It has been a long time since the 1964 Olympic Games. However, sexual abuse – in many forms – has existed in our society and across all walks of life forever.
We have gone from no laws protecting children to now, where we, as a society, have deemed child protection to be at the top of the list.
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With all of the latest information regarding the sexual abuse of athletes, I feel compelled to write my thoughts on how parents can help their athletes grow and mature in their personal lives as well as their athletic careers.
Make no mistake, athletics is not the only venue that is affected by sexual abuse. As an Olympic swimmer, swimming coach of all levels of competition including Olympic Trial swimmers, and as a mother of three girls (one who was a swimmer and dancer and two that were international and University divers and members of the United States Diving Team), I have had a great deal of experience watching coaches interact with their athletes.
The good news is that “inappropriate coaches” are probably in the minority, yet there are still some things that I believe can assist parents as they watch and care for their athletes as they strive to achieve their goals.
Athletics is fundamentally a dictatorial situation. Parents seek out the coach that has the greatest record of getting his/her athletes to the “top.” The athlete then does what he/she is told to do because of the faith they hold in the coach and the supposition that the coach knows more than they do and can help guide them along the journey.
Because of this, the athlete learns to follow directions, aims to please the coach, and in turn will follow the coach’s direction. This works as long as the coach looks at the big picture and works with the parents and the athlete to set out a plan for achieving their goals, assuming those goals are the athlete’s and not the coach’s or parent’s alone.
Parents, coaches have different roles
Each part of “the team” needs to have a clear picture as to the role each plays and the expectations of each other.
The parent must play the protective role by ensuring that the athlete has a safe place to train; but there is more to great coaching than just the physical training. There are boundary lines that need to be adhered to when working with young athletes.
The coach’s job is to provide the guidance to the physical training and positive corrective performance evaluation. The coach needs to understand that the athlete will make mistakes, and it is their job as the coach to help the athlete make the necessary changes to improve.
The parent’s job is to ensure that the athlete gets to practice, eats and rests properly, handles medical issues, and parents the child. When these two roles get confused, trouble is often the result.
So when there is trouble, why doesn’t the athlete voice their opinion? Lots of reasons are possible, but I believe strongly that it is because the coach oftentimes controls the entire lives of their athletes. The athlete basically has no “voice.” They become afraid to say anything for fear that they will lose a scholarship, be kicked off of the team, or that the coach won’t want to coach them.
This creates a situation where the athlete is willing to do just about anything to ensure that there is a way to achieve their goal.
When looks matter, athletes are vulnerable
For women, the sports of gymnastics, diving, swimming, ice skating, dancing, and other sports where the body stature plays a major role in how the athlete is judged, are breeding grounds for human predators.
Weighing in every day, or looking in the mirrors constantly, can create body dysmorphic and self-esteem issues. People with low self-esteem issues are often targets for the smooth talking and inappropriate behaving individuals that prey upon these athletes.
These predators appear to have the means that is desired by the athlete. As a result, they cunningly control behavior.
So what can parents do?
1. Be active parents!
Parents are part of the “team.” Attend practices, watch the dynamics of the coach, and be mindful of things that you observe that don’t sit well with you. What tone of voice does the coach use to make corrections? Belittlement is not positive. Creating fear is not positive. Bullying is not positive.
I was extremely lucky to have a coach who believed swimming was just a temporary focus. I needed to be a good student. He was a gentleman at all times and refrained from touching me inappropriately or belittling me. He had a great sense of humor, but most of all he believed in me and did not need my Gold Medals to fulfill his own dreams. He was the epitome of “appropriate.”
My swims were up to me. If I listened and followed through with the practice sessions, he would respond with “Great series, Cathy. I think you are on target to swim in the next meet. One step closer to your goal.” He didn’t redefine my work as some way to fulfill his goals.
2. Teach about touch
Teach your children about what is appropriate and inappropriate touching. Help them to understand that when they feel uncomfortable, they need to tell you. You, as the parent, need to take action to ensure that your child knows that he/she can trust you.
Watch for behavioral changes such as not eating or overeating, wanting to always be alone, not wanting to go to practice when they loved doing so before, acting and/or dressing differently, or showing anger that is unusual. Monitor their computer and phone usage; they may share things with friends and not you. These changes are often red flags.
Let your child know that you love them and that any topic is open for discussion. They need to have someone they trust on their team who they can be completely open and honest with at all times. You, as parents, are the ones who are called upon to protect your child.
It is interesting to note that oftentimes the parents will feel uncomfortable about bringing up a topic of concern because they are afraid to do so.
“What if I am wrong?” they ask themselves.
But I would encourage you to think in the opposite manner – “What if I am right?” This is why you must leave no concern unaddressed.
3. Train minors near home
Sometimes parents are not present, as when the athlete trains away from home and the athlete lives with another family, coach, or in a dormitory. This situation should be avoided for all minors, as it opens the door for potential problems. It may mean the parent moves to a new location during the training years in order to do the required parenting.
One thing for sure is that the athlete must have an advocate. It was so hard when two of my daughters received full-ride scholarships for their diving and they moved out of my house. I hoped I had given them the tools to know where to go for help. If need be, I would be on the next plane or they would be on the plane home.
Their athletic and dancing careers were a joy to me and to them, and they created so many fond memories for all of us. Yet, I often reminded them, and they always knew, that all three girls were more than their athletic careers. Their lives did not end with the ending of their athletic careers.
Was everything perfect? No. They had hurdles to overcome, but they had their voice and could speak their minds. They all knew I was in their corner and their No. 1 advocate.
4. Be specific with coach about your expectations.
Mine were simple. You have a behavior problem with my child? You talk with me.
You have an issue with her weight? You refrain from speaking with her about it and call me. I am the parent. It was made clear that I was the parent and responsible for my child’s safety. When medical attention was needed, I went to the appointment with them.
I also understood that my job was not to do the coaching. I expected the coach to be the coach. I always sat a distance away from the activity, but could see what was going on. I expected that the coach would praise my child when they did something right and make corrections in a positive and constructive manner when needed.
If I disagreed, I would take it up with the coach privately. I would not engage in yelling disagreements from the sidelines. Sometimes this was difficult, as I just knew my daughter’s dive was worth a higher score.
But what is really important? Teaching your child to stand up for what they believe in is a way the other person can “hear” and respect is so important. Her diving scores were her scores, not mine. That discussion needed to happen with the coach.
However, on one occasion with one of my daughters, I heard the judges talking about the appearance of the girls. They were actually scoring their bodies from a one to 10 as the girls warmed up. I made it clear to them that what they were doing was beyond inappropriate and it needed to stop.
WOW! The apologies were free flowing. They knew I would be watching and if it happened again, I would report it. I stepped in and did my job as the parent.
5. Choose coaches carefully.
In selecting a coach for your child, do some due diligence. Check where the coach has worked previously and if possible, determine why they left the position.
Talk to athletes and parents who are currently being coached by this individual. What do they like most and least about the coach?
Watch them practice. Do you hear the coach pointing out not only what the athlete did wrong, but actually giving suggestions as to how to make the corrections?
Is the coach paying attention or is the coach on the cell phone or chit-chatting with others?
Can you tell if the coach is interested in the athletes and not merely drawing a paycheck?
These are just a few tips that have been important to me as I have traversed the trail as an athlete, coach, and parent. It is always best to prevent a situation from occurring rather than fixing it after it has occurred.
Of course, as the CEO of Girl Scouts of Central California South, I firmly believe that ensuring your daughters receive actual leadership training is most valuable. It is through programs like Girl Scouts that girls can find their voices and learn how to use them most effectively. It is by speaking up that issues can be solved.
Greatest tip? Listen! Love! Celebrate!
The greatest “tip” that I can give parents is listen to your child, discover the issues, and take action to remedy the situation. Anger towards the perpetrator will take the focus of love away from the survivor. So, love your child with your whole heart.
Let them know you are there for them.
Celebrate the “wins” and have your arms wide open when they fall. Help them to understand that failure only redirects one’s path. I know because I had many failures before making the Olympic Team and winning the Gold Medal.
Here is to your “Gold Medal Parenting” and your children’s future successes, both in and out of athletics!
Dr. Cathy Ferguson is CEO of Girl Scouts of Central California South, Olympic Gold Medalist, former swimming coach and mother of three girls. Connect with her at 800-490-8653, ext. 129. These comments are the sole thoughts of Ferguson and do not reflect the thoughts or views of Girl Scouts of the USA or Girl Scouts of Central California South.