Safeguarding In a Sports Setting

On 28th July, we hosted an online discussion ‘Tackling Sexual Abuse and Whistleblowing in Sports’ with our panel of safeguarding experts. The purpose of the session was to highlight the key challenges on this topic, to identify effective safeguarding practice and to discuss what needed to change to achieve this. Below, we have highlighted some of the issues discussed. To hear more from our panel and to gain a more in-depth understanding of good safeguarding practice in sports clubs – please listen to the full webinar here. It will be time well spent!


Our panel consisted of three experts, each with their own background and experience of safeguarding.


Paul Stewart:

Paul Stewart is a former professional footballer whose career spanned over 18 years, 125 goals in more than 500 senior appearances and three senior England caps. From the age of 11, he suffered grooming and sexual abuse at the hands of his coach on a nearly daily basis for 4 years. Paul disclosed the abuse in November 2016 and now dedicates his time to the safeguarding of young people engaged in sport. He regularly delivers safeguarding workshops and training for sports organisations and educational establishments and is involved in a number of initiatives promoting effective safeguarding in sport.


Jan Pickles:

Jan is a member of the National Independent Safeguarding Board for Wales and an Independent Board Member of a Welsh NHS Trust. Jan chairs the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Exploitation and has extensive experience in the investigation of historic child sexual abuse cases having undertaken a number of high-profile reviews into a wide range of organisations including schools, religious settings and sports clubs.


Mike Glanville:

Director of Safeguarding Services for The safeguarding Company, Mike, is a former police officer with extensive experience in the management and investigation of both adult and child protection matters. Throughout his career, Mike was involved in numerous child abuse investigations and as an Assistant Chief Constable, he was responsible for all aspects of operational policing which included child safeguarding and sat on the Local Children’s Safeguarding Board. 


A brief summary of the safeguarding context and how it applies to sports organisations

Mike summarised some key stats and figures to highlight the risk of abuse to children today and to illustrate the challenge facing organisations today.

  • 5% of all adults experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16
  • Last year alone police recorded 73,000 offences
  • Only 1 in 8 people will report their abuse, so this number will likely be much higher for unreported incidents

He also addressed the nature of relationships between perpetrators and victims and the fact that there is likely to be:

  • The significant power imbalance between victims and abusers
  • Very likely offenders will be friends or acquaintances to victim and/or their family

Mike also summarised some of the findings from the ‘Truth Project’ which was overseen by the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and how that impacted sports organisations

  • Revealed that 91% of victims of childhood sexual abuse in sports were abused by a coach or volunteer
  • All of the perpetrators in these cases were male
  • Grooming is a significant issue in the majority of these offences
  • Increasing evidence that perpetrators use social media as a tool to build trust with their victim, break down resistance and gradually introduce sexualised comments


Characteristics and Behaviours of Perpetrators

Jan explained that through her experience of taking part in investigations and reviews into safeguarding in the sporting world (as well as with churches, schools and other settings) it is clear to her that perpetrators of child sexual abuse are intelligent and manipulative.

Using Eddie Heath as an example, Jan explained how they use vulnerabilities (such as recent family bereavements, lack of parental attention or for children overwhelming desire to succeed in football) and use this to their advantage. This is a very common pattern across all cases of grooming and paedophiles will look for organisations with weak safeguarding practices that are unlikely to challenge their behaviour until it is too late.

Jan went on to explain that in general, children do not come forward to disclose their abuse once they’ve been groomed. She stressed the importance of handling disclosures effectively.

“If a child makes a disclosure to you this is massive. They trust you and this is a privilege. Listen, be open, be available, be vigilant.”



Grooming in Sporting Organisations

Paul reiterated that grooming is a core issue in many cases of sexual abuse. Paul’s abuser not only groomed Paul with the promise of stardom – as well as the threat of taking this away - but also his entire family in order to isolate him and to discourage disclosure.

“Within weeks my abuser had groomed my brothers, parents and entire family.”

When asked what could have been done to make him speak up, Paul explained that once abuse has actually started it is often too late and that child will not speak up or seek help. He stressed that education on grooming before a child becomes a victim is critical and that this is a common theme  which is shared by many other survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

“If I’d been educated about grooming to start with, I may have said things much earlier.”


Reporting safeguarding concerns in sports settings

Jan emphasised the need to collect information on ‘low-level’ concerns in order to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. She agreed that education around this for both staff and athletes is paramount to success. She stressed the importance of talking about sexual abuse and grooming with young members  and giving them permission to discuss this within your organisation., By doing that you are  giving them the language, platform and opportunity they need to speak up about issues and talk about their concerns.

What Signs Can Sports Coaches and Volunteers Look Out For?

Paul suggested the things that sports coaches and volunteers can look out for to protect their young athletes such as:

  • Signs of sexual language inappropriate for their age/development
  • Changes in a child’s demeanour (e.g. if an outgoing child becomes shy, withdrawn, or clingy)
  • Fear of certain areas or places



A Cultural Shift Is Needed for Safeguarding in Sports

Paul also called for a cultural shift within sports settings. The focus is on succeeding in sport and winning, meaning athletes can feel unable to come forward with their concerns for fear of ‘having their chances blown’.

Only about 0.06% of young athletes will go through to play sport at a high level, we need to do more to protect the other percent of players. We have a moral obligation to protect them and to promote their pastoral care in order to send them out into the world as happy adults.

This starts with people being able to raise concerns in clubs.


Robust Recording Systems in Sports Clubs

Mike believed that having a robust recording system in place to manage low-level concerns is critical to the prevention of abuse in sporting organisations. Paper is no longer an acceptable recording system as it can come with the risk of damage or loss, poor security, the potential for tampering and the challenge of data protection compliance. It is also more difficult to identify safeguarding patterns and trends when compared to more robust electronic systems. Being able to capture and address low-level concerns helps an organisation to flag issues early and creates proactive, rather than reactive, interventions to stop abuse from occurring in the first place.  

Mike also explained that staff needed to be confident in making reports and this needed to be clearly communicated at all levels. He also touched on the importance of secure information sharing with trusted partners, as poor information sharing between agencies remains a common feature in serious case reviews. This too can be managed more effectively with an electronic system.


Should we be introducing Mandatory Reporting in Sports?

Jan felt that sports organisations needed to promote a culture where staff feel comfortable in challenging each other. This involves having visual reminders such as posters about safeguarding and the policy on display, regularly reminding children of who they can talk to and providing channels for this, collecting low-level concerns from all levels of the organisation and mandatory reporting.

“If you’ve got concerns – tell somebody!”

Speaking of her experience working with coaches who didn’t say anything about historic sexual abuse she added that mandatory reporting will make it easy for staff to confidently report concerns.

“To live with the fact that you didn’t do something, and you could have protected those children is a huge burden.”

Paul agreed with Jan about the need to promote a culture of safeguarding in sports, Paul believed that that the organisation’s safeguarding policy should not just live in a draw – and ‘safeguarding needs to be given legs.’

“Policies aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if they’re not visible.”

He also added that all too often, if a club loses points or funding, the safeguarding budget is often the first thing to be cut. This leads to the safeguarding lead for the club juggling several other roles and not being able to focus on safeguarding – which Paul believes should be a full-time role on its own.

“It doesn’t matter what division you’re in – you’ve got youngsters coming in that you’ve got to take care of.”

Mike stressed that ‘Safeguarding is not a tick box exercise, if sanctions exist, they need to be meaningful and actually quite painful!”

Without any meaningful sanction in place, the whole system is quite questionable. Staff would benefit from clear benchmarks on what to report and when to report it and to give them confidence in their role of protecting young people.

Comparing sports with schools, Mike suggested that regular inspections, such as those carried out by Ofsted, set a high standard for safeguarding.  If a school fails their safeguarding in this inspection, they fail their inspection full stop. In fact, a number of schools have in fact been closed because of this.



Whistleblowing in Sports Organisations

Mike explained that for whistleblowing policies to be effective members of staff need to be confident in the reporting process - “Confidence to report concerns is key – especially when this is about colleagues.”

This all comes back to a culture which promotes confidence to report concerns. These don’t need to just be the big disclosures, but the smaller issues and changes in behaviour that cause a nagging doubt.

Jan agreed that giving staff confidence to report was important - “A test of your culture is when junior staff feel able to raise their concerns.”

This involves a cultural shift, and a good safeguarding culture is one where even junior staff have confidence in reporting the small concerns they see. This allows the organisation to put together a jigsaw of all the low-level concerns reported across the club to achieve a holistic view of the safeguarding challenges in their setting.

“It’s making sure everyone has a voice in this, including the kids.”

Paul felt that if clubs have the attitude of ‘it doesn’t happen here’ there’s a good chance a perpetrator has recognised this and is taking advantage of this attitude.

“Committees who say: ‘We don’t have safeguarding issues here’ send the fear of God into me as I know this means they don’t have a policy or procedure that tells people how to report.”


Final thoughts from our panel on the discussion on Whistleblowing and Sexual Abuse in Sports

Paul’s comment that ‘safeguarding should be given legs’ is so important for any organisation with responsibilities for safeguarding. The panel encouraged attendees to be proactive and turn policy into positive action on the ground.

This blog has given a very brief overview of the discussion and topics addressed in the hour-long session. To hear more from our panel and to gain a more in-depth understanding of good safeguarding practice in sports clubs – we invite you to listen to the full webinar here. 

Posted Date

5th August 2021

Sam Franklin

Related resources