Training to be an elite athlete requires discipline and focus beyond what any of us can imagine if we haven't had such experience ourselves. Parents must bring that same discipline and focus to child/athlete protection and be committed to ensuring a safe and positive environment sports environment.
Taking short cuts is intentionally skipping a responsibility in the hope that no one will notice or someone else will do it. An athlete knows that skipping a workout or eliminating ten more repetitions at practice is the difference between winning and losing. When the well being of our children is at stake, short-cuts simply cannot be acceptable.
Taking short cuts in practice is often frowned upon by teammates. If team members have to do an entire workout to the best of their ability, then every team member commits to achieving this goal. The pressure around teams to be individually accountable is so strong it's at the heart of the sport and the basis of the sport work ethic. As long this pressure on each other stays within safe and positive and doesn't extend it's self into bullying (more on that issue at www.safe4athletes.org), the result is impressive. Similarly, parents need to pressure each other to be concerned about issues of athlete welfare.
Yet, accountability and commitment doesn't seem to translate to parents once they give up their child to the care of a youth sports program. There is an assumption that supervision is provided by coaches of unquestionable integrity and club policies exist to protect young athletes. A shortcut happens when the parent doesn't check to make sure this is true. It seems that every child/athlete is competing for the "time" of a parent with parents constantly juggling the needs of all their children or one child and full-time job, whatever the case maybe. So it is easy to understand when parents don't take the time to check on issues such as staff background checks or athlete protection policies. Many parents think that working to get their club to adopt athlete welfare policies will be too time-consuming or complicated.
Every time a parent makes a decision to not be present, not to check or to ignore a potential threat because the parent doesn't see an immediate harm, these shortcuts can add up over time to increase the vulnerability of the child/athlete and putting athlete welfare at risk.
This is especially true when the parent/athlete doesn't understand the consequences of an action. A common mistake is a parent making a decision about child safety based on a coach's pleasant demeanor, interpreting changes in their child's demeanor as the "growing pains of a teenager or making a determination that it is okay for a coach to be alone with the child/athlete because they may think sport training or competition requires it. While such circumstances maybe not produce a negative result the first time, the second time and even the tenth time, it isn't smart to gamble with the safety of a child. When it's not okay is the "first" time that "you" the parent become complacent entrusting your child to a pedophile who happens to be a coach. It is in that moment that everything changes for both the child/athlete and the coach dynamic.
Shortcuts happen when we don't understand that someone is capable of sexual abuse of children or taking advantage of his or her powerful relationship with an athlete who is a consenting adult, looks and acts like a normal adult who is just like us. We cannot count on an athlete being able to confront this powerful person or to even speak to his or her parents about a coach's behavior when they are fearful of the parent not believing them or the coach withdrawing playing time, affection or instruction.
Policies and practices such as making sure the local sports program has an adult designated as an Athlete Welfare Advocate is an example of a safety mechanism that parents can put in place to give their children/athletes a voice. A young athlete needs to be able to go to a caring adult who will allow them a place to voice concerns and help them think through situations when they are unsure of the reaction of a parent to a concern. It is too much to expect that most children are capable of speaking to parents when they fear they will be blamed for not doing exactly what the coach demands. There must be a safe place and unbiased person within the club who promises confidentiality and acting on behalf of the athletes to address an unspeakable problem. There must be a person within the club to educate all athletes about acceptable and unacceptable coach-athlete and athlete-to-athlete conduct and that it is expected to report and be protected from such transgressions. Yet, few clubs have this safety officer or educational program in place.
To learn more about becoming or creating the volunteer position of "athlete welfare advocate" in your sports program or the other athlete protection policies that every youth sport program should have in place, go to Safe4Athletes and find out how to implement a Safe4Athletes program for your local sports program.
Follow Katherine Starr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Safe4Athletes