How Do We Prevent Harmful Cultures Existing in the World of Elite Sport?

We are still hearing elite athletes talk about experiencing a culture of fear and abuse while training and competing for their country.

The sporting world has made significant progress in safeguarding athletes’ mental health, welfare and wellbeing. But we still have a long way to go. We must continue to challenge and address entrenched cultures of harmful behaviour and the normalisation of poor practices.

Key Areas to Address

Recent heartbreaking reports from gymnasts have highlighted numerous priorities for the sport community:

  • Safeguarding and wellbeing must be high on sport and activity organisation’s agendas, at all levels.
  • We must inform and empower everyone involved within sport and activity to share concerns, without fear of retribution, when something doesn’t seem right or if harm, mistreatment or inappropriate behaviour has occurred or is suspected.
  • We must encourage people to report their concerns. People should know who to report their concerns to. They should also understand the official procedures organisations will follow after they’ve reported.
  • Organisations must take appropriate action as soon as someone reports a concern or makes a complaint about harmful or inappropriate behaviour or cultures.
  • Procedures for responding and dealing with reported concerns must be fit for purpose, transparent and able to withstand external scrutiny.
  • The safety and wellbeing of individuals must take priority over an organisation’s reputation and business needs.

We must not allow poor practice, inappropriate behaviour or abuse to be ‘normalised’ in any form. Information should be available to support people involved in sport or activity, to help them identify what behaviour is acceptable and appropriate. That way, they can recognise and report when it is not being practiced. Organisations should help participants gain this understanding.

Finally, we must ensure that people feel safe speaking up and sharing concerns.

Athlete A and the Wider Conversation

The recent Netflix film ‘Athlete A’ focused on fear abuse in American Gymnastics. This, along with recent reports from British gymnasts in the media, triggered a wider conversation across the global sporting community. What can we learn? What areas should we consider when making improvements to policies, procedures and safeguarding measures within an organisation?

A few questions immediately come to mind:

  • Harmful or inappropriate behaviour can be ‘normalised’. When this is the case, how does someone instigate change? How do they ensure their voice is heard when those they report to are part of the culture?
  • If someone reports a concern, how will they know if it’s being followed up appropriately?
  • How can we best communicate information about code of conducts, policies and procedures to people involved in the sport or activity? It’s also important to consider to what extent people understand this information.
  • Is it appropriate for children to train behind closed doors? Is it OK to prevent parents from watching their children train? This can throw up many additional safeguarding issues.

Codes of Conduct

Most sport and activity organisations have codes of conduct outlining what behaviour is appropriate for different roles. And if they don’t currently have a code of conduct, then they should get one as soon as possible!

In general, coaches read and sign their specific code of conduct. Athletes or participants read and sign the ‘Athlete/ Participant Code of Conduct’. Many coaches are probably aware of the content of the athlete/participant codes. But are those taking part aware of the Coaches Code of Conduct? Do they know what behaviours they should expect from their coach?

Harmful behaviours, cultures and abuse do still exist in sport. These gymnasts have demonstrated great courage in coming forward and sharing their stories. Now it’s up to us to listen. Only then can we address the issue of abuse in sport, and make it a safe enjoyable place for everyone taking part.


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