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Preventing Sexual Abuse by Coaches: Advice for Parents

How Widespread the Problem Unclear; How and Why Abuse Occurs is Not

Sexual abuse in swimming

Sexual abuse of athletes has been in the news recently in the wake of claims by Deena Deardurff Schmidt, an Olympic swimming gold medalist at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, that between the ages 11 and 15 she was repeatedly molested by her swim coach. Young Female Butterfly Swimmer

Schmidt said she did not tell anyone at the time for fear it would hurt her swimming career, only told her parents at age 17, and, up to recently, had only shared the information with a few coaches and close friends.

When she reported the sexual abuse to USA Swimming in the late 1980s, Schmidt claims she was told that she could not lodge a formal complaint because she was no longer an active athlete and would have to find another coach to corroborate her claim.

In 2005, Schmidt says, she was contacted by a top official at USA Swimming when her coach was being considered for induction in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She again reported the abuse, but her allegations were not investigated,

Competitive swimming: a culture condoning abuse?

Schmidt's revelations came at a news conference a day after attorneys filed an amended complaint in a lawsuit in California, originally brought in 2009 by a teenage girl alleging molestation by her former San Jose Aquatics swim coach, Andrew King, San Jose Aquatics, Pacific Swimming, and USA Swimming. King was sentenced in January 2010 to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 charges of molestation.

The amended suit claims the existence of a culture in competitive swimming of condoning inappropriate relationships between coaches and young female swimmers, and that a woefully inadequate background check policy fosters sexual molestation in youth swimming. The suit seeks unspecified damages as well as changes in hiring practices to include reference checks and public searches.

Public outrage over the charges has been fueled by the recent admission by USA Swimming that 36 coaches over a ten-year period have been banned for life for sexually abusing swimmers has drawn outrage among the public.

How and why does sexual abuse occur in youth sports?

Reliable statistics on the incidence of sexual abuse by coaches in youth sports are hard to come by, according to Celia Brackenridge, Director of the Centre for Youth Sport and Athlete Welfare at Brunel University in London and a leader in sports abuse research.

The how and why of sexual abuse by coaches, however, are well-known:

  • Coaches have a great deal of power over athletes as they strive to achieve their goals.
  • Coaches and athletes are often in close physical proximity
  • Normal boundaries that exist with non-family members can erode with the intimate coach relationship, sometimes evolving into a surrogate parent relationship.
  • A lack of oversight during travel competitions (According to Brackenridge, abuse is more than twice as likely to happen on team trips).

Preventing sexual abuse

  • Become educated. Read materials about sexual abuse and harassment on this site.  Other organizations with good information on the subject include the Womens' Sports Foundation, the Australian Sports Commission, and the National Coaching Foundation (UK).
  • Perform background checks. Improve screening of both paid and volunteer coaches. The current lawsuit against USA Swimming is seeking to include requirements for reference checks, and public record searches.
  • Teach children and adolescents to protect themselves. Inoculate them against predators by having a loving, protective relationship with your children. Children with low self-esteem are targets. Many parents explain to their children that there are dangers to them out in the world. They can learn that a coach could hurt them also. Children should always tell another adult if someone is looking at them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, or touching their body. They should avoid being alone with coaches and encourage friends to tell if they are experiencing abuse. Never keep secrets.

Signs of abuse

Your child:

  • is suddenly no longer interested in sports
  • tries to avoid a particular coach, or area
  • engages in overly sexual behavior not appropriate to their age
  • Is suddenly sad, withdrawn and/or isolated
  • is newly irritable
  • suddenly develops eating problems
  • demonstrates a marked change in school interest or drop in grades
  • develops new fears of being dirty, and wants to wash often
  • has a sudden or excessive interest in religion

Warning sign of sexually abusive coach

  • The coach seems overly physical, beyond what is necessary for handling, and teaching. Full body hugs are not necessary. Hugging from the side, and high fives can suffice.
  • The coach tries to be alone with the athlete
  • The coach spends more time with a particular athlete than the others
  • The coach gives gifts to just one athlete•
  • Has long phone calls with the athlete, sends frequent e-mails or engage in frequent texting with the athlete
  • The coach asks the athlete not to talk about their personal encounters
  • The coach spends a lot of time in the locker room
  • The coach makes it difficult for parents to come to away games or tournaments and/or takes one athlete to meets/games alone
  • Holds team sleep-overs (an opportunity to continue the abusive relationship even if the whole team is invited)

Revised July 25, 2016

Before her untimely death in October 2011, Dr. Maria Pease was a board-certified Adult Psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California at San Francisco with a subspecialty in Child and Adolescence, and Sport Psychiatry. A contributor to Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports by MomsTeam founder, Brooke de Lench, and Magical Moments of Change: How Psychotherapy Turns Kids Around, by Lenore Terr, M.D., Dr. Pease had an extensive sports background as both athlete and coach. She qualified for the Olympic Trials in swimming in 1976 and 1980, and was a member of a national championship swimming team at Stanford, where she later served as an assistant coach. An avid short board surfer with several competition wins to her credit, Dr. Pease achieved a national record and number one world ranking in masters swimming, and, returning to swimming after a 20-year hiatus, was  ranked by US Masters Swimming as high as number four nationally  in her age group in the 500 yard freestyle.  She will be missed.