The issue of child abuse in sports is not a new one. For decades, youth sport organizations worldwide have struggled with bringing this problem under control by establishing policy, procedures, education, research, evaluation measures, and effective interventions. Similar to other sports, youth Judo in the US has been negatively impacted by child abuse for decades. Although much has been done to ensure adherence and effectiveness to child protection plans, they have proven insufficient.17,20 The goal of this article is to provide evidence-based information for parents, coaches, referees, Judoka, and Judo administrators to help guide best practices in the protection and safe development of our youth.
Often, when we think about child abuse, we consider only illegal sex between an adult and underage child. However, in addition to sexual abuse, the term ‘child abuse’ encompasses physical, emotional / psychological abuse, and neglect.8 Certainly, unlawful sex between adults and minors has captured the majority of our attention and resources when confronting child abuse. Unfortunately, other forms of abuse can be equally damaging and when left unattended can create attractive contexts and opportunities for more severe or deviant abuse to emerge.
Cases of reported abuse in US Judo have mirrored that of other sports around the world. It can be argued that despite established safeguards, leaders and administrators in US Judo have been ineffective in curbing, educating, or administering discipline against abusive behaviors. Like responses from other sport organizations, organizers in the US have responded by playing the blame game. We have to understand that this is not unique to US Judo.4,7,15,24 Unfortunately, the state of our Judo union in the US is in a shambles and can be characterized as a political quagmire. Often, when communities are seen as socially and politically disorganized, levels of illegal activity and / or deviance flourish. With the reality that we have three governing bodies within US Judo, often at political and philosophical odds, opportunities increase for child abusers to operate successfully while avoiding detection or discipline. All too often, our three organizations exhibit excessive defensiveness as they hide in their protective shells. These ‘defensive shells’ can lead to blindness to the dire need for appropriate action.7 While it’s not the intent of this article to be a political commentary, it bears mentioning at the outset and I recommend strongly that the three national organizations come together to close existing gaps and form one unified front supporting this important initiative.
Curbing child abuse in youth sports is a difficult proposition. Too often, youth sport environments are seen as opportunities for parents to use as child care. Other times, parents seek personal recognition and fulfillment through the excellence and performance of their child, also called achievement by proxy. Still others seek character development through involvement in sport. In all three of these cases, the coach-athlete relationship can become the most important relationship in the child’s life.9,12,17,20 Many times, we assume that our coach is reliable, morally and ethically strong, and knowledgeable. This can be especially true in martial arts type activities where the coach, Sensei, or ‘Black Belt’ is seen as omnipotent. Parents and students with little experience and training in this area, or sport training in general, make these assumptions.
Unfortunately, some clubs, parents, students, and organizations have not been trained or equipped with information to help them feel safe to challenge their own assumptions. Avoidance of confronting these assumptions can be exacerbated by the fact that some parents and organizations simply measure success by medal counts.19 This is especially true in youth Judo in the US over the last 10 years. This demand for youth to specialize too early has given ÒcredibilityÓ to coaches that use abusive and outdated training methods has increased the frequency that youth are alone or travel with adults not belonging to their own families, has increased the frequency and intensity of training, has removed the parent / caretaker from the developmental decision-making process, and has effectively ignored children’s voices in the entire process. 20,24
While we must confront institutional and systemic factors that allow abuse to occur, it is critical that we educate ourselves and our clubs about what child abuse is, what it looks like, and how to effectively guard against it. Although background checks and three-hour coaching certifications are helpful, they fall far short of effective management and recognition of the problem.14 Therefore, it is important to understand what risk factors, environments, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs common to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse look like. Of course, simply exhibiting one or some of these characteristics does not imply that child ÒabuseÓ is occurring. However, research has indicated that often, abused athletes report multiple forms of abuse and parents should pay close attention if they observe any risk factors emerge at their club or competitive environment. 27
Physical Abuse in Youth Sport
The issue of physical abuse in youth sport is largely neglected and misunderstood despite improved training and education in recent years.20 There are numerous factors that create this misunderstanding, including incongruent parent-child expectations and motivations for involving in sport, early specialization in one sport, lack of professional development and training for coaches, and insufficient parent / athlete education.
Particularly in youth Judo in the US, there remains an alarming trend for young athletes to seek specialization too early. An entire system of grading and awarding of points to junior athletes exists, which can cause some families to travel to up to five national or international competitions within six months, not including local and state championship competitions. At times, parents of young athletes derive a great deal of fulfillment if their child performs well. Typical reasons for parents involving their children in sports are to build character traits or teach healthy behaviors and attitudes. Unfortunately, with competitive success, some parents desiring personal recognition fall into the trap of allowing their children to push harder, train longer, and endure harsher methods of communication and training. At the extreme end of this, parents engage in very risky sacrifices that can lead to abuse. This is known as achievement by proxy.22,23
The typical youth joins sports for fun, to learn skills, and meet friends.25 As children begin experiencing competitive success, they become more willing to endure abusive practices out of the fear of disappointing parents paying high prices for club membership and coaches dedicating resources and time to their training. Additionally, youth typically are not empowered to speak up and have a voice in their training, physical, and emotional needs.11
Most experts agree that the typical parent and youth coach do not set out to be abusive. However, through a lack of training, professional development, and education, they lack the ability to employ the most developmentally appropriate, safe, and research-based training methods. Often, they resort to tradition or intuition, resulting in increased occurrences of sport related injuries or maladaptive coping strategies in their athletes, such as eating disorders, substance abuse, or withdrawal from family and friends. 21
One of the most unfortunate outcomes of these approaches is that children in these environments tend to win early and win often. The initial success of these youth and the feelings and attributions of why they win feeds into a dangerous cycle of engaging in more intense, frequent training sessions throughout the year at the expense of skill development.10 Parents fall prey to this as well.
Occasionally, we see overly aggressive and angry coaches that cannot problem-solve or manage conflict appropriately. Typically dominance, control, and power are central themes in their approach. To the trained eye, these coaches are easily recognizable. However, to the untrained parent, the lines between an untrained, well-meaning coach and an abusive person can become blurry. Regardless, both can be dangerous to the young athlete. The following are some recommendations for parents, referees, and coaches of characteristics to watch for that can lead to, or be considered physically abusive:
Corporal punishment for mistakes – If you see a coach or parent that slaps or physically hits their athletes for losing or making mistakes, this is a Òred-flagÓ behavior. Some athletes ask their coaches to slap their faces or bodies before matches to help with motivation and warming up. This should not be confused with the coach or parent that is hitting their crying child after losing a match.
Throwing objects at players – Researchers have found that abused athletes sometimes report having objects thrown at them during training. This practice has been found to negatively impact the athletes physically and psychologically, particularly when the object actually hits the child athlete.
Excessive drills or exercise for making mistakes – The use of excessive drills and exercise for making mistakes can be a dangerous practice. Often, people cite the use of these tactics by the military as appropriate methods of elite training; however, children can assign different meanings to these actions.
Lack of an individualized, scientific approach – Children and adolescents can respond positively to physical training.3,18 Most importantly, children are very different than adults in many ways with regard to exercise physiology. It can be physically and psychologically dangerous if adult training regimens are inserted into programs for children.3 If you or your coach has limited training or experience in these concepts, it is strongly recommended that you consult with trained professionals and / or your physician when embarking on a training program.
Training in excessive heat – There is evidence in the research on children’s exercise physiology to indicate that children generally do not tolerate exercise in the heat as well as adults partially due to differences in thermoregulation.18 When training in the heat, it is recommended that you watch for possible signs of distress in your child, such as dizziness, headaches, nausea, abdominal discomfort, and inability to persist. Experts should be consulted when training children in heat if your coach is unfamiliar with these concepts.
Pushing children to cut weight – This is a banned activity that can be highly dangerous. I have seen children as young as nine in plastic suits and sweats before weigh-ins running in the sauna to shed water. The banning of this behavior has pushed it behind closed doors and often teams will Òstay homeÓ to cut weight with inappropriate techniques to avoid detection. They then get to the weigh-ins last minute. Do NOT allow any coach to talk you into involving your child in this activity.
Beware of the coach that removes you (the parent) from practice sessions – Some coaches will hold closed door sessions to avoid detection of their abusive techniques.
Deliberate mismatching – Cooperative learning and cross-aged teaching can be highly effective and healthy training practices with youth; however, coaches with abusive tendencies often purposely mismatch their students in competitive situations to Òprove a pointÓ or develop toughness. Sometimes, rather than playing accordingly, the more advanced student will be directed to Òmop upÓ the floor with the less skilled student. Don’t allow this.
Performing developmentally inappropriate techniques on children – Recently, a video emerged on the internet depicting a coach choking unconscious a child as part of a promotion ceremony. These types of activities should be avoided at ALL costs and reported to the governing organization.
Hazing – Students should not be allowed or encouraged to haze one another. These occurrences can easily get out of hand when you are not there. Hazing behaviors can easily degrade into sexual assaults.1
Inattention to medical needs – If your child is injured or in need of medical attention, don’t allow the coach to push them to work through serious injuries. This is especially dangerous when the coach makes absolutely no attempt to assess the injury before requiring more work. Educate yourselves in the basic areas of sport medicine because you can’t assume that your coach has. There are dangerous injuries common to Judo that need medical attention immediately, such as concussions or heat related injuries.
Denying access to food or water during intensive training – This is a dangerous and potentially abusive practice that can lead to dehydration and higher rates of injury.
Emotional / Psychological Abuse
Like physically inappropriate methods, emotionally and psychologically damaging behaviors and attitudes in the dojo can be difficult to spot. First, for those parents that use sports programs as a drop off spot for day care, you will never be present to hear and observe what’s being communicated. For those that attend every practice and competition with your child, don’t assume that you will hear what’s being talked about on the mat or on the competition floor. Third, for those that send their children on travel teams, you run the risk of not knowing the extent to which your child experiences abusive behavior. Lastly, emotional abuse is difficult to define.20
Typical forms of emotional / psychological abuse in sport settings occur through bullying, sexual harassment, inappropriate references to body image / size, failure to exercise gender equity, neglect, and questionable motivational methods. While a strict definition of emotional abuse is elusive, some assert that children forced to assume adult roles and adult responsibilities too early are suffering from a form of emotional abuse. Others see emotional abuse as a pattern of inappropriate emotional responses to a child’s emotional experience and behavior.19
Again, the average coach in youth sport settings is well intentioned. Being well intentioned and even highly experienced in sport competition doesn’t ensure that the coach will use appropriate communication and motivational methods for children. Motivation and youth development paradigms in youth sport have changed considerably over the last 20-30 years. Without a strong grasp of the psychosocial and motivational processes that operate in these settings, healthy emotional and psychological outcomes are left to chance. Often, they are negatively impacted when coaches use outdated or inappropriate methods.
The following are some common forms of emotionally abusive coach behaviors that research has shown can negatively impact youth athletes’ levels of confidence, fear, self-worth, mood states, and levels of depression:12
While it might seem like common sense that these behaviors are inappropriate, it should be noted that these coaching / parent behaviors tend to increase as young athletes progress up the competitive ladder.9,12,19,20 Coaches and parents can feel that they have invested so much time and resources in their athletes that they employ negative behaviors and communication habits when they perceive their athletes’ effort and performance is less than optimal. Care should be taken to identify these coaching / parent behaviors and confront them when they occur. You must establish a clear and honest line of communication with your child since there are powerful forces operating in the youth sport environment that make discloser of embarrassing and painful events difficult for children.11, 26 It is also critical that you understand how the coach-athlete power dynamic often results in youth not disclosing emotionally damaging events to you, the parent, or even their peers.
In terms of motivational processes, decades of research have provided valuable insight into the best practices for motivating youth sport participants.10 Experts agree that the healthiest approach to developing adaptive motivational orientations is to stress skill mastery, personal improvement, de-emphasize winning, and emphasize cooperative learning. Intra-team rivalries and comparisons between players should be avoided. The following is a list of behaviors that should be avoided in the dojo:
The coach only stresses the importance of performing better than your opponent – This sounds counterintuitive, but an excessive emphasis on normative performance (winning) against others has been shown to correlate with increased worry, anxiety in competitive situations, and ultimate withdrawal from the activity.
The coach pits his/her own players against each other during practices.
The coach spends more time in training phases than skill development phases.
The coach / parent only value the best competitive performers.
Only the best performers are given recognition.
Recognition is given only for winning rather than effort and personal improvement.
Parents make frequent comparisons of their children to other children.
The coach comments on fat content / body image / weight / or eating habits often to cause guilt and induce weight loss.
The coach makes sexually inappropriate comments about gender, sexual preference, body attributes, or rival competitors.
The coach only works with one gender while neglecting the others.
Sexual Harassment and Abuse
Certainly, the thought of exposing our children to potential sex offenders occupies the thoughts of most parents that involve their kids in youth sports. The recent introduction of criminal background checks into the recruitment and hiring of youth leaders has acted as an effective ÒgatekeeperÓ preventing prior sex offenders from entering our coaching ranks, however, they have been shown to be inefficient and ineffective against individuals that haven’t been caught, prosecuted, or offended yet.17 While it is virtually impossible to predict exactly who will sexually offend, research in this field as uncovered certain behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs common to sex offenders. As previously mentioned, physical and emotional abuse can be correlated to sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, common structures inherent in youth sport make it a perfect context for abuse to occur. Youth are typically trained to be quiet and obey what the coach tells them.9,12,17 Rarely is the child athlete asked for their opinion. As previously noted, the athlete-coach relationship is often built from unconditional trust, loyalty, and obedience. This can result in relationships that are stronger and closer than that of the parent / athlete. Coaches are often seen as friends, heroes, or role models that are admired.17 Children can fear disappointing their coaches. Therefore it should be the consideration of every parent that coach-child relationships are powerful. Thus, all parental safeguards and attention should be directed toward the interactions and communication that children have with their coaches.
While much of the research in this field has been driven by feminist theory, boys are equally susceptible to victimization and more likely to cover it up. Interestingly, some researchers estimate that up 98% of perpetrators of young boys ÒappearÓ to be heterosexual.16 Young boys tend to be more at risk of abuse from those outside the family than girls. Often, the perpetrators hold formal and/or professional roles in the boys’ life. There are negative stigmas attached to male victimization that make it difficult for them to disclose, such as appearing helpless or homosexual.13 Victims of sexual abuse often fear embarrassment and parental anger if they disclose abuse. Needless to say, abuse of young boys is largely underreported and underrepresented in the research on child sexual abuse in sport.
Also underreported and underrepresented in the literature on child sexual abuse in sport are the statistics on female abusers. Common societal beliefs, such as women being more sexually passive, that child sexual abuse by females is rare, and women having more leeway in terms of physical interactions with kids often leads to under-recognition of females as abusers.2,13 Some conservatively estimate that between 1% and 10% of abusers are women, however, due to the societal beliefs noted above, these numbers may be far too low.2
Some researchers in the field of sexual abuse in sport settings define sexual harassment and sexual abuse as multiple points along the same continuum.6 At one end of the spectrum is mild sexual discrimination and at the other extreme is sexual abuse. Sexual harassment is unwanted behavior on the basis of sex.9,11 With sexual abuse, the perpetrator grooms (tests) or coerces the victim to Òsecure apparent consent.Ó Many experts assert that both harassment and sexual abuse are forms of abuse with sexual abuse being the most severe.
One important consideration when examining harassment is that of personal boundaries. In contact sports like Judo, boundary lines can easily become blurred. It is critical that students, coaches, and parents understand and make clear where these lines are drawn. Interestingly, researchers have shown that coaches often report perceptions and beliefs about what is acceptable behavior, yet their behaviors don’t match their beliefs.28 Harassment often occurs when the coach and athlete have different perceptions of what is acceptable.
Experts in the field of child abuse in sport have identified a helpful typology of the harassing coach, although they admit that more work needs to be done in this area.11 Based on their initial work, researchers have listed three main types: (1) The Flirting-Charming Coach; (2) The Seductive Coach; and (3) The Authoritarian Coach. Offending coaches tend to adopt a combination of all three as the situation dictates.
The Flirting-Charming Coach is characterized by repeated flirting, joking, wrestling with, or pinching the body to test if either weight has been gained or to comment about natural female development. The Seductive Coach is characterized by taking behaviors further with unwanted sexual advances or attempts to Òhit onÓ athletes. The Authoritarian Coach is characterized as having a degrading, dismissive, negative view of women in general and believes that women should never question or have a voice. At the extreme end, the Authoritarian Coach may feel that women don’t belong in sport. Some interesting findings in the research of these typologies are that the offending coaches exhibited overlapping behaviors. Also, victims reported that the Flirting-Charming and Seductive Coaches were more likely to engage in unwanted touching and unwanted sexual hinting. Authoritarian coaches tended to abuse their power as coaches through humiliation or ridicule more often.11
The following is a list of behaviors that commonly represent sexual harassment and should be avoided:
Unwanted sexual attention, glances
Making lewd and unwelcome jokes, comments
Making negative judgments about the athlete’s body, athletic performance, or marital status.
Unwanted physical touching
The process of sexual abuse in sport begins with the types of relationships associated with the sport context and can progress in stages. The use and abuse of power is typically a central theme.5,11 Elite coaches often hold the most power as they dictate who is on the team, who travels with the team, or who receives recognition. As previously described, the athlete-coach relationship often becomes stronger than even the child-parent relationship. The athlete often relies on the coach to make decisions for them. This can be especially true in Judo since students are typically and traditionally not allowed to question or have a voice in their training or needs.
The abusive process is established based on the motivations of the offender.9 Once the abuser has developed a motivation, he/she progresses to the stage where inhibitions are overcome. The offender then overcomes general physical boundaries or barriers. At this point, the offender coach selects a victim and overcomes specific physical barriers. This is a critical point in the process as grooming (testing) of the victims occur. Indicators to watch for at this stage are: (1) Negligence, lack of attention in the family or at home; (2) Isolation from fellow athletes or peers; (3) Training camps; (4) Massage; (5) Taking home / inviting home; (6) Sleep-overs.
At this point, the actual abuse occurs. Personal athlete factors that are more likely to indicate or lead to abuse are: (1) Low self-image, need for confirmation/attention; (2) Background of negligence or psychological maltreatment; (3) Age, Sex; (4) Lack of knowledge of sexuality/sexual abuse/normal interactions; (5) High ambition, sporting achievements; (6) Isolated position in the club.
Relationships with the coach that indicate or lead to abuse are: (1) Unusual bond of trust / emotional dependence; (2) Amorousness; (3) Power of the coach over athlete. Emotional barriers include: feelings of guilt, fear, and shame not recognized as abuse.
Critical to the abuse process are lack of interventions by third parties. These can include: (1) Institutional denial; and (2) Fear of losing the coach.
The offender has now overcome the resistance of the athlete, the abuse has occurred, and either the abuse ends or continues. The end of the abuse is typically followed by continued victimization through harassment.
When we search for factors that motivate a person to allow their inhibitions to erode to the point of sexual abuse, a common factor that appears in the literature is the lack of institutional sanctions and punitive measures, which give rise to the abusers confidence.9 This key point is clearly a problem for many sport organizations including those in US Judo.
Many parents and responsible adults report that they either cannot identify potential indicators of future abuse or lack the specific education and training to confidently identify problem indicators as the abuser selects victims. Researchers have noted that some helpful indicators to watch for include the coach that spends an overabundance of time with a particular athlete, exhibits a very authoritarian attitude, attempts to control activities not associated with the dojo or sport, is jealous of other men that the athlete associates with, and uses physical violence or threats of physical violence when not obeyed.
Also important to watch out for are the coaches that attempt to isolate their teams, malign other coaches or parents, have few friends in the Judo community, and poor relationships with parents and families in the club.
Other risk factors can include Coach Variables, Athlete Variables, and Sport Variables. Common Coach Variables include: The sex is male; Age is older, physique is larger and stronger, accredited qualifications are good, standing in the sport/club/community is apparently high, previous record of crime is unknown, trust with parents is high, chances to be alone (trips, competitions) with athlete are frequent, Use of car is frequent, and commitment to national coaches association codes of conduct is weak/none.
Athlete Variables include, sex is female, age is younger, physique is smaller/weaker, level of awareness of sexual harassment is low, rank status is potentially high, self-esteem is low, relationship with parents is weak, medical problems like disordered eating medium to high, total dependence on coach, devotion to the coach is complete.
Sport Variables include, opportunity for trips away are frequent, employment, recruitment controls or vetting is weak to none, use of national sport-specific codes of conduct and ethics weak, use of parent and athlete contracts is none, and a climate for debating sexual harassment is none.
Identifying and predicting who will sexually offend and when is virtually impossible. Clearly, there are warning signs and risk factors that we can watch for. It is also critical that we in the Judo community don’t ignore or deny when other forms of abuse are occurring, such as physical and emotional abuse. These types of abuse are as damaging to the health of our young athletes and can potentially have a correlation to future sexual abuse. We have a long way to go toward the education and prevention of abuse in our sport. Existing policies, background checks, and coaching education have proven inadequate and insufficient. Parent, coach, and athlete education and uniform certifications are recommended as the first steps toward developing effective interventions and risk management practices in US Judo.
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