In the Media

Climate of fear surrounds children's sports coaches

PUBLISHED July 22, 2012

Many coaches are so fearful of being accused of abuse that sports training has become a strict 'no touch' zone, even in potentially dangerous situations, it is claimed.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University found that the prioritisation of child protection may jeopardise attempts to widen participation in sport.

The study is the first to look at the issue of 'touching' within sport in the UK. It found that some coaches have given up working with children for fear of any repercussions or false accusations.

A former youth football coach told The Sunday Telegraph that fear of being accused of 'grooming' or abuse has created an unhealthy atmosphere of distrust and suspicion around the coaching of children.

Simon Fletcher, 27, who coached in London to FA level one for four years, said: "It's very difficult now to achieve a normal one to one relationship with a child you are coaching because of the accusatory environment that coaches work in.

"Any adult child relationship is now regarded as suspect and that makes it very difficult for sports coaches to do their job properly."

The report found that in some cases sailing coaches reported that they feel they have to suppress their instinct to grab children out of the water when they appear to be in difficulties and instead think through which parts of their life jacket to hold, while at the same time explaining to them what they are doing.

"Instead of acting instinctively we are having to worry about the repercussions and what we could be accused of later. That delay could put a child in danger," said one sailing instructor.

Professor Heather Piper, who led the study, 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 practise 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."

Mr Fletcher, now a graduate sociology student, said he knew of several cases in which experienced coaches had been unjustly accused of grooming children simply because of what most people would regard as normal behaviour.

In one case a male coach was investigated after a girl ran the length of the pitch to hug him after scoring a crucial goal in a final. In another case a coach was accused by another parent of favouring a boy in a suspicious manner.

In both cases the coaches were cleared of any improper behaviour, but the experience left them wary of getting too close to children.

"They both told me they became stand-offish and clinical with the children they were coaching, which is obviously detrimental to their sporting development," he said.

"Furthermore the climate of suspicion means that in many cases children aren't developing a natural, normal relationship with the adults with which they come into contact."

The research argues that the emphasis on Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) clearance and adherence to regulations is as important now as performance and expertise, and that previously routine physical contact between young people and coaches is regarded as something dangerous or dubious.

One coach told researchers: "It has been bred into everybody now … safety-safety, fear-fear."

Professor Piper, who worked with Bill Taylor of MMU and Professor Dean Garratt of the University of Chester, added: "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."

The researchers, who interviewed around 100 coaches from a range of sports, found that swimming was regarded as the riskiest sport of all, with anyone, particularly older men, who wanted to coach 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 for the coach to breach the 'no touch' code.

"You have to tell them to go down to the steps," said one swimming coach: "And the poor child has to go all the way down to the steps, in front of all of the other kids."

Once gymnastics coach reported seeing a 'no touch, can touch' chart during a training session by British Gymnastics, the sports governing body, which pointed out which parts of a child's body it was safe for coaches to touch.

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."

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. But the MMU researchers said this appears to have led to a prioritisation of child protection beyond what seems reasonable.

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 focusing on actual abusers, the focus now is too wide - real abusers are no longer (seen as) the exception but the rule."

British Gymnastics said it had no comment to make.