REGULATIONS ‘protecting’ children in sports coaching have created such a climate of fear that the legacy of the 2012 Olympics is under threat - according to researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The ESRC funded study, which is the first to look at ‘touch’ within sport in the UK found that many coaches were so fearful of being accused of child abuse that sports training had become a strict ‘no touch’ zone, even in potentially dangerous situations.
“It has been bred into everybody now…safety-safety, fear-fear” said one coach the researchers interviewed.
"This prioritisation of child protection, sometimes to the cost of the wider goals of sports organisations, may be jeopardising the intended legacy of the Games – widened participation and sport for all.
Professor Heather Piper, who led the research (with Bill Taylor Of MMU and Professor Dean Garratt of the University of Chester) said: “This research has shown that many coaches feel they are no longer trusted to be with or near young people and this has had an impact on those willing to coach in a voluntary capacity.
“In fact, the fear of accusation has led some to stop coaching entirely. Our research suggests that the current practice of hands-off coaching’ and the culture of mistrust associated with it will have negative implications on the recruitment of coaches, levels of achievement in elite performance and, arguably, more importantly, the intended Olympic legacy of general participation in sport.”
The research argues that Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) clearance and adherence to regulations is as important now as performance and expertise and previous routine physical contact between young people and coaches is now regarded as something dangerous or dubious.
“A moral panic has led to guidelines which don’t always support the needs of children and young people and the primary purposes of sport and coaching,” added Professor Piper.
Through interviewing around 100 coaches from a range of sports, the researchers found that swimming was viewed as the riskiest sport of all, with anyone, particularly older men, who wanted to coach swimming being viewed with suspicion.
The governing body for swimming in England requires all coaches to have their hands above the water at all times and one coach said it was often preferable for an overweight child to be embarrassed by not being helped out of the water, rather than breach the ‘no touch’ code.
“You have to tell them to go down to the steps,” she said: “And the poor child has to go all the way down to the steps, in front of all of the other kids.”
British gymnastics reportedly uses a ‘no touch, can touch’ chart which one interviewee likened to those used on a butcher’s shop wall, with the animal carcass divided into different bits of meat.
One boys’ football coach interviewed said he doesn’t even shake hands with his players at the start of the match: “it’s not just protecting the kids, it’s protecting the coaches as well.”
And another coach in an elite disability sport was instructed to pat performers on the head ‘only if they were wearing a helmet’.
High profile abuse scandals in sport, such as the prosecution of a former Olympic swimming coach for child abuse and rape in the 1990s, led to tightening up of rules which researchers say has led to a prioritisation of child protection beyond what seems reasonable.
This is often blamed on the Children Act Legislation which impacts on the care of children in the UK, but this only states that the welfare of the child must be the paramount concern, and nowhere is there any ban limiting physical contact between children and non-family carers.
Professor Piper said: “I am certainly not saying that we should turn a blind eye to child abuse, but rather these over prescriptive measures are unlikely to stop child abuse. Instead of focussing on actual abusers, the focus now is too wide – real abusers are no longer the exception but the rule.”
The research suggests that the position of the Child Protection in Sport Unit (an arm of the NSPCC) responsible for much of current safeguarding practice in sport should perhaps be reconsidered and its effects investigated, as, according to this report, other organisations without such a unit seem more able to maintain an appropriate balance.
The research team at MMU have also started a campaign called Inspired2Greatness to celebrate the role of all sports coaches, paid or unpaid. The campaign aims to collect as many stories as possible of how we have all been inspired or helped at one point or another by an adult who took the time to pass on a love of sport. Visit http://www.inspired2greatness.org.uk/home/ follow on Twitter @inspired2great or on FaceBook page 'Inspired2Greatness'.
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