procedure.
- You can also seek support from your Active Partnership or your local authority’s children’s social care services.
- If there is no one else available to help or you do not feel satisfied, contact the local police.
It is crucial to remember that the welfare of the child is of vital importance. However, it is not up to you to decide whether or not a child has been harmed or abused, it is your responsibility to report all concerns appropriately. Make sure that you keep a record of your concern, how you reported it and to whom.
If a child or young person raises a concern about something that they have experienced or witnessed, it is important to take the concern seriously and to assure the child or young person that you believe what they are saying. Don’t react shocked, just report it immediately.
What is acceptable?
Below are some scenarios of incidents that could happen in a sport situation. Analyse the situations and ask yourself, are there any safeguarding issues you can identify?
The away game
The football coach has taken the junior team (under 14s) to an away match 20 miles away from their home club. During the first half he contacts the parents to say he can not bring them back after the match and they will have to make alternative arrangements.
– What are the safeguarding issues?
– What responsibility does the club have towards the team?
– Has the coach broken any rules, if so, what are they?
In the swim
Sadiq belongs to the Saturday swimming club, but today he has forgotten to pack his trunks. The coach tells him to swim in his underwear and that he can go home ‘commando’, which the other children find hilarious.
– Should the coach have allowed Sadiq to participate today?
– How might Sadiq feel?
– What impact might this incident have on Sadiq and on the rest of the group?
Over the line
At the mixed junior gymnastics club there is normally a male and a female co-ordinator present. However, today the female co-ordinator was late and the male co-ordinator supervised the changing rooms for both genders. Following the session, a complaint was made about the male co-ordinator’s behaviour by a girl gymnast.
– Should the male co-ordinator have supervised the girls’ changing room?
– What actions should the club take?
– What are the implications if the complaint is upheld?
Jess is a tennis prodigy and her coach has aspirations that she will play at and potentially win Wimbledon, so works her hard. Her mother agrees with this regime and both she and the coach appear to be caught up in the reflective glory of having another Serena Williams on their hands.
– Are Jess’ feelings being taken into consideration?
– What might Jess be missing out on by having to eat, live and sleep tennis?
– What responsibilities does the coach have towards Jess?
Just being kind
When Jack’s dad arrived to collect him from Judo, he noticed a boy from the group standing in the rain. Jack took a while to emerge from the clubroom and when he finally did, the boy was still standing there, getting soaked. Jack’s dad pulled the car over and offered the boy a lift home which he accepted.
– What are the safeguarding implications for the club? For Jack’s dad?
– How might the boy’s parents be feeling?
Make do and mend
Following funding cuts the equipment budget has been reduced and the club management has decreed that unless broken beyond repair, no equipment should be replaced this financial year. Coaches are concerned that it may be too late when equipment breaks.
– What are the safeguarding and health and safety implications of this management decision?
– What can the coaches do?