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What Coaches Can Do to Protect Youth Athletes From Sexual Abuse

by Irene van der Zande


Ruben Nieves, PCA’s Director of Training talked with PCA National Advisory Board Member and Kidpower International founder and CEO, Irene van der Zande.  They had a powerful conversation about what sports coaches can do to help keep young people safe from abuse.  Since 1989, Kidpower has been teaching skills and strategies worldwide to protect young people from abuse, bullying, and other violence.  They work also with adults, with seniors, and people of all different abilities. The skills they teach are called “people safety skills” for preventing and solving problems with people.  

Here are 10 tips from Irene van der Zande:

1. We need to model being respectful ourselves and to step in to stop unsafe or disrespectful behavior sooner rather than later. Suppose somebody is staring at someone else and making rude remarks about how they look. Rather than ignoring it, we can speak up either directly in the moment or later in private. By stopping what seem to be small issues, we can help to prevent these from turning into big problems because somebody becomes uncomfortable or even very upset.

2. Remind young people that, “We each have the RIGHT to be treated with safety and respect – and the RESPONSIBILITY to act safely and respectfully towards ourselves and others.” Be clear about the Consent and Boundary Safety Rules for your team. Many organizations use the Kidpower Consent Checklist: “Touch, attention, or play for fun or affection should be the choice of each person, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret.”

3. Just as with other activities, people are more likely to remember what to say or do in an uncomfortable situation if they have practiced. In addition to discussing the rules, give young people the opportunity to rehearse how to stay aware, set boundaries, apologize, protect their feelings, manage their emotional triggers, leave, and get help. Learning these skills will help to prevent and stop abusive behavior both from adults and from peers – and also to develop safe and strong relationships so that we can have more fun and fewer problems with ourselves and each other.

4. Introducing and rehearsing skills doesn’t need to take long. Just a five-minute safety lesson once a week can make a tremendous difference. Have everyone practice like Ruben does in the video speaking up and repeating in calm assertive voice simple phrases like, “Stop! That’s not safe!. … Excuse, me, I feel uncomfortable. … I don’t keep problems a secret. “ Or you can repeat the safety rules, such as, “Any kind of touch should not be a secret.” Remind them that, “Practicing with your body and voice will help your mind to remember to use these skills in real life.” We can provide five-minute Kidpower and Teenpower Safety Lessons for coaches and youth sports parents.

5. Doing this can take a little extra time and work – and, when abuse has happened in an organization or school, it is devastating. People in these situations say that they would have done ANYTHING – spent any amount of time, effort, and money – to not to have had it happen.

6. The Kidpower Founding ‘Put Safety FIRST” Principle is, “Each person’s safety and well-being are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.” Although this seems obvious, fears of discomfort or disappointment are powerful feelings that can get in the way of preventing and stopping harmful behavior; avoiding unsafe situations; or getting help.

7. Often people are afraid to report because they don’t want to harm someone’s reputation by being unfair or overreacting and they also want to protect the reputation of their organization or school. Potentially grooming behavior might not look like abuse at first. Abusers often cultivate a special relationship of trust and value with a family, an organization, or faith community in order to have access to young people. Then. they test a child’s boundaries before doing something that is abusive. That is why the Kidpower Safety Rule about “Don’t keep secrets about problems, any kind of touch, any kind of favor or gift, any friendship, or anything about people and their private areas” is so important, and why we’re so specific about it.

8. Make potentially grooming behavior such as keeping secrets, meeting alone with a player,  and giving special favors against your safety rules. Most behavior that might be potentially inappropriate is accidental because someone is being thoughtless, doesn’t realize the implications, or has poor boundaries. Unfortunately, sometimes behavior like this is the tip of the iceberg. Teach kids to speak up about any kind of behavior that makes them uncomfortable or that is against their safety rules. Check it out even if it seems harmless and keep paying attention even if the explanation or apology seems very reasonable and friendly.

9. Be a safe adult to come to. Make it a habit to listen to kids without lecturing, teasing them, or being distracted. As kids get older, they often find it harder to ask for help. They are worried their parents will overreact to something or that they’ll lose some privileges. For example, if they get cyberbullied, they might be afraid of losing their rights to their mobile phones because of what happened. Being a safe adult to come to means staying calm when you hear something, and it also means opening the door a lot of times. One thing parents can do is to ask their kids occasionally in a calm matter-of-fact way, 'Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?'"

10. We encourage all adults to make the Kidpower Protection Promise to the young people in their lives and to each other. Even if we can’t solve the problem directly, we can still provide support and resources in finding someone who can help. In the video, Ruben does this for his family and colleagues by saying, "I am making the Kidpower Protection Promise to each of you. ‘You are very important to me. If you have a safety problem, I want to know even if I seem too busy, even if someone we care about will be upset, even if it is embarrassing, even if you promised not to tell and even if you made a mistake, please tell me and I will do everything in my power to help you.’ Coaches imagine the impact we can have if we make this pledge to all the young people that we work with!"

More Resources from Irene & KidPower

Irene van der Zande is the Founder and Executive Director of Kidpower International, the global nonprofit leader in personal safety education for all ages, teaching skills for strong relationships and the prevention of harm.