An Informed Response to Abuse and Misconduct Can Help Protect Athletes

Older adult and teen on the golf course

Everyone can learn about response protocols, how to report, and what to do when abuse is disclosed

We all have a role to play to keep sport safe for youth. The conversation has already begun around injury prevention, concussion awareness, updating training methods, nutrition, and more.

But what of bullying and harassment, as well as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse? These are topics that should be part of the larger conversation about athlete safety.

Learning how to recognize abuse and misconduct in sport settings—and taking steps to prevent it—are foremost in creating a safer sport culture. But it’s still not enough. Having the knowledge and understanding to respond effectively if harmful behavior arises is a skill that everyone involved in sport should possess.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Emotional & Physical Abuse & Misconduct Toolkit was created for coaches, volunteers, administrators, and others who work directly with athletes. A key component of the toolkit lays out thoughtful and constructive ways to respond to abuse and misconduct.

Have a Plan

Being prepared if emotional or physical abuse or misconduct is disclosed is crucial to responding effectively. These considerations should be top-of-mind when developing a response protocol:

  1. Knowledge—Be well versed in organizational and legal requirements; know what behavior to look for, expectations on how to respond, and where to report.
  2. Preparation—Discuss acceptable and unacceptable behavior with athletes.
  3. Time—Respond quickly to prevent behaviors from escalating and harm from continuing.
  4. Consistency—Respond consistently to misconduct, because responding to some situations but not others erodes athlete confidence in the process and fosters further inappropriate behavior.
  5. Appropriateness—Consider the age and developmental level of those involved; acceptable behaviors, and appropriate responses to those behaviors, may vary.

How to Respond

It can be hard to know what to say when someone tells you they have experienced misconduct or abuse, especially a child. But one thing is for certain: they trust you with this important information. Responding to disclosures with care and compassion—and the proper language—can set the tone for an effective response:

  1. Listen with empathy
  2. Be supportive
  3. Know your role
  4. Remind them you are here to help
  5. Lay out what you will do next
Athletics mother running coach with her children after a training session

Reporting Misconduct

As highlighted in the toolkit, ignoring abuse and misconduct or assuming someone else is taking care of it is not an option. Those who observe or have knowledge of harmful behavior must do something. Report any known or suspected abuse and misconduct according to applicable laws and policies. This can mean reporting to organizational leaders as well as local law enforcement, depending on severity.

Steps for reporting abuse and misconduct include:

  1. Reviewing applicable legal reporting requirements
  2. Determining where to report
  3. Preparing information
  4. Making the report

A Word on Retaliation

It’s common for people to be afraid to report abuse and misconduct for fear of retaliation from coaches, organization leaders, and peers. It’s important that programs or organizations prohibit and monitor this type of toxic behavior. Examples of retaliation against those making a report include an administrator demoting a coach, an athlete threatening a teammate, or a coach dropping a player from the team.

Retaliation can have a cumulative negative effect by causing further harm to those who have experienced abuse; erode trust within an organization; discourage others from reporting misconduct; and contribute to a culture that tolerates abuse and misconduct.