In our last blog, we discussed sexual abuse and the grooming process in sport, more specifically by people in position of authority. We mentioned then that some individuals are more prone to be the victim of sexual violence than others. Today’s post deals with risk factors relating to this type of violence and lays out what stakeholders in the sport world should do to help prevent such situations. All the information discussed in this text is taken from Chapter 8 of the Rapport Québécois sur la Violence et la Santé of Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec (Parent & Fortier, 2018).

Risk factors are generally inherent in a personal, organizational or socio-cultural condition that potentially increases a person’s vulnerability, in this case, to sexual violence. It’s important to underscore that the presence of such elements doesn’t necessarily produce a situation of sexual abuse – the goal here being that stakeholders recognize the warning signs and increase vigilance accordingly.

Risk factors

Individual risk factors influencing sexual violence against young athletes by a person of authority are mainly linked to the fact that adolescence is a period of transition and change that increases vulnerability. Furthermore, accounts of abused female athletes shine a light on certain at-risk athlete profiles: those with low self-esteem, eating disorders or an abnormal dependence on the coach.

Organizational risk factors appear when young athletes are relocated beyond their familiar environments for training purposes; when the practised sport includes opportunities for an athlete to be alone with the coach (examples: trips with little or no supervision, showers, locker-room talks, flights or bus rides, hotel stays); or when athletes are allowed little or no contact with parents or outside friends (for example, to keep them posted on their activities). These factors or conditions promote athlete isolation within the structure, making them more vulnerable to abusive situations.

On a larger scale, finally, are the social-cultural risk factors. The normalization and tolerance of violence in sport by stakeholders within the sport system, the media and the general public is the most widely documented of all. Young athletes inhabit an environment where situations considered violent or abnormal in other contexts are sometimes justified by the need for performance results. Moreover, the respect for authority, the control of athletes’ lives, awareness of hierarchy and obedience to coaching demands are common situations and valued in sport practice. Yet they represent tempting conditions for oppression and violence. It is therefore not surprising to see there exists a certain “code of silence” around the victimization stemming from this culture of dependence of obedience of young athletes toward their coaches.

A shared responsibility

In light of these considerations,  First, administrators of sport organizations and clubs should: (a) acknowledge and show, both publicly and among their members, the importance they attach to healthy and safe environments; (b) establish robust criteria and requirements for selecting and recruiting trusted individuals (selection interviews, volunteer screening, reference and criminal-background checks, voluntary-declaration requests, etc.); (c) stop prioritizing the know-how and brilliant athletic records of individuals at the expense of their social and emotional skills; and (d) educate their young athletes so they can distinguish between good and bad practices of those people who work with them.

Secondly, parents: (a) have a responsibility to be present at their children’s sport environment; (b) must be interested in those who guide and train their children (for example: taking the time to converse with coaches and administrators, getting to know the entourage and environment); (c) report, or request assistance for, any problematic situation they may witness; and (d) listen to warning signs from their children (loss of enthusiasm and motivation or abandonment of the sport, withdrawal, changes in behaviour, etc.). In this case, we invite you to watch this short video showing the importance, as a parent, of listening to our young athletes.

Finally, let’s take the time to remember that it’s imperative that young athletes ask for help whether they are victims themselves or witnesses. In fact, if the club or organization clearly demonstrates that strict measures are in place for the well-being of their young athletes and that this culture is genuinely encouraged, then victims or witnesses of sexual violence – or any type of violence – will never hesitate to call for help because they know that their organizations listen to and support them.

J.T.

(…) it is clear that we are all part of the problem of, and solution to, sexual violence in sport; that we each have a responsibility to prevent it.