Adult Coach-Athlete Relationships: The Complexities and Potential Risks – #SaferCultureSaferSport

Adult Athlete Coach Relationship

The topic of adult coach-athlete relationships can be a contentious subject.

It’s a subject that evokes strong opinions, ambiguity and differing experiences. The aim of this article is to highlight some of the considerations and potential risks with coach-athlete relationships along with suggestions to help minimise those risks and contention.

To help with this discussion, we must first define the different relationships that we’ll refer to in this article. There are many different terms and definitions used to describe relationships which can have a variety of meanings to different people and situations. Although the article uses the term coach-athlete relationship it could be equality relevant to other roles within a sport and activity set up where there is the opportunity for an imbalance of power between parties.

This article is based on the following descriptors.

  • Professional relationship: A relationship between two people for the purposes of carrying out specific designated roles or to meet a common goal, whether paid or voluntary. It involves staying within professional boundaries which are set out in relation to the roles; often linked to specific locations and activities.
  • Personal Relationship: A relationship involving close connections between two people generally formed through shared emotional bonds and interactions, interests and experiences. Often including friendship, connection, support and involvement with aspects of someone’s life beyond the remit of a professional relationship.
  • Intimate Relationship: A personal relationship that has developed beyond friendship and involves romantic, physical or sexual connection or activity between two people which can take place on one or more occasion.

Coach-Athlete Relationship Dynamics

The dynamics of a coach-athlete professional relationship is a unique and often complex one. The relationship includes a shared passion for the sport, commitment and joint goals as well as significant time spent together. There are incredibly high levels of trust, closeness, connection and influence involved, most of which are often unavoidable due to the nature of the roles and can be intrinsic to the pursuit of improvement and performance, regardless of level.

The culmination of these elements can, and often do, start to blur the lines between a ‘professional’ relationship and a more ‘personal’ relationship. A personal relationship can involve anything from socialising outside of training, to supporting and offering advice in relation to life outside of sport and working on joint projects outside the sport, to forming an intimate relationship.

It could be argued that a coach-athlete relationship cannot be successful if the more personal aspects of the relationship didn’t exist, however what happens if that personal relationship develops into a more intimate relationship?

Are Adult Coach-Athlete Intimate Relationships Acceptable?

Whether you are a coach, athlete or participant at the elite level of sport or your local community activity group is it acceptable to enter into an intimate relationship with someone you are coached by or coaching if you are both consenting adults?

This is a good question. After all, as adults, both parties have ‘self-determination’; the right to make their own decisions even if someone else considers it to be an unwise decision. There are no laws that prevent two adults entering into an intimate relationship with each other assuming they both consent to the relationship and there are no laws that prevent a coach having an intimate relationship with an adult they coach- so why the need to even discuss it or suggest it may not be the right thing to do?

Sadly, there are people who will abuse their position of trust, power and/or influence to the detriment of another for their own personal gain. Therefore, it is important to highlight and discuss potential risks, signs and indicators of concerns and ways to minimise or remove those risks.

What are the risks in relation to an adult coach-athlete personal or intimate relationship?

The greatest risk is that the relationship has been formed through grooming, controlling or exploitative behaviours- resulting in an unhealthy abusive relationship. Such a relationship may be formed in ‘plain sight’ of others or kept hidden and it can often be difficult for someone within such a relationship to feel able to end the relationship or even be able to recognise it as unhealthy or abusive. Being involved in such a relationship can have significant short and long term, impact on an individual’s physical and mental well-being.

Due to the nature of coach-athlete dynamics, there is the increased opportunity for personal and intimate relationship to be formed from behaviours including (but not limited to):

  • Grooming
  • Coercive control
  • Exploitation of position of power, trust and influence
  • Perpetration of Abuse – for example sexual, emotional or financial
  • Exploitation of the drive to ‘be the best’

In addition to an imbalance of power that can be present within a coach-athlete relationship, there are many additional factors that can contribute to the increased vulnerability of athletes, particularly at the elite level of sport. It is therefore important to also be aware of these and consider them in relation to if a coach-athlete personal or intimate relationship has formed.

Mitigating risks in relation to adult Coach-Athlete personal and intimate relationships

If two consenting adults want to pursue an intimate relationship together there is, in reality, very little someone can do to stop it. However, there are preventative measures an organisation can have in place and implement to help reduce the risks associated with a coach-athlete personal or intimate relationship.

  • Have Codes of Conducts in place for staff, athletes, members, volunteers and coaches. These should outline appropriate/ inappropriate and expected behaviours and process for any breach of the conduct.
  • Ensure signs of inappropriate behaviour or breach of code of conduct are picked up and appropriately managed as early as possible.
  • Have clear and transparent protocol/ policies and procedures relating to intimate adult relationships between staff/ volunteers and athletes or participants.
  • Have a clear process in place for reporting and managing any concerns raised.
  • Ensure staff have completed Safeguarding Adults training and are aware of the signs and indicators of grooming and abuse. They should also be able to recognise additional vulnerabilities.
  • Have clear and transparent athlete selection/de-selection processes for competition, training, facility use and support services eligibility.
  • Provide opportunities for people to share feedback, worries or concerns.

One of the most important factors in minimising risk in coach-athlete intimate relationships is ensuring your organisation has a culture where people don’t feel they need to keep their relationship a secret and hidden. This significantly increases the level of vulnerability for those involved.

Questions to Ask

  1.  Is there an imbalance of power within the relationship due to roles and responsibilities within the organisation?
  2.  What level of control does one party have over the outcomes, opportunities and progression of the other?
  3.  What Code of Conduct/ Ethics has each person signed up to?
  4.  Is there a policy or procedure in place? Are people following it?
  5.  Is one person experiencing difficult circumstances that could influence their level of vulnerability at the time?
  6.  Has the personal relationship evolved into a more intimate relationship?
  7.  Has the relationship, or an intimate aspect of the relationship, been kept, or asked to be kept, a secret?
  8.  Are there any signs or indicators that an intimate relationship is not consensual?
  9.  Are there any signs or indicators of coercive controlling or threatening behaviour or abuse?

The Six Principles of Adult Safeguarding

Based on the 6 principles of adult safeguarding outlined in the English legislation for Safeguarding Adults at Risk the following can also be helpful to bear in mind when considering how to reduce the risks and manage concerns associated with adult coach-athlete personal or intimate relationships in sport.

  • Empowerment- Empower staff and athletes with the information to protect themselves and others, to understand procedures and expected appropriate behaviours and where to seek help if they need it.
  • Prevention– Have policies, procedures, guidance and Codes of Conducts in place. Communicate them as clearly as possible to ensure that people understand them, and follow them. Provide training to staff and where possible athletes in relation to adult safeguarding, including identifying grooming behaviours and abuse.
  • Proportionality– Keep proportionality in mind when managing and responding to situations where intimate relationships have developed. Consider the level of your response and the actions you take. Also consider how this may affect future openness if another adult coach-athlete intimate relationship develops.
  • Protection- Have processes in place to manage cases where suspected harm has occurred to protect from further harm.
  • Partnership- Work together to find solutions and resolve problems that work for the individuals involved. In cases involving harm, work in partnership to help support the harmed person and to minimise risks to others.
  • Accountability- Be accountable for the actions and processes within your organisation. Ensure there is a culture that prioritises safety, welfare and wellbeing over that of reputation of the organisation or staff.

Relationship protocols

Organisations must establish and communicate clear boundaries, expectations and protocols regarding personal relationships between adult staff members, volunteers, athletes and participants. Many organisations and businesses produce personal relationship policies and procedures. These reduce the risk of people in positions of power, influence and trust from exploiting or abusing their position. This is something sport organisations should consider following suit with.

Factors to Consider With a Relationship Policy or Protocol

  • Do you want to discourage personal and intimate relationships between adult staff, volunteers and athletes or participants?
  • A blanket ban does not necessarily stop intimate relationships forming. It risks the relationship being a secret, which can be more dangerous.
  • Encourage openness and declaration of a personal or intimate relationship forming as early as possible.
  • Have a transparent procedure in place for declaring a personal or intimate relationship between coach and athlete.
  • Have a procedure for discussing and implementing risk reducing measures. These can include:
    • Ensuring neither member of the relationship can influence any decision-making or opportunities in relation to the other. E.g. access to facilities, selection to squad/teams, funding etc.
    • Change the working dynamic/ roles where possible e.g. Remove the ‘coach-athlete’ element from the relationship by working with different athletes or coaches or changing role.
  • Adults have the right to self-determination.
  • The performance pathway has the potential for greater power imbalance. This does not mean there are no risks for people involved in community or grass route level too.
  • Ensure there is information about who to speak to if anyone has any concerns about someone’s wellbeing or safety.

What next?

Let’s not shy away from discussing coach-athlete relationships. As much as the simplest solution and best practice would be for a coach-athlete relationship not to develop – they do. It is therefore important to be realistic and prepared for if and when they do occur in your organisation. That way you can ensure you do as much as possible to help minimise the risks.

Culture plays a crucial element in this topic #SaferCultureSaferSport.  Ensure the culture of your organisation is one that encourages openness and transparency. Hopefully this article has provided food for thought and helped highlight areas to consider, develop and discuss further.

For further information, see our resources for guidance about safeguarding adults.

You can also read a piece about player-coach relationships in Women’s Football on the BBC Sport website.