Moving through the talent pathway offers fantastic experiences and rewards for athletes. However, there are specific factors in elite sport that can make talented athletes more vulnerable to abuse.
Media reports and anecdotal evidence from a range of sports has led to questions about whether the welfare and safety of elite athletes are being given the priority they deserve.
Athletes at all levels of sport deserve to train and compete in a safe, healthy and stimulating environment. Responsibility for creating a safe, athlete-focused environment lies with those who run sport.
Recommendations for sports
Recommendations aimed at improving athletes' welfare have been published as part of a major independent report into British sport. They are the result of a year-long duty of care review, commissioned by the UK government and led by 11-time Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.
There are factors that can make some talented athletes more vulnerable to harmful behaviours, either from themselves, their coaches or parents, or members of their entourage.
These factors include:
a win at all costs approach
intense coach–athlete relationships
a self-image that is linked closely with performance excellence
child athletes operating in an adult-focused environment
being away from family and support networks
fear of losing funding or a place on the programme if they speak out
No young person starts off as an elite athlete – they must grow in experience, skill and confidence with the support of their coach and others.
For many young people, reaching a representative level has been their focus for a number of years, and they will have trained hard to achieve this. Parents will also have made a significant contribution to support their child’s progress and success.
Within competitive sport, too much early pressure can lead to burn-out and withdrawal from participating in sport.
Coaches planning training routines should consider the development of a young person as a whole to maximise their development and potential. Some key factors to consider as a coach are:
the vulnerability of young people participating in elite-level sport
the justifications behind the strenuous training environment
the impact that elite-level sport may be having on the child’s development
Physical and technical factors will vary depending on the sport. Too much emphasis on the conditioning may have a negative impact on a child’s social and physiological development.
Potentially abusive situations can arise when a coach develops training programmes and competition schedules that are focused on the goals of the sport rather than the needs of the young person. This may include:
a training schedule that requires travelling long distances
the frequency of the training, what times training occurs and length of training sessions
representing the sport in county or regional competitions every weekend
being forced to play above their age band or group
These demands on a young person can have negative consequences on their ability to socialise outside of the sports world and leave little time for other peer opportunities and friendships. This can leave athletes feeling lonely and isolated.
In this webinar, Di Murray, Training and development consultant, discusses how the demands facing athletes, particularly at an elite and high-performance level can leave them feeling lonely and isolated. She explores how loneliness can be both a sign and symptom of mental ill health, and what sports clubs and organisations can do to tackle loneliness.
A young athlete competing in too many games and tournaments that are close together, or being exposed to excessive training requirements, can be at a physical risk because of a shortened recovery time.
Elite athletes spend a significant amount of time alone with their coach. Through this contact, coaches have huge influence and power, which can extend to other areas of an athlete's life.
Certain behaviours aren't relevant to the athlete's participation in sport, and can blur the line between athlete and coach. This may include:
physical contact (such as hugs and kisses)
texts or phone calls discussing highly personal issues
National Governing Bodies (NGBs) need to understand the power imbalance between coach and elite athletes.
The following wording can be included in your sports codes of conduct, referencing person in authority abusing their position of trust:
Coaches should ensure they maintain healthy, positive and professional relationships with all athletes. Coaches and others in positions of authority and trust in relation to athletes aged 16 and 17 years must not engage in sexual relationships with them while that unequal power relationship exists.
There have been a significant number of convictions of child sexual abuse, across a range of sports, by individuals who were in positions of responsibility and trust in relation to youth sport.
The legal age of consent for sexual activity is 16 years in the UK. However, when the adult is in a 'position of trust', sexual activity and relationships involving a child under 18 years is illegal. Currently, the position of trust law only applies to adults in professions such as teaching or care.
But in March 2021, the ministry of Justice announced that that law is being extended to see sports coaches and faith leaders included alongside roles like teachers and social workers.
Many cases require NGBs to respond to concerns that, although currently not illegal, nevertheless breach their own internal code of conduct, where that identifies any potential abuse of a position of trust as a disciplinary matter.
How sport can support elite and talented young athletes
Sports organisations should have robust systems in place to respond to abusive practices and enforce standards of behaviour for coaches of elite athletes (as they would for other coaches). Organisations should:
consider the emotional, social and physical impact of the training requirements set for their elite or talented young athletes
review codes of conduct referencing their policy on a person in authority abusing their position of trust
At the elite level, a young person’s commitment is expected and assumed. But in situations where this operates within an established 'culture of risk', such commitment can lead to them being abused physically, sexually or emotionally.
Adults around that young person must ensure suitable boundaries are maintained and dangerous practices removed from the sport.
All athletes have the right to enjoy sport, free from all forms of abuse and exploitation, and to be involved in decisions affecting them.
There are lots of things that athletes can do, and be involved in, to help promote their own welfare and safety. These include:
Know their rights and responsibilities
Athletes will have responsibilities to comply with their sport's code of conduct, and also those related to specific areas such as anti-doping. Athletes' rights and options should be made clear to them.
Be familiar with their sport's safeguarding policy and procedures
These policies and procedures will have information about what athletes can expect the organisation to do to look after their well-being, and what is expected of the individual and other people such as parents and coaches.
The NGBs should have a code of conduct explaining how athletes are expected to behave, and also how other people are expected to behave. It will also outline what will happen if these codes are not followed.
Know how to raise any concerns
All NGBs have to provide information on where to go for help and advice in relation to abuse, harassment and bullying.
It’s important that athletes can talk to someone they trust if they have concerns about anything that might be happening to them, or anyone else, in or outside of their sport.
Athletes should also consider what support systems are in place among and beyond their entourage members (family, friends, teachers and/or coaches).
Ask for support as they transition through the system
Transitions can involve entering top-level sport, moving from junior to senior ranks, deselection, appeals, and leaving top-level sport.
Transitions can be really hard; support should be provided to help athletes navigate through the process. There should be inductions that provide information about how the system operates and what support is available. This should be part of a continuous conversation about the individual's sport and life after top-level sport.
Seek opportunities to become a voice for athlete welfare
Look for opportunities to get involved and become a voice in decision-making about athlete welfare and protection. Sports are required to have mechanisms in place to consult children, young people and parents as part of their reviews of safeguarding policies and practices.
Support their peers
Supporting peers by encouraging and helping them to speak out if they witness or have any concerns about their own or anyone else’s welfare.
All concerns should be discussed with your club welfare officer (designated person for safeguarding at your club) and reported in accordance with your national governing body's (NGB) policy and procedures.