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  • Brooke de Lench

    Author: Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Founder and Publisher, MomsTEAM.com, Producer of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer. Follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench. Email her at delench@MomsTEAM.com.

  • Brooke de Lench

Abuse in Sports: A Primer for Parents

Abuse can occur in several forms and is centered on power, especially the power of the coach over the athlete. The following information should help you identify abuse or neglect, though it is not a complete list of behaviors that are considered abuse and neglect:

Emotional Abuse

  • Name calling, insulting, shouting, belittling, threatening, humiliating, scapegoating, ignoring, rejecting, bullying, taunting, shunning, isolating, denying

Physical Abuse

  • Slapping, hitting, shaking, throwing equipment at or near a player, kicking, pulling hair or ears, striking, shoving, grabbing, hazing, punishing “poor” play or rule violations through the use of excessive exercise or by denying fluids

Sexual Abuse

  • Requesting sexual acts, indecent exposure, fondling genitals, penetration, rape, incest, sodomy, sexual exploitation (prostitution), exposure to or creation of pornographic materials

Neglect in sports

  • Improperly treating injuries and forcing injured athletes to play, inadequate equipment, lack of supervision during overnight trips, allowing bullying or hazing by teammates

Key points to remember:

  • Different types of abuse often occur at the same time; for example, while physically or sexually abusing a child, an adult often emotionally abuses them as well
  • Both boys and girls can be victims of abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse, and both male and female coaches can be perpetrators.
  • There are no excuses for abusing or neglecting a child.
  • Abuse and neglect are NEVER the child’s fault.

We urge you to discuss this information with your child in an age-appropriate way so that they are aware of what counts as inappropriate treatment.

Effects of Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect can have long lasting and persistent negative effects on the child. In general, these may include:

Health and physical effects

  • Bruises, burns, cuts, broken bones
  • Longer-term effects of brain damage and permanent disabilities
  • Impaired physical development
  • Sexually Transmitted diseases (sexual abuse specifically)

Effects on intellectual and mental development

  • Lower academic achievement and poorer school performance
  • Emotional, psychological, and behavioral consequences:
    • Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), impaired attachment, eating disorders, mistrust of others, poor peer relationships, difficulty regulating emotions, self-harming behavior, including cutting and suicide attempts, suicide
    • An increased risk of violent behavior, juvenile delinquency, involvement in crime in adulthood, and substance abuse

Effects on sports performance

  • Training effects, such as changes in motivation and reduced enjoyment (possibly leading to burnout and quitting sports), impaired focus, and difficulties with gaining new skills
  • Performance effects, such as diminished performance

Warning Signs of Abuse or Neglect

The following is a list of possible warning signs of abuse and neglect.  The presence of any one warning sign does not automatically mean that the child is has been abused or neglected, and some warning signs overlap between types of abuse.

Possible warning signs of emotional abuse

  • Being more compliant and/or seeking affection more than usual
  • Low self-esteem and/or low self-confidence
  • Severe or sudden depression, anxiety, or aggression
  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Delayed physical, emotional, and/or intellectual development
  • Headaches or stomachaches with no medical basis
  • Caregiver (or coach) who belittles the child, denies love or attention, and seems unconcerned about the child’s problems or well-being
  • Avoidance and/or fear of specific situations or people

Possible warning signs of physical abuse

  • Frequent or unexplained injuries, such as bruises, scratches, , fractures, broken bones, bites, cuts, black eyes, and/or burns
  • Explanations for injuries that do not make sense
  • Specific patterns of burns, bruises, or other injuries that may suggest the use of an instrument or inappropriate physical contact
  • Cigarette burns anywhere on the body
  • Aggressive, disruptive, and/or destructive actions
  • Abuse of pets or other animals
  • Passive, withdrawn, and robot-like behavior
  • Fear of going home or seeing parents or fear of participating in sports
  • Injuries that appear after a child has not been at school or sports practice for several days
  • Questionable clothing that may cover injuries to arms or legs

Possible warning signs of sexual abuse

  • Sexually-transmitted diseases
  • Genital injuries, perhaps suggested by bloody underwear
  • Pregnancy
  • Trouble sitting or walking
  • Child suddenly does not want to change for gym or practice
  • Fear of washrooms, locker rooms, or closed doors, or fear of being alone with adults of a certain sex
  • Nightmares and/or bedwetting
  • Child attaches quickly to new adults they come into contact with
  • Knowledge of sexual relations or sexual behavior outside of what is reasonable for a child’s age
  • Sexual abuse of other children and/or sudden interest in sex disproportionate for a child’s age
    • It is important to note that sexualized behavior in children is the result of sexual abuse, not its cause
  • Quitting the team or being reluctant to return to the sports activity
  • Sleep disorders
  • Changes in appetite
  • Running away
  • Reluctance to talk
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Falling grades

Possible warnings signs of neglect (in an athletic context):

  • Poorly maintained or unsafe equipment
  • Evidence of unsupervised overnight trips; for example, athletes tell stories of going off by themselves for an inappropriate reason, amount of time, etc.
  • Injuries that are not taken care of or exacerbated by repeated use without time to heal

What to Do if You Suspect Abuse or Neglect

If your child tells you that he or she is being abused or neglected, you should:

  • Take them somewhere where they can talk freely
  • Listen, believe, and support your child
  • Reassure them continuously and speak on a level that they can understand
  • Make sure they understand that what happened is not their fault
  • Contact their pediatrician or other medical provider right away

Each State designates specific agencies to receive and investigate reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Typically, this responsibility is carried out by child protective services (CPS) within a Department of Social Services, Department of Human Resources, or Division of Family and Children Services. In some States, police departments may also receive reports of child abuse or neglect.

For more information or assistance with reporting, please call Childhelp USA ®, 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453), or your local CPS agency.

  • You do not have to investigate or be certain that abuse has occurred; you only have to suspect its occurrence.
  • If your report is an emergency, call 911 or your local law enforcement agency.

For a list of phone numbers and websites by state, click here.

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