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Coaching to Prevent Abuse in High School Athletics

By Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA, and Monique Paris on May 10, 2021 hst Print

Hopefully, coaches strive to create a welcoming environment on their teams to build positive relationships with their athletes; this is central to any academic or school activities program. These relationships deeply impact student-athletes and manifest in a variety of positive outcomes long after high school seasons conclude.

These types of impactful relationships also come with big responsibility; coaches fill the role of an advocate, role model and parent-like figure, and they can propel students to unrealized accomplishments. However, with such influence, there are also opportunities for coaches to abuse relationships with students and do permanent physical and psychological damage.

To combat negative coach outcomes and provide for the safety of all students, school leaders must be vigilant to offer proper training and monitoring to prevent abuse. Students want to excel for those they look up to, and coaches need to maintain high ethical standards because their behavior carries influence – especially when considering the age of high school students. It is then up to school leaders to clarify expectations with both coaches and students by ensuring proper training for all stakeholders, sending clear messages of how to report inappropriate behavior, and establishing a monitoring system that safeguards students throughout their time within a given program.

Establishing Clear Expectations

Coaches are mandated reporters, and districts have a variety of platforms to train school personnel on the legal obligations of their role when working with student-athletes; these typically cover signs of abuse, harassment, and mental health. Some of these topics are covered in courses available for free through the NFHS Learning Center.

Basic and mandated training for compliance are foundational to building safe and student-centered athletic environments. These types of courses improve the chances of safe environments but should not replace the important role school leadership can play when giving direct instruction.

One expectation that is sometimes overlooked is to communicate and monitor for signs of student abuse. School leaders can set the tone for a positive season by attending preseason meetings and emphasizing key points around reporting and sharing ways for all stakeholders to become more aware of the potential signs of abuse.

School leaders should review developmentally appropriate topics like emotional and physical abuse and how to be aware of the signs of grooming and abuse. When everyone understands what type of communication and actions are and are not appropriate, they are better able to identify unsafe situations and report them accordingly.

Other preventive practices include having coaches announce expectations, policies and procedures, which would include awareness of sexual misconduct, on the first day of practice with all coaches and athletes present. Although these statements are sometimes uncomfortable to share, all stakeholders will appreciate the honesty, and they will support an accountable, transparent culture that empowers any stakeholder to report anything that is amiss. Furthermore, such meetings allow school leaders to share policies and practices that prevent such circumstances.

Although schools have various clearance procedures to verify that individuals are cleared to work with high school-aged children, the age of coaches may also play a factor in abusive coach-athlete relationships. Various youth and community-based recreational departments require that coaches be at least 18 years old, yet the closer coaches are to the age of students they coach, the greater the possibility issues of abuse may arise.

Utilizing younger coaches may make it difficult for student-athletes and coaches to discern between an appropriate coach-athlete relationship. This can also lead to difficulties in reporting possible inappropriate relationships as student-athletes may feel pressured not to report if they feel they are the cause of abuse, and younger coaches may not perceive they may be engaging in inappropriate behavior. This is not to say that young coaches cannot be successful, only that they may need additional support to fully understand their roles of leadership and legal obligations.

Regardless of age, coaches should have direct supervision of athletes and the personnel they oversee, but this is not always feasible and can create unforeseen opportunities for abuse. Coaches who oversee large programs need to maintain clear expectations and monitor assistant coaches as well as other adults, such as volunteers, who work near athletes. Such supervision must also consider oversight of transportation to away games and overnight contests. Whether a team utilizes carpools, parent volunteers or assistant coaches, transportation and overnight trips need to be monitored, and all stakeholders must be encouraged to report any possible conduct violations to increase individual and team safety.

Teaching Student-Athletes to Take Ownership

Much of the responsibility of mandated reporting is placed on coaches, yet student-athletes are the ones who are impacted by these situations and, in severe cases, victims of abuse. Students can play an important role in identifying and stopping inappropriate behaviors if school leaders encourage and empower them to report.

Athletes should be involved in creating safe environments and feel comfortable reporting. A simple statement by a coach who genuinely says “feel free to question anything I do and report anything that happens here to the school because you are all valuable” can make students know they are in an environment designed to allow them to share in advocacy.

Athletes may need to be reminded that they should feel comfortable playing their sport and be surrounded by adults supporting individual and team health. If an abuse issue arises, school leaders and coaches need to address the importance of communicating any suspected abuse immediately. Students should be encouraged to notify two sources of school leadership to safeguard and create further accountability. Such notification can be given to the head coach, athletic director, and even other school or district administration. When students report incidents to multiple leadership levels, the chances of an individual or organization hiding abusive patterns diminishes. Furthermore, when schools stress the importance of reporting to multiple adult school leaders, it increases transparency, accountability, and the likelihood that students will be safer.

Continual Monitoring

Unfortunately, preventive practices are not always effective, and some athletes fall victim to abuse. When this occurs there needs to be avenues for athletes to report and receive support. Students may not be comfortable emailing, using direct messaging through established communication platforms, or speaking directly with a coach or school staff member about a case of abuse or suspected abuse.

Schools may want to look at anonymous reporting platforms, such as saysomething.net, as this can alleviate anxiety for students and create new communication pathways for school leaders. Options for anonymous reporting systems exist through various online platforms depending on the needs of a school or district. Adopting a non-confrontational means of reporting allows school personnel to be made aware of suspected abuse and begin investigations if necessary.

Final Thoughts

Although school leaders cannot guarantee the safety of all school environments, they can take steps to make them safer and combat abuse. When schools establish and communicate clear expectations, empower athletes to report abuse to a variety of school leaders, and create systems to monitor and report abuse, students and coaches are better able to have a positive, meaningful athletic experience that allows everyone to be safe.