Child abuse in a sports setting

Introduction

Child abuse is any form of physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment or lack of care that leads to injury or harm.

Abuse can happen to a child regardless of their age, gender, race or ability. Children may be abused by adults or by other children.

Children and young people can also be harmed through bullying behaviour and poor practice.

Any allegations or suspicions of abuse, bullying behaviour or poor practice need to be responded to and reported in line with your club or organisation’s reporting procedures. Even if abusive behaviour happens in another setting, if it is brought to your attention, you have a duty of care for that child and must report your concerns.

Here, we take a closer look at some of the types of abuse and some of the signs to look out for in the sports environment. 

Related resources

Further information 

Neglect

Definition of neglect

Neglect is not meeting a child’s basic physical or psychological needs. The 4 main types of neglect are physical, educational, emotional and medical. Each type of neglect can have a long-lasting impact on a child's health and development.  

Neglect in a sport or activity setting

Examples of neglect could include a coach or supervisor repeatedly:

  • failing to ensure children are safe
  • exposing children to undue cold, heat or extreme weather conditions without ensuring adequate clothing or hydration
  • exposing children to unnecessary risk of injury by ignoring safe practice guidelines
  • failing to ensure the use of safety equipment
  • requiring young people to participate when injured or unwell
  • not seeking medical or first aid attention
  • not responding appropriately when a concern is raised

Recognising possible signs of neglect at home

Sports clubs and groups also play a role in recognising the signs of neglect of a child at home, and responding to concerns appropriately. You may be able to recognise signs of child neglect through indicators such as a child:

  • walking to and from the activity alone or in the dark (young children)
  • not having appropriate safety equipment for the sport

The following issues may impact on a child's experience and should raise a concern, but they are not automatically indicators of neglect. These are more likely to be issues due to financial hardship for the family and the club can act to support a child and family in these situations. 

  • having clothing that is dirty or inadequate (e.g. not having warm kit in the winter)
  • seeming hungry, not having food at training, no packed lunch etc
  • consistently paying subs late or not paying at all

Responding to concerns of neglect

If you are concerned that a child is being neglected, you should ensure that you record any incidents and report these to external agencies as required. 

  • follow your organisation’s child protection procedures
  • contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk 
  • contact children's services – contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in

If you think a child is in immediate danger you should contact the police on 999.

Read more about neglect on NSPCC Learning.

Physical abuse

Definition of physical abuse

When someone deliberately hurts a child causing physical harm it is called physical abuse. It may involve hitting, kicking, shaking, pushing, poisoning, burning, biting, scalding, drowning or any other method of causing non-accidental harm. 

Physical abuse in a sport or activity setting

In a sport or activity setting, physical abuse may occur:

  • if the nature and intensity of training or competition exceeds the capacity of the child’s immature growing body
  • where coaches encourage the use of drugs or harmful substances to enhance performance or delay puberty
  • if children are made to perform a movement they do not have the skill to execute and this causes an injury
  • if athletes are required to participate when injured
  • if coaches punish children with excessive cardio exercises
  • if sanctions used by coaches involve inflicting pain

Responding to concerns of physical abuse

If you are concerned that a child is being physically abused, you should ensure that you record any incidents and report these to external agencies as required. 

  • follow your organisation’s child protection procedures
  • contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk 
  • contact children's services – contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in

If you think a child is in immediate danger you should contact the police on 999.

Learn more about physical abuse on NSPCC Learning.

Sexual abuse

Definition of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is when a child is forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This may involve physical contact or non-contact activities and can happen online or offline. Children and young people may not always understand that they are being sexually abused. 

Sexual abuse has immediate and long-term impacts on a child's physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, behaviour, development and personal relationships.

Sexual abuse in a sport or activity setting

Most children who have experienced sexual abuse were abused by someone they know. Perpetrators may look for weak spots in an organisation to gain access to children. 

In sport and activity settings, coaching techniques which involve physical contact with children can create situations where sexual abuse can be disguised. An abusive situation can also develop if a person in a position of authority, such as a coach, were to misuse their power. 

Contacts made within sport and pursued through other routes, such as social media, have been used to manipulate and groom children for abuse. Those who want to sexually abuse children can also groom protective adults and organisations in order to create opportunities for abuse to take place. 

Supporting resources

Responding to concerns of sexual abuse

If you are concerned that a child is being sexually abused, you should ensure that you record any incidents and report these to external agencies as required. 

  • follow your organisation’s child protection procedures
  • contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk 
  • contact children's services – contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in

If you think a child is in immediate danger you should contact the police on 999.

Find out more about sexual abuse on NSPCC Learning.

Emotional abuse

Definition of emotional abuse 

Emotional abuse is the emotional maltreatment of a child, which has a severe and persistent negative effect on the child’s emotional development.  

Emotional abuse in a sport or activity setting

Emotional abuse in a sport or activity setting may be perpetrated by coaches, staff and volunteers, as well as other children and young people. This can take the form of:

  • subjecting a child to repeated criticism, sarcasm, name calling or racism
  • ignoring or excluding a child
  • pressuring a child to perform to unrealistically high expectations
  • excessive weighing of children
  • making a child feel like their value or worth is dependent on their sporting success
  • bullying behaviour

sports coaches and volunteers can play an important role in recognising the signs of emotional abuse, responding to reports and concerns, and preventing instances of emotional abuse in a sports setting in the first place.

Sports coaches and volunteers must also act as positive role models in their behaviour, conduct and treatment of others at all times to help create a safe, fun, inclusive environment for everyone.

Responding to concerns of emotional abuse

If you are concerned that a child is being emotionally abused, you should ensure that you record any incidents and report these to external agencies as required. 

  • follow your organisation’s child protection procedures
  • contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk 
  • contact children's services – contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in

If you think a child is in immediate danger you should contact the police on 999.

Read more about emotional abuse on NSPCC Learning.

Poor practice

Poor practice (lower-level concern)

Poor practice refers to when the behaviour of an individual in a position of responsibility falls below the organisation’s required standard, usually as described in the organisation’s code of conduct.

The behaviour may not be immediately dangerous or intentionally harmful to a child, but it is likely to set a poor example. Often a poor practice issue is seen as a lower-level concern but it still need to be responded to appropriately by the organisation or club. 

Only when a club creates a safeguarding culture will their staff and volunteers feel comfortable to internally realise their lower-level concerns about colleagues or children's behaviour.

An extract from An abuse of trust: The report of the Social Services Inspectorate investigation into the case of Martin Huston (1993) states:

"Organisations providing services to children [...] should ensure that a culture of openness and trust is fostered within the organisation in which staff can share any concerns about the conduct of colleagues and be assured that these will be received in a sensitive manner."

Lower-level concerns may include:

  • inadvertent or thoughtless behaviour that can raise doubts about the person's motivation or skill to work with young people
  • behaviour that might be considered inappropriate depending on the circumstances
  • behaviour which breaches the organisation's code of conduct but does not meet the threshold for statutory investigation, such as coaching with alcohol on the breath; smoking or swearing in front of children; not paying due care and attention to all participants; showing favouritism; shouting aggressively

It is essential that those involved in sport understand that all concerns need to be challenged as soon as possible to correct the behaviour and educate individuals. On occasion, this may require a person's removal from their role because of their failure to comply with the organisations codes of conduct or the cultural norms the club are trying to establish.

Risks of not managing poor practice

The risk of an organisation not receiving reports of poor practice or failing to manage them appropriately is that lower-level concerns cannot be addressed as soon as possible. This can adversely impact on those involved and can allow a situation to escalate.

While some poor practice is due to misunderstanding and lack of awareness, some behaviour is deliberate and intended to enable abuse at a later stage. This is done by manipulating a situation and breaking 'small rules' to test out an organisation or individuals safeguarding standards.

This can lead to an environment which is conducive to more serious abuse. For example, if a coach or supervisor gives one child more attention than others, regularly transports children in their car or encourages unnecessary physical contact without explaining the reason. 

Supporting resources

Bullying

Definition of bullying behaviour

Bullying behaviour is when individuals or groups seek to harm, intimidate or coerce someone they may be jealous of or who is perceived to be vulnerable. It can involve people of any age and can happen anywhere, including at home, school, sports clubs or online.

Bullying behaviour can take many forms, including physical, verbal, racist, sexist, homophobic or online bullying.

Bullying behaviour in a sport or activity setting

In sport, just like any other setting, bullying behaviour can occur based on any character distinction that can be perceived as different. This could be age, body shape, gender identity, race, religion or sporting ability. The bullying behaviour might include name-calling, offensive hand gestures, physical assault or exclusion from team activities or social media groups.

Within the world of sport, the word 'banter' can be used to disguise or excuse bullying behaviour or practices. If the social exchange is hurtful, repeated, scapegoated, shaming, upsetting, belittling, offending, then it is not 'banter', it's bullying. 

Bullying behaviour can often stay confined to 'bullying hotspots' - locations which may be more secluded or have fewer witnesses, such as changing rooms or before a coaching session starts when the coach or adult volunteer is not fully engaged. 

Learn more on our anti-bullying topic pages.

Domestic abuse

What is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse describes violence or abuse used by one person over another within intimate relationships or families. This includes all threatening, controlling, coercive, bullying or violent behaviours. Domestic abuse typically escalates in both frequency and severity over time.

Children may experience domestic abuse directly themselves, or through being exposed to the domestic abuse of another person. Both experiences have adverse impacts on a child’s life. For example, it can negatively affect their:

  • physical and mental wellbeing
  • confidence
  • development
  • behaviour

These impacts can often have detrimental long-term effects which extend into adulthood.

Visit the NSPCC Learning website for further information on the types of domestic abuse, and how to recognise and respond to them.

What can sport and activity providers do?

You can play a role in recognising the signs and risks of domestic abuse. By supporting at-risk children and young people and responding appropriately it will let children know that there are other trusted adults in their life that they can turn to for help. Sports coaches must also act as positive role models in their behaviour, conduct and treatment of others at all times.

It is also important not to fall into the trap of victim blaming attitudes, as such approaches exacerbate myths around domestic abuse, retraumatise survivors, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

Responding to concerns

It may feel as though domestic abuse concerns are beyond your responsibilities or those of the club, or you might not want to get involved with a family issue. However, safeguarding is the responsibility of everyone.

If a child reports a domestic abuse concern, or you suspect there is something wrong at home, the response should be the same as other forms of abuse. It's important to:

  • listen carefully to what they're saying
  • let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
  • reassure them and thank them for trusting you
  • tell them you'll take the concern seriously
  • not confront the alleged abuser
  • explain what you'll do next
  • report what the child has told you as soon as possible

The 3 central priorities of any statutory intervention for children living with domestic abuse and violence are:

  • to protect the child/ren
  • to support the non-abusive partner to protect themselves and the child/ren
  • to hold the abusive partner accountable for their violence and abuse

Being brought up to minimise your existence, to be told you are stupid and not wanted, makes you believe that are you not good enough, you are unlovable.

"That is the most damaging part of domestic abuse on children because they then carry that belief in everything they do which is the root of possible mental health problems and further trauma.”
Charlie Webster, Broadcaster & NSPCC Campaigner for Childhood

If you have a concern that a young person is living with domestic abuse, contact your club welfare officer or the NSPCC helpline for advice on 0808 800 5000 or help@nspcc.org.uk.

For further information on the impact of domestic abuse on children and young people, visit NSPCC Learning for insight from the voices of parents and carers.

Non-recent abuse

What is non-recent abuse?

Non-recent abuse is abuse that occurred a period of time ago. It's sometimes referred to as historic abuse, but many survivors of abuse say they are still impacted and traumatised many years after the abuse ends and therefore it is not historic as they still live with the consequences in the here and now.

Non-recent abuse refers to allegations of neglect, physical or sexual abuse of someone now 18 years or older, relating to an event when the victim was under 18 years old.

Responding to reports of non-recent abuse

Sports organisations should have policies in place for responding to these reports of abuse. All allegations of non-recent abuse should be reported to the statutory authorities.

As with any allegation, it is important to reassure survivors that they will be listened to and to inform them of support available, such as the National Association for People Abused in Childhood

Supporting resources