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.
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.
For further information, see Overtraining syndrome and overuse injury in young athletes.
Unhealthy coach and athlete relationships
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:
- social outings
- 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.
Read more about this in our Success for Close the Loophole campaigners news article.
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.
See also our Preventing abuse of positions of trust within sport briefing and Code of conduct for staff and volunteers.
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.
See our briefings on Preventing abuse of positions of trust within sport and Duty of care in sport for additional guidance.