Sports clubs can also be crime scenes for sexual abuse and violence. On Tuesday (September 27th, 2022) the federal government published the study on sport by its “Commission for the Study of Child Sexual Abuse”. The stories of 72 affected have shocked. Mandy Owczarzak from the State Sports Association of North Rhine-Westphalia has been advising on prevention for many years. In the Sportschau interview, she gives specific tips for parents, clubs and coaches.
Sportschau: What should parents pay attention to when they have registered their child in a sports club?
Mandy Owczarzak: You should see whether the association is fundamentally concerned with the subject of child and youth protection. Is there anything on the home page? Is this advertised? Is there a protection concept and trust and contact persons? Do the club employees show their code of ethics and their certificate of good conduct? These are all things parents can ask about.
Mandy Owczarzak from the State Sports Association of North Rhine-Westphalia
If the parents then do that and realize that the club has not yet dealt with these issues, should they look for another club?
Owczarzak: Of course not, but you could ask whether appropriate measures are being planned. Some clubs have already set out to deal with these issues. Some clubs don’t either. Perhaps there is still a lack of sensitivity because the prevailing opinion is that nothing like this has happened in the club before. I hear that again and again in my counseling. But of course it makes total sense to deal with it. Sometimes clubs need a little push from parenthood for this.
Are there behaviors from coaches that could indicate that something is not going right at the club?
Owczarzak: Violence can take place in different constellations, not only from adults, such as from the trainer, but also as peer violence, i.e. violence, assaults or violations of boundaries among children and young people. Parents and clubs should always look at: How is the interaction with each other? How do you talk to each other? How is the subject of proximity and distance dealt with? How is physical contact dealt with, such as changing rooms and showers, etc.?
To what extent should I, as a parent, communicate preventively with my child?
Owczarzak: One point is always very important to me: Many adults sometimes forget that children also have a private sphere. Mothers and fathers sometimes ask children to do things that they don’t like themselves, such as hugging people. You should talk to children and young people about your own limits and emotions. It would also be helpful to initiate age-appropriate sex education in the family. Potential perpetrators can often take advantage of children’s ignorance and natural curiosity, especially when children don’t have expressions for what’s happening and don’t know it’s not okay.
What changes in their children’s behavior should parents be suspicious of?
Owczarzak: There is no symptom or change in behavior that clearly indicates violence or sexual abuse. But those affected try to communicate again and again by means of hidden clues. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be: withdrawn, withdrawing into a depressive attitude or exactly the opposite: overly nervous, sometimes restless, showing aggressive behavior. Those affected may also have nightmares and develop speech disorders, some sufferers develop addictions or eating disorders, neglect personal hygiene or have problems at school. So the range is large and varied. In sport, there is also the fact that sporting performance could deteriorate and sport is no longer fun. Hidden clues can also be that the child no longer wants to go to sports or says: ‘Person xy is stupid.’
How can I as a parent react then?
Owczarzak: It is important to be attentive, to address the topic and to offer help if you notice that something might be right. To say: If you want to talk, I’m there. This is a signal to the person concerned: I take you seriously. This is independent of whether this is done by a parent or someone from the sports club. Affected people need seven to eight adults before they are really heard. It is therefore important to sensitize everyone involved.
If I’m involved in an association that hasn’t yet dealt with the topic: What could my first steps look like then?
Owczarzak: The association should create a culture of looking and participating and ask itself: What are our structures like? What can we change? And how do we get the trainers, parents, children and young people involved in this process? If a club deals with it, the risk of sexualised violence is significantly lower. That’s a finding from the Safe Sport study released in 2016. The aim should be to protect everyone involved, regardless of whether they are children, young people or adults.
Where can clubs get support for their efforts?
Owczarzak: You can contact the city, district and state sports associations as well as the professional associations. Specialist advice centers also offer their support. The support structures are set up differently in Germany. We in NRW have a system in which we send out consultants to train the clubs. And we have the quality alliance for protection against sexualized violence, in which the clubs can become members.
For some, the inhibition threshold is certainly great to bring this sensitive topic to the table in their own club.
Owczarzak: A first step would be to break the taboo on the subject in the association and to sensitize all association employees and members. It is definitely a mark of quality when an association is well positioned to protect children and young people and has an individual protection concept. This is then also more attractive for parents. Among other things, this means that the board supports the topic, it is anchored in the articles of association and there are contact persons who are specially trained. The trainers and trainers are also sensitized and trained. The more building blocks an association implements, the less attractive it becomes for potential perpetrators.
Finally, on the role of the trainers: how should they behave to prevent misunderstandings?
Owczarzak: You should look: Where are there possible sources of danger and moments in my work where I might have a strange gut feeling myself? For example, as an adult, do I have to be there when the children change? No I do not have to. How do I deal with one-on-one situations? Should I rather use a six-eyes principle to protect myself as well? How do I deal with proximity and distance? For example, do I ask before I provide assistance? You should make your actions transparent. And if I’m unsure, I should get help.