Child abuse in a sports setting

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 and poor practice.

Any allegations or suspicions of abuse, bullying or poor practice need to be responded to and reported in line with your club or organisation’s reporting procedures.

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. 

Neglect 

Neglect is not meeting a child’s basic physical or psychological needs. It can have a long-lasting impact on a child's health or development.  

In sport, 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

Read more about neglect on NSPCC Learning.

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. 

In sport, 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 athletes are required to participate when injured
  • if the sanctions used by coaches involve inflicting pain

Learn more about physical abuse on NSPCC Learning.

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. 

In sport, 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, was to misuse their power. 

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

Find out more about sexual abuse on NSPCC Learning.

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.

In sport, emotional abuse may occur if:

  • children are subjected to repeated criticism, sarcasm, name-calling or racism
  • a child is ignored or excluded
  • children feel pressure to perform to unrealistically high expectations
  • children are made to feel like their value or worth is dependent on their sporting success

Read more about emotional abuse on NSPCC Learning.

Poor practice

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. 

Examples of poor practice include coaching with alcohol on the breath, smoking and swearing in front of children as well as not paying due care and attention to all participants.

Poor practice can sometimes lead to an environment which is conducive to more serious abuse. It can also raise doubts about the person's motivation, even if no harm is intended. For example, if a coach or supervisor gives one child more attention than others, regularly transports children in their car or encourages physical contact without explaining the reason. 

Use our sample codes of conduct to promote positive behaviour in your sport. 

Bullying 

Bullying is when individuals or groups seek to harm, intimidate or coerce someone 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 encompasses a range of behaviours which are often combined. It might include physical, verbal or emotional abuse, or online cyberbullying.

In sport, bullying can occur based on a young person's sporting ability, body size or shape. It might include name-calling, offensive hand gestures, physical assault or exclusion from team activities.  

Learn more on our anti-bullying pages.

Non-recent abuse 

Abuse that occurred a period of time ago is sometimes referred to as non-recent. For example, an adult might speak about abuse that took place in their childhood.

Sports organisations should have policies in place for responding to these reports of abuse.

Take a look at our guidance on responding to reports of non-recent abuse in sport.

Related resources

Further information