Safeguarding: A Personal Story

Date: 14 October 2022   Author: Energise Me

It’s impossible to imagine how it must feel to navigate blurred lines, conflicting emotions and that nagging feeling that something isn’t right. One Hampshire resident shares their story to encourage us all to listen and speak up if we have a safeguarding concern.

PLEASE NOTE: This story includes references to abuse and eating disorders, which some readers may find distressing. The matters included in this story have been reported to the appropriate authorities.

Growing up, my parents encouraged me to explore a lot. Despite probably being nervous at times they let me make the jump, climb the ladder, fall down, and get back up again. They are firm believers that sometimes you must fall, and they are adamant I should be able to pick myself up. As a family we went on many adventures, bike rides, swimming and walking. I was given the opportunity to build fundamental skills that meant being active for me was easy and fun.

I paint a pretty picture, but I also lived in a chaotic household: domestic abuse, child services, separation and ‘pushy parents’ who wanted me to excel.

Tough love was a common phrase, and this meant sometimes doing things I didn’t always enjoy or want to do.

Learning from an early age

I learnt from an early age that I was going to be challenged and this was meant to make me better at something. I started to want and need the feeling I got from being active or pushing myself. Sport and activity became my safe space.

It was no surprise that I needed an outlet and somewhere to channel my energy. I was that child that was strongly encouraged to get involved in extra-curricular clubs. Luckily for me I was pretty OK at most sporting activities I tried and also thrived from a little bit of competition. I could play for the school football team or join a circus skills club. It was my happy place. At school my primary teachers supported me and didn’t just celebrate the wins. I was encouraged to do the things I valued but was privileged enough to be given other opportunities.

A negative early experience

My early experience of a recreational club however wasn’t great. I went with friends wanting to learn the skills they could do, but soon learnt that they were more concerned with being coach favourites than being my friends. I quickly took to the sport and I went from being a recreational participant to someone who threatened the order of things, who made coaches and athletes unhappy. Suddenly how I was being coached changed; there was less room for me to make mistakes and the consequences of making a mistake were made clear. I was nervous to go to a session and started to dread the thought of attending events.

I wasn’t raised to be a ‘quitter’, but I was able to leave the club and continue with the sport elsewhere.

A more supportive environment

I moved to a new club and the contrast couldn’t have been more different. There was an atmosphere of fun and everyone there seemed supportive. I loved my coaches and being with my teammates. I worked hard because it was exciting and the initial coaching style suited me, and naturally I excelled.

I was invited to join a development pathway, and this would require a bigger commitment, from my parents and me. This was a big ask. The added financial and time pressures meant that my parents wanted me to do well to justify the sacrifice. At a young age I shrugged the added pressure away, but I knew it was there.

Over time I became aware that a lot of our schedule revolved around my sporting commitments, and I started to want to prove myself. I received bursaries that relieved a few monetary concerns but meant I had to continuously meet the criteria.

I also became reliant on coaches taking me to training and home again. It made things more bearable and rather than just being a coach, they became a family friend.

Getting noticed

As a young child I craved attention and I wanted to please. Coaches started to take a bit more of an interest in me, and I gravitated towards them. I was keen to impress so I pushed myself. Even if I was unsure I did it anyway. This type of behaviour was desired, and I was praised for it, whilst others were moaned at if they weren’t pushing themselves. I was able to recognise that some of the athletes were ‘noticed’ more and I wanted that. So, I worked hard and did what they asked.

Coach's 'favourite'

Coaches were fairly hands on. It wasn’t uncommon across many of the sports I had been involved in. As I became a coach’s ‘favourite’ a hug here and there, a high five, a wink, a tap on the bum, a kiss on the forehead and being made to sit on a coach’s lap became part of most sessions. If you resisted, you were pulled in closer, and no wasn’t typically a phrase that was acknowledged.

One coach used to take moments to inappropriately touch me under my clothes in a manner that was fun for them and made to seem like a game to me. At times a coach’s hand position would linger for too long and although this behaviour was observed by other coaches, I was told to adapt my behaviour rather than address the behaviour with the coach.

I was 10 years old. Others were a similar age to me if not slightly older by a year or two. This wasn’t the attention I was wanting but the more it happened the more I was liked by my coach and was given leniency in training.

Unchecked behaviour

This behaviour went seemingly unchecked and took place in the main session with coaches and athletes. A lot of us assumed it was appropriate or at least not inappropriate. Some felt uncomfortable with it but weren’t sure what to do or who to ask. Others who didn’t want to be on the receiving end were removed from the group. It wasn’t for some time that we started to chat about why this was happening with each other and coaches. Despite having raised concerns and refused any more touching under my clothes, I was ‘good’ enough that they wanted to continue coaching me. And I wanted them to coach me.

I was improving as an athlete, and no-one was telling me that what was happening was wrong.

Challenging and asking questions

They continued to coach me. I witnessed their behaviour with the younger girls, repeating the actions sitting them on their lap and playing favourites. When I was 14 years old I started to challenge their actions. It was also at 14 that I was told I was a pawn in a game and began to question my trust in this person I knew and respected. I lost trust in myself, and I doubted the choices I made.

I spoke with other coaches about my coach’s behaviour and some told me that it had been investigated and no further action was taken, and others told of more serious stories. I had no idea what to think. I also thought that if some of the other stories were true then I was lucky.

I felt that I had no control and that what was going to happen would be determined by someone else.

Keeping watch

I tried to be vigilant and watch the younger athletes. I refused some of the attention given and I started to become more aware of what was appropriate. I had so much guilt in knowing and seeing what was happening and not knowing if it was OK or what to do about it. I felt like I had let them down. Because of the noise I was making, it meant I was labelled ‘uncoachable’. It meant that other coaches didn’t want to work with me. It was seen that I didn’t do as I was told. I questioned things and my outward facing attitude was that I didn’t care. But I did care.

I made everyone believe that what was going on wasn’t affecting me. I just didn’t know what to do with any of the information I had. 

New behaviour

I carried on turning up to training and while some of the behaviours stopped new ones appeared. Comments about my body shape and how it affected my performance became more frequent. My coach would pinch my sides to highlight extra fat and little comments about body shape were thrown into conversation. It wasn’t just me and younger athletes were witnessing it. I was told I was lucky that sport had stunted some of my development, I remained small and had a relatively low body fat percentage.

Some might say it was inevitable, but I developed an eating disorder. I would restrict calories for days, binge, then exercise and restrict. Among my coaches there was turmoil. Some believed that I should put some weight back on, others were firm in believing that being less meant being more. Unfortunately for me I was still performing well, and this was attributed to my loss in weight.

It wasn’t a choice. I couldn’t understand the dilemma my coaches faced. I thought I was doing what they wanted, and I couldn’t please everyone.

Raising enough attention

By the time I was 17 I had raised enough attention about my coach’s behaviour that it couldn’t be allowed to continue. One day, after an incident, they left. They blamed me and despite everything I was sad that this person who had provided so many opportunities for me had gone. I held on tight to the relationships I had with others and this made me vulnerable.

I reluctantly moved into another elite training program and at some point turned a blind eye. I saw coaching practices that were doing more harm than good, senior athletes taking advantage of younger members, overtraining, and physical and emotional abuse. Athletes were constantly being shouted at or moaned at. They were told to act like a winner whilst simultaneously being told they weren’t good enough. If you got too good but weren’t ‘coachable’ you were ignored; if you weren’t good enough you were overlooked and not provided the same opportunities.

There was an overwhelming feeling of being watched and judged constantly.

Challenging environments

I spent more time with my team than my family and for me this was perfect. It was the lesser of two evils. I wanted to be at training rather than at home. Outside of sport I didn’t have that ‘normal’ rational voice. I had built relationships with my coaches and trusted them. I listened to and believed them. A lot of my self-esteem was underpinned by what my coaches and teammates thought of me and told me. If coaches weren’t impressed with what I was doing this somehow devalued me. I had defined myself by my sport.

Training in this type of environment had its challenges. Knowing where or if there were boundaries meant blurry lines and grey areas. Knowing your rights as an athlete and more importantly as a person was difficult. I look back at conversations I had with my athlete friends, and I remember a conversation I had with an athlete who had spoken about a coach who had made an inappropriate comment on a night out. The coach had expressed their feelings about the athlete and how they would like to act on it. The next day we talked about what happened for hours and the decision was ‘don’t tell anyone as no-one else will understand’.

There were rules and boundaries we had in life, but we had less when it came down to sport.

Crossed lines

For me these lines were crossed and as a child (16) a relationship developed with an adult athlete and coach (at this time, there were no laws that said this was inappropriate). It would turn out to be an unhealthy relationship in the 4 years together. This relationship was unhealthy inside and outside of the training environment. I would go on to have my ribs and wrist broken, miss training and education commitments and lose a little bit of myself. I confided in my coach. Unfortunately, despite raising concerns and hoping my coaches would support me, I was alone. My coach suggested that being in a relationship was more beneficial for me as it gave me additional guidance and stability. I independently reported my concerns to the authorities and police for them to investigate and action.

I confided in my coach. Unfortunately, despite raising concerns and hoping my coaches would support me, I was alone.

Looking back

It was starting to take a toll on me. I reached a point as an adult that I didn’t want to be treated like that anymore. I retired from elite sport having achieved some amazing things and, in the process, learned how to advocate for myself.

I know that this paints a grim picture, but it wasn’t all bad. There were many positive moments and coaches that worked hard to ensure the athletes were protected and had fun. There were some incredible opportunities that I was privileged to experience and have made some amazing friends. It informed me about the type of coach and person I wanted to be and the impact I can have. There were also some incredible people who fought in my corner, listened and provided support.

Looking back, I don’t blame any one person or organisation. My parents were just as oblivious and manipulated by the coaches and the situation.

You put your trust in the hands of people who have the knowledge and the power.

Sharing my story

I’m sharing my story to highlight some of the things that made it easier for coaches and clubs to get away with certain behaviours. I want to raise awareness that any child can be subject to any form of abuse and that concerns about child welfare can be raised at any point and in any activity environment – be it recreational or elite.

Most of all, I want to encourage you to listen and speak up if you, or anyone you know, have a safeguarding concern. Any child, parent, coach or witness can report a concern.

Most of all, I want to encourage you to listen and speak up if you, or anyone you know, have a safeguarding concern. Any child, parent, coach or witness can report a concern.

Get support

What do I do if I have a safeguarding concern?

If you are being abused or harmed during sports activities, or are concerned that somebody else is, it’s important that you talk to someone.

Talking to someone may be a daunting experience but by sharing your concern you are protecting yourself and/or others. The person you talk to will be trained to deal with such situations and is there to help you.

All clubs should have guidelines for recording and reporting concerns. You should find out what these are and follow them by speaking in the first instance to the Club welfare or child protection officer.

Who to contact for help:

  • If you, or someone you know, are in immediate danger you should contact the police on 999.
  • When there is no immediate danger you can talk to the club’s safeguarding/welfare or child protection officer. If they are unable to help you, you can report your concerns through the governing body for your sport or via the relevant local authority.

Local authority contacts:

  • Hampshire – 0300 555 1384 or 0300 555 1373
  • Isle of Wight Children’s Services – 0300 300 0117
  • Portsmouth Children’s Services – 023 9268 8793 or 0300 555 1373
  • Southampton Children’s Services – 023 8083 3004

If you’re unsure who to speak to, call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 for advice or contact the Child Protection in Sport Unit on 0116 366 5580.

What do I do if I am concerned about an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. Anyone can have one. Beat Eating Disorders offers a wealth of support and advice, including a helpline and online support that are available 365 days of the year. They also provide a Help Finder so you can locate services near you.

The Child Protection in Sport unit also offers support and a webinar recording, which covers the basic information about eating disorders and disordered eating in youth sport.

Support for clubs and relatives

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