Protecting children from grooming and sexual abuse

Last updated: 21 Oct 2020 Topics: Athlete wellbeing Inappropriate or concerning behaviour

Everyone working and volunteering in sports and physical activity needs to be aware of the grooming process so that steps can be taken to prevent children from being sexually harmed.

About grooming 

The term 'grooming' is commonly used to describe the process of entrapping and preparing a child, the adults around them and even the environment to enable abuse to take place.

Grooming is a core part of many cases of sexual abuse but children and young people can also be groomed for radicalisation or criminal exploitation.

Sexual abuse can happen anywhere including in organisations like sports and community clubs, online and even in public spaces. Accepting this fact is often the first step to preventing a child in your club from being harmed.

How grooming happens 

We know that people who set out to harm children will use a range of tactics to trick and entrap a child, these often include:

  • seeking access – looking for jobs or volunteer roles with regular contact with children and actively seeking out organisations with unclear boundaries and policies.
  • testing the culture – breaking small rules to test whether they are challenged about their behaviour. If left unchallenged it provides the environment for these policy breaches to escalate.
  • building trust – giving advice, attention or gifts to build a trusting relationship with the child and sometimes the whole family. Trying to appear respectable and even indispensable to the adults in the organisation.
  • exploiting power – using a power imbalance to take control and make a child feel dependent or isolated, such as having authority over how a child progresses in their sport.
  • keeping secrets – using secrets to control, frighten or test the compliance of a child, increasing the feelings of shame and guilt put on the child to encourage their silence.
  • manipulation – using reverse psychology or strategic withdrawal to trick the child into thinking they are in control of the situation.
  • online – using social media and messaging apps as a tool to manipulate a child, pretending to be someone they are not, pressuring a child into sending pictures and then threatening to share them. In sport, this means the grooming process can take place away from the organised activity and progress at greater speed.

Who harms children?

People who abuse children can be any gender and any age, including other young people. 

People who abuse will often hold positions of trust or authority and may take steps to manipulate those around them to ensure they are perceived as respectable, reliable and trustworthy. This means they can look like any other member of the community. 

They do not necessarily look like our perceptions of the ‘monsters’ and ‘beasts’ we hear about in the news. If an abuser was easy to identify from appearance then children would avoid them and adults would ensure they were prevented from gaining access to children.

We do know that approximately 90-95% of those who sexually abuse children are male (Office for National Statistics: Child sexual abuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2019).

Signs of grooming

In a sports environment, some signs a child is being abused may include:

  • sudden changes in participation
  • avoiding club sessions or training
  • changes in behaviour such as becoming withdrawn
  • fear of certain places or areas
  • fear of certain people

Other signs may be more noticeable away from the sports environment, such as:

  • developing a problem with their mental health and wellbeing
  • secretive use of phones and tablets
  • having unexplained gifts
  • inappropriate sexualised knowledge
  • alcohol or drug misuse
  • having a much older ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’
  • developing sexual health problems

Children at risk

Sexual abuse can affect any child. However, abusers will target children who appear to be vulnerable in a way they can exploit such as children in care, children with low self esteem and children experiencing difficulties with their peers or families.

This is because they perceive these children to be easier to manipulate and isolate from potentially protective adults or friends.

In sport, a child may be vulnerable because of their dependence on an individual for their progress in the sport or even their place in the team or squad.


It’s rare for a child to tell an adult about being tricked and groomed. Children may not speak about it for many reasons including, feelings of embarrassment, fear of not being believed, not recognising the situation as abusive or because they are dependent on the person causing harm.


There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of grooming behaviour taking place in your club, these include:

  • follow safer recruitment procedures – including references and checks for those volunteering or working with children
  • enforce codes of conduct – those who want to harm children often begin by breaking small rules to test the governance of an organisation. If an organisation has solid codes of conduct they can more easily challenge those small infringements which discourages the escalation of the rule breaches
  • provide training and education – ensure a level of consistency about what is and is not acceptable behaviour and ensuring everyone has at least the minimum level of understanding of what is acceptable
  • set out clear reporting steps – so that everyone knows concerns will be handled correctly, in a proportionate manner while maintaining confidentiality.
  • ensure online safety – policies and codes of conduct include guidance on appropriate communication, particularly if the club is carrying out remote coaching or using social media apps to communicate with children or parents
  • listen to children – involving children and their opinions in decisions and hearing what they have to say also means they are more likely to speak up if they have concerns
  • have an open culture – by encouraging discussions about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour you provide children with the language and opportunity to share concerns. And you make the organisation less appealing to those who would seek out vulnerable organisations to harm children

Further information

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