Safeguarding in Sport-why it is so important?

Safeguarding is the process of protecting vulnerable persons, children and adults, from harassment and abuse. Creating a safe and welcoming environment, where everyone is respected and valued, is at the heart of safeguarding.

Safeguarding policies and procedures are positive. They provide a framework which aims to assist athletes and everyone in sport to thrive in a positive environment, and they demonstrate your organisation’s commitment to general safety and wellbeing.

It is essential for all sports organisations involving children and vulnerable adults to have a safeguarding system in place.

The Issue

Abuse & Harassment (Non-accidental violence) in Sport

Every day, a new scandal about abuse in sport bursts into the media and it seems to only be the tip of the iceberg based on the most recent studies on child abuse.

According to the Council of Europe about one in five children in Europe are victims of some form of sexual violence. This includes sexual touching, rape, sexual harassment, grooming, exhibitionism, exploitation in prostitution and pornography, online sexual extortion, and coercion.

In sport, children are particularly at risks because:

  • of a high tolerance of physical violence and injuries 
  • of authoritarian leadership and unequal power relationships between coaches and athletes
  • of scandal avoidance: incidents are silenced
  • of a male-dominated gender ratio
  • physical contact is often required
  • reward structures exist in sport 
  • potential risk situations exist in sport: changing rooms, showers, carpooling, overnight stay
  • inappropriate sexual behaviour is often tolerated, discrimination and gender inequality accepted

Mike Hartill at Edge Hill University (UK) led a study on child abuse in sport in which he investigated a wide range of behaviours that can be harmful to athletes, from verbal harassment and physical violence through to sexual abuse and neglect and collected data from 10,302 adults in the UK, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Romania and Spain. (Hartill, 2021)

Some of the key study findings reveal that:

  • 65% of adults (aged 18-30) reported experiencing psychological violence as children
  • 44% reported experiencing physical violence inside sport as children
  • neglect was experienced by 37% of respondents
  • 35% reported experiencing non-contact sexual violence
  • 20% reported contact sexual violence
  • the prevalence of interpersonal violence against children is lowest for respondents in recreational sport (68%) and highest for those who competed in international sport (84%)
  • children belonging to ethnic minority groups are significantly more likely to experience abuse at 76.9%

Figures for each form of interpersonal violence were broadly similar across countries, suggesting the problem is not unique to one country. The incidence of interpersonal violence against children in sport, was slightly lower than the incidence in the general community in each country surveyed. This last finding is not surprising as children spend less time in sport than in other areas of life but it is good news and almost an opportunity for sport to truly become a “safe space” where children can flourish as individuals and athletes and where they would feel at ease to disclose any abuse that might have happened to them outside of sport.

The Types of Abuse

Bullying — bullying (or cyberbullying if conducted online) is unwanted, repeated and intentional, aggressive behaviour usually among peers, and can involve a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying can include actions such as making threats, spreading rumours or falsehoods, attacking someone physically or verbally and deliberately excluding someone.

Hazing/Initiation — an organised, usually team-based, form of bullying in sport, involving degrading and hazardous initiation of new team members by veteran team members. 

Homophobia — antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion or hatred towards LGBT+Q community.

Neglect — the failure of parents or care givers to meet a child's physical and emotional needs or failure to protect a child from exposure to danger. This definition equally applies to coaches and athlete entourages.

Negligence — acts of omission regarding athlete safety. For example, depriving an athlete of food/or drink; insufficient rest and recovery; failure to provide a safe physical training environment; or developmental age-inappropriate or physique-inappropriate training methods.

Physical abuse — non-accidental trauma or physical injury caused by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning or otherwise harming an athlete. This could include forced or mandated inappropriate physical activity (eg, age-inappropriate or physique-inappropriate training loads; when injured or in pain); forced alcohol consumption; or systematic doping practices.

Psychological abuse — a pattern of deliberate, prolonged, repeated non-contact behaviours within a power differentiated relationship.This form of abuse is at the core of all other forms. Some definitions refer to emotional or psychological abuse interchangeably. In this document, we refer to psychological abuse in recognition that the psyche consists of more than emotions. It also consists of cognitions, values and beliefs about oneself, and the world. The behaviours that constitute psychological abuse target a person's inner life in all its profound scope.

Sexual abuse — any conduct of a sexual nature, whether non-contact, contact or penetrative, where consent is coerced/manipulated or is not or cannot be given. 

Sexual harassment — any unwanted and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal or physical.

Grooming — the grooming process is whereby the perpetrator prepares and desensitises their victim and entices them to submit.

Exploitation — is when someone exercises control over another person and/or their assets for their own “personal gain” and without the fully informed consent of the person. Personal gain may be psychological, reputational or commercial and constitutes exploitation when the rights of a person are sold or negotiated without the express and fully informed consent of the other person.

Impact of Non-Accidental Violence on Children & Sport Organisations

As displayed on figure 1, the immediate and long-term consequences of abuse can undermine children’s education, health, and well-being, and may impact their productive capacity in later life. Child abuse increases risks of: physical injury; HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; mental health problems; delayed cognitive development; poor school performance and dropping out of schools; early pregnancy; reproductive health problems; and communicable and non-communicable diseases. 

Figure 1 also shows that sport organisations can be severally impacted by abuse from a reputational and legal point of view as we have seen with the Larry Nassar case which resulted in USA Gymnastics losing all its sponsors and filing for bankruptcy in 2018. In December 2021, Larry Nassar victims reached a $380 million settlement with USA Gymnastics, US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and insurers.

Figure 1 Margo Mountjoy 2016

The Olympic Agenda 2020 + 5

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) mission is to place athletes at the heart of the Olympic Movement, and the Olympic Agenda 2020+5 sets out the strategic roadmap for this. This includes Recommendation 5: Further strengthen safe sport and the protection of clean athletes. Within this recommendation, the IOC urges the Olympic Movement's governing bodies to implement safeguarding policies and procedures and to educate their key stakeholders on this very important topic.

Children Human Rights

As per the United Nations convention on the rights of the child UNCRC adopted in 1989 in Geneva, children have human rights which should be protected by governments. Some of these rights particularly apply to the sporting context. Children participating in sport should be safe.

Governments must protect children from violence, abuse and being neglected by anyone who looks after them.

Children have the right to share freely with others what they learn, think and feel, by talking, drawing, writing or in any other way unless it harms other people

Every child has the right to rest, relax, play and to take part in cultural and creative activities.

The government should protect children from sexual exploitation (being taken advantage of) and sexual abuse, including by people forcing children to have sex for money, or making sexual pictures or films of them.

Every child has the right to an education. Primary education should be free. Secondary and higher education should be available to every child.Children should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level possible. Discipline in schools should respect children’s rights and never use violence.


Hartill, M. R. (2021). CASES: Child abuse in sport: European Statistics – Project. UK National Report.

Margo Mountjoy, C. B.-S. (2016). International Olympic Committee consensus statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine.

stop-child-sexual-abuse-in-sport. (n.d.). Retrieved from