How Learning From Others Can Help to Ensure Safer Sport Practices

Over the past year, I’ve worked with several organizations on the topic of safety – helping them manage through crisis and supporting them through the healing process. Through my work, I discovered that the performing arts are turning to intimacy coaches for support. Intimacy coaches? It’s a growing industry in the wake of #metoo for directors and actors unsure of how to navigate sexually-charged performances. As stunning harassment allegations continue to engulf the performing arts world, discussions on how to navigate the complexities of the ‘human experience’ have become increasingly necessary. Intimacy coaches specialize on staging scenes that involve nudity and sexuality in various forms. These coaches work with their clients to demystify the scenes and plot out body movements such as hand positions and eyeline. In addition, the intimacy coaches can help actors work through any personal anxieties and to protect themselves physically and psychologically from unwanted contact.

So, what can sport leaders, trainers, coaches, and athletes learn from this?

As an Integral Master Coach(TM), I am often asked to support people through change initiatives by developing a coaching program. This involves setting the intention for how the client wants to shift and building the required muscles to support and sustain the transition. If I look at our sector’s desire to shift on the topic of safe sport, I believe we can learn from some of the proactive measures created by the performing arts sector and some of our own sport organizations, to support healthy dialogue between athletes and coaches/athletes and athletes/athletes and trainers related to touching, the use of language, and proximity.

Here’s how.

In speaking with others on this topic, there are good practices in place to support healthy training and competition environments for athletes and coaches. For instance, Gymnastics Canada recently updated its coach training program to speak directly to safe spotting practices. Gymnastics Canada defines spotting as “physical contact between a coach and an athlete that is reasonably intended to respond to the needs of an athlete.” Don’t all coaches, regardless of the sport, use spotting as defined here at some point? Embedding this language within your sport may be a healthy way to speak about appropriate contact. Important points on spotting:

  • Spotting for guidance is used when needed to orientate or position the athlete so they can replicate movements
  • Spotting for safety is used when needed to reduce the risk of injury or an error in performance, with the goal of designing and using safe progressions as often as you can
  • If accidental, unintended touch occurs, acknowledge the boundary violation and apologize immediately. If this occurs more than two times, stop and reflect

In addition, more sports are hiring Safe Sport Directors to oversee the organization’s commitment to safety. Moreover, Respect in Sport is a national initiative that has been working since 1992 to educate and inform athletes, coaches, community leaders, staff and volunteers on topics related to bullying, harassment, abuse and discrimination. And the Coaching Association and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport have partnered to launch the Responsible Coaching Movement to ensure key safety measures in sport are upheld.  While there is a growing movement to ensure we are providing a safe, respectful learning environment for athletes, there is much work left to be done.

Until we can speak about this (the stuff that makes us uncomfortable) openly, we are less able to effectively initiate change. For instance, I’ve been told by many sport coaches that they struggle to find the right words to address some of the more intimate and emotional topics that arise. If we aren’t comfortable talking about it …  it continues to weigh us down, thereby limiting our potential. By learning from other sectors and turning to those organizations in sport that have been proactively putting in place safety measures, we can speak directly to these issues and by doing so, remove some of the stigma associated with it.

In reviewing some of the good practices to support a healthy conversation on topics such as appropriate contact, I offer up the points below. If coaches and leaders are uncomfortable designing a process to facilitate a dialogue on this topic, we are here to help. A few ways that I can see the sport sector dealing proactively with this includes:

  • Normalize it: Have a certified leadership coach or mental performance consultant facilitate a conversation between the sport coach and the athletes on a range of topics that might currently still feel like taboo subjects. What I appreciate the most is how conversations can de-mystify seemingly uncomfortable topics by establishing clear guidelines about expectations and personal boundaries. What most sport coaches will appreciate is how different their athletes are … what works for one will not necessarily work for the other. Having language to describe what feels right and what to avoid helps to ensure a respectful environment among all parties.
  • Communications style: We often hear … it’s not what you say but how you say it. Safe sport isn’t just about physical safety – it’s also about the emotional wellness of the individual. I encourage all sport participants (athletes, coaches, leaders, volunteers, officials) to be mindful of not only what they are trying to communicate but also how they are sharing their messages. Body language and tone account for the greater part of communications so be clear on the point of your communications, before you speak. Consider the timing of what you are trying to convey and the audience you are speaking with. For instance, if your athlete is more introverted, you might prefer to speak in a less crowded location. For a list of great communications tips and resources, email DBL@sportlaw.ca.
  • Make consent explicit: My recommendation is to ensure that parents (for athletes under the age of 18), coaches, and athletes have a shared understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable contact from the beginning. Much like massage therapists seek consent on areas they can touch before the service is provided, a letter of consent could be provided to parents and athletes to ensure they know, understand and are comfortable with the protocols associated with contact and how it will be used for instructional and safety purposes only.
  • Ask for permission in the moment: One of the best preventative strategies that sport coaches can employ is asking permission before contact occurs. For instance, in sports demanding high complexity of maneuvering, like gymnastics, athletes benefit from feeling what the coach is trying to convey. By asking for permission, the coach empowers the athletes to grant consent: “I would like to demonstrate where I want your body to be positioned by placing my hand on your shoulder and turning it slightly. Are you comfortable with me doing so?” Then walk through the movement by engaging the athlete in a conversation: “Can you feel the difference when your shoulder is in this position?”. Check out this article written by a gymnastics coach on seeking consent.
  • Apologize when unintended contact occurs: In trying to ensure the safety of athletes, there may be unintended contact that occurs. Apologizing in the moment by saying: “I did not intend to touch you there and I apologize for doing so” makes it clear that the intention was not to touch the athlete inappropriately.
  • Self-reflect: I encourage coaches to self-reflect over what they are doing well and areas for improvement. If for instance there are several instances when the coach is finding they are apologizing for unintended contact, they would benefit from asking for advice from another coach in terms of their positioning. The point is that the coach practices self-awareness, so they can do something about it, while ensuring the athlete’s safety and personal boundaries are protected. Daily journaling is an effective practice to increase mindfulness.
  • Encourage feedback: The SLSG has recently launched a new service for sport organizations called “Reality Check” that gives voice to athletes by asking them directly about their experiences and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Providing athletes with an opportunity to give feedback and speak freely to a third party on how safe they feel (emotionally and physically) isn’t just about uncovering questionable behaviour … it is about allowing the athletes to give their opinion on how safe they feel and how well their organization is doing. And when athletes feel safe, we all benefit!

By learning from some of the great practices in other sectors and applying some of the proactive measures already in place among sport organizations, we can reduce the likelihood that unintended contact gets misconstrued. In the end, we cannot eliminate bad things from happening, but we can reduce the risks associated with unsafe practices by making the invisible, visible. Send me a note at DBL@sportlaw.ca – I’d love to hear from you.

Note: The tips and practices offered here assume that those in positions of power and authority over others have no ill intention. In addition, a special note of thanks to Gymnastics Canada for sharing their good practices in the spirit of supporting others.

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