Listening to the Voices of Sport Participants

Safeguarding in Sport Participant Groups

Nicola Dean, Tina Thordal, Charlotte Gilmartin and Dr. Anne Patterson reflect on their workshops with participants and athletes, and their aim to put the voice of athletes at the centre of ongoing safeguarding in sport and activity development.

Safeguarding Adults in Sport and Activity is an ACT project funded by Sport England, UK Sport and Sport Wales.

The aim is to help National Governing Bodies, Active Sports Partnerships, regional partnerships and sport and activity organisations to develop best practice in safeguarding adults.

We believe that safeguarding adults is a responsibility for every sport and physical activity organisation. Getting this right will ensure a wider participation in sport or physical activity and ensure safe access for everyone – we all have the right to take part in sport and activity in safety, free from abuse and neglect.

For the past four years ACT’s contract with Sport England has included working with participants and athletes. The purpose is to ensure that the voices of adult participants and athletes are integral to the development of the ACT safeguarding adults in sport and activity service.

The original development of the project was undertaken by ACT Safeguarding Adults Manager Nicola Dean, ACT Associate Tina Thordal, and Penny Roberts, a safeguarding expert and the parent of an adult with care and support needs. The team then grew to include a former speed skater Charlotte Gilmartin, and Nottingham University researcher, Dr Anne Patterson.

As Sport England begin their new 10 year strategy, Uniting the Movement, the participant team offer their reflections on what has enabled and also challenged ACT in their mission to listen to the voices of sport participants.

They end with explaining the new project strategy and outline ways in which you can help..

Reflections from ACT Safeguarding Adults in Sport Manager – Nicola Dean

As the manager overseeing the participant work, Nicola’s reflections focus on the work that the team has undertaken and how it fits with the ACT Safeguarding Adults in Sport agenda.

“The project was developed because safeguarding shouldn’t be ‘done to’ adults, it should always be ‘done with them’. The voice of adults should be at the centre of any service, group or organisation. And that includes sport and activity.

“We wanted to speak to adults taking part in sport and activity and find out from them what made them feel safe, what was working and what wasn’t in their club or group.

“This ethos fitted with the Sport England Strategy ‘Towards an Active Nation’, that looked ‘beyond simple participation to how sport changes lives and becomes a force for good.’ At its heart were five outcomes: physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development and economic development. Customers were at the heart of the strategy, with Sport England using insight to drive the work.”

What went well:

Running face to face sessions linked to Active Partnerships

“The team worked to develop standard questions that could be asked to groups of people taking part in sport and activity. We were able to meet with groups through local Active Partnerships who either put us in touch with specific groups e.g. disability basketball, or who set up a forum group themselves, inviting participants from a variety of clubs or groups in their area.”

The diverse skills and knowledge of the team

“Having an athlete introduce the session made the subject come to life as she was able to reflect on her own experiences of being in a team. The groups were run by an experienced facilitator. The results from the group discussions were then analysed by the researcher who was able to identify themes.”

Developing a survey

“A survey was also developed that participants could access online. This meant that people who couldn’t attend in person could still share their views. An Easy Read version of the survey was created, meaning that it was more accessible.

“The survey was also promoted nationally on the ACT website.

“In addition we worked with a National Governing Body to survey their participants and create a report that they could use to develop their safeguarding strategy.”


Running sessions remotely

“Lockdown saw a move to running forums online via Microsoft Teams. We saw that the participants were mostly staff or volunteers in sport and activity. Their insight into safeguarding adults was useful, but it wasn’t the main purpose of the sessions.”

Finding adult participants to speak to

“We put on some events that participants could book onto and promoted them via the ACT website and social media. This resulted in very little interest, perhaps because most of our audience consists of sport managers and people from governing bodies, rather than participants.

“We also worked with an NGB that promoted a face-to-face session for participants that was cancelled due to lack of interest.”

Moving forward

“We have revisited the purpose of the work and created a new project brief that will align with Sport England’s Uniting the Movement campaign.

“We will also link the work to the ACT Safer Culture Safer Sport campaign, where ACT is encouraging organisations to Listen, Lead and Learn to make sport and activity safer places for all adults. “

Reflections from Project Co-ordinator – Tina Thordal

Safeguarding needs to be a priority in every organisation and especially in sports services providing support to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing.

“Our contact with sports participants was initially face to face. It was interactive, and fun. We set questions for the group, and explored people’s perspectives on safeguarding matters, and raised examples of best practice. Small group discussions provided an opportunity to learn from others.

“Our athlete (Charlotte) set the scene, and prompted questions and discussions about the difficulties participants in sport might face in recognising and disclosing a safeguarding concern.

“We learned to adjust our time with individual groups according to what fitted in well with their sports sessions.

“Unfortunately, our face-to-face events were short-lived due to lockdown. , We switched to Microsoft Teams to maintain contact and continue to gather data. For many reasons this has proved to be less successful.

“After gathering suggestions and ideas from the sports sector, we now offer a standard questionnaire to individual clubs which they send to their athletes via email. We are also happy to deliver a virtual session for club members and also face to face.

“Our researcher (Anne) collates the information and returns her findings to the club along with a brief report. All questionnaires remain anonymous.

“Each club is now able to identify best practice, and we know from feedback the aspects of safeguarding where athletes remain confused and unclear.

“There is no cost to clubs and the benefit of receiving a brief report of findings is that it enhances the ability to maintain, support and protect all club members, including staff.”

Reflections from retired elite athlete and ‘expert by experience’ – Charlotte Gilmartin

It was valuable to have Charlotte’s input as an athlete as this validated some of the assumptions we made about some of the challenges we faced in finding athletes/sports participants to speak with us.

What went well:

“Prior to COVID restrictions I felt the face-to-face forums were really successful. It was easier to connect and ‘read the room’, enabling us to create a safe environment for participants to talk more openly.

“I found this was the same in the smaller break out groups during our online forums. However, this meant it was more difficult to retain the key information after the forums, with only one person to recall what was said.”


“I have sometimes found it difficult to explain my experiences without feeling as though I am tarnishing the sport’s/organisation’s name.

“I loved sport at every level. It gave me so many highs. However, I feel it is important to talk of the lows in order to make a change. The challenge I see is in getting through to the current athletes to have their say (which would be more powerful) If they maybe have these same feelings or concerns of backlash in any way.

“It’s difficult getting them to arrive at meetings when their focus can be so narrowly set on performance and outcomes. Athletes may be unaware of some types of abuse and wouldn’t be willing to stick their head up unless it seemed extreme.”

Moving forward, overcoming challenges:

“I feel the barrier is removed if we can get to sport organisations individually, so that the athletes know their performance directors/ managers etc are championing this and we are going/coming to them rather than them to us.

“The key thing would be to help embed best practices and positive mental impact – it would not be to tell people off or expose.

“It can be very time-consuming collecting contact information, travelling and organising visits and this can prove expensive within a small scale project.”

Reflections from Researcher – Dr Anne Patterson

“During this time we have attempted to conduct research via face-to-face focus groups, which subsequently became online forums during the pandemic, and also via surveys.

“These surveys have been administered either via our team sending SurveyMonkey links or hard-copy surveys directly to respondents, or creating a link for safeguarding lead officers/personnel to send out to their members.

“My role has been the development of these data ‘tools’ (focus group questions, survey questions etc) to capture data from respondents, as well as collating and presenting this data.

“As part of a team effort I have also assisted with recruitment, offering advice on what might and might not work, monitoring responses and networking whenever possible.

“While we enjoyed some success in reaching respondents early in the project we have also faced a number of challenges.”

What worked well in reaching respondents and gathering ‘data’ – ENABLERS

“Being able to visit organisations/clubs and potential respondents face-to-face worked extremely well in the beginning and those facilitating the focus groups/forums were able to engage more fully than has been the experience in any activities since then.

“Having a ‘real-life’ athlete, an ‘expert by experience’ at the sessions who could reflect on experience of rising to be an elite athlete and subsequently retiring from the elite scene, provided powerful material for discussion and exploration of what good and poor safeguarding might look like. Real-life ‘expertise’ is a very influential force for getting people talking.

“The Covid pandemic halted many of the above opportunities and, for a time, online focus groups/forums worked well, but tailed off, possibly due to online meeting fatigue or possibly because people began to develop new ways of actually doing/coaching sport and so focussed on sport itself.”

What has not worked so well – BARRIERS

“Sports participants, coaches and other staff are quite naturally attracted to sport, by sport itself. Talking to facilitators/researchers is not sport.

“The doing/coaching of sport quite naturally ‘trumps’ responding to research enquiries. In addition to this, the subject of ‘safeguarding’ may not be high on people’s priority lists:

it may not be seen as relevant – especially when all is working well for them or they do not see themselves as ‘adults at risk’; it might only be seen as relevant when things go wrong

it can be an unpalatable topic more generally, especially in the face of a lot of media interest in certain sports when/where things have gone drastically wrong

for those sporting organisations we approach with a view to accessing their members’ views and taking part in our research, there is a risk associated with potentially ‘opening a can of worms’ – organisations may be understandably reluctant

it is possible that generally safeguarding of adults is seen as less of a priority than that of children – adults can be seen as masters of their own lives and not in need of safeguarding – for sports participants depending on others to participate, ‘risk’ might be overlooked

We have received feedback that our enquiries, whether sets of questions for face-to-face engagement, or our various surveys are quite lengthy and so may lead to research/survey fatigue etc.

Given the sometimes, unwieldy organisation of sports governing bodies and differing echelons of governing and monitoring of activities (including safeguarding matters) it is challenging to know where (at what level) to target research enquiries with a view to reaching sport members/participants and avoiding any possible ‘gatekeeping’ to hearing their voices/views.

What we have learned thus far and where/how we hope to focus ONGOING EFFORTS

All of these are understandable concerns and we need to reassure respondents of our intentions in doing this work and that it is a safe space to discuss these matters – it is not to point fingers, it is to keep all of those involved safe.

Change emphasis/messaging from matters of ‘safeguarding’ to be more about keeping people safe and well whilst doing/coaching/overseeing sporting activities – promoting a more positive tone than what might be considered ‘traditional’ safeguarding.

Shorten sets of questions/inquiries – focus groups and surveys need revisiting for expediency and accessibility.

Engage in different ways with groups/respondents, particularly as there are greater opportunities to be more creative, post-pandemic.

Take a two-pronged approach – aimed at appealing to the higher echelons in sport in the hope that they will cascade our research enquiries to their members and also a more grass-roots approach to local clubs so that we reach respondents

General OBSERVATIONS about doing research in this arena

“During this project I have become more aware of several areas where there is a ‘blurring of the lines’; particularly of ‘intimacy’ (e.g. giving of lifts to practice, accommodation at events) as coaches/sports participants strive to do well in their sport – albeit sensibly and legitimately.

“There seem to be practices (a culture, even?) that that is ‘just how it is if we are going to pursue and do well in sport’ and we may need to understand this more as we engage in this research project.

“Though these sound like ‘findings’ from our research it is more a realisation on my part, at this stage of the project, that any lack of acknowledgement/recognition of a need for safeguarding (and so people’s lack of desire to engage with our research), might to some extent be explained by people not appreciating that what seem harmless and everyday practices could in some cases be the seeds of something that could become a safeguarding risk.”

In terms of the project’s PROGRESS AND FINDINGS to date you could also visit:

A short report on our preliminary findings from these sessions.

A podcast recording of the project, and its progress.

Looking ahead

The team has a new project brief which is part of the Sport England’s, “Uniting the Movement” ten-year strategy.

In particular the team will be seeking the perspectives of those taking part in sports and activities, who may be potentially marginalised due to age or (dis)ability, gender, sexual orientation or any other characteristic that might lead to potential inequality of opportunity or treatment while pursuing sports and activities.

Initially the team are focussing on the perspectives of those in older age groups and those who may have a learning or physical disability.

If you and/or your sports group identify as belonging to either of these groups, we would love to hear from you, with a view to coming along and asking you more about your experiences.

Contact the ACT team

Or call 0115 951 5400.