Behavior & Development • Sep 24, 2015

Recognizing risks of sexual abuse in young athletes

Earlier this week, Marvin Sharp, an Indianapolis gymnastics coach, who trained two members of the 2008 U.S. women’s Olympics team, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his jail cell, where he was being held on charges of child pornography and molestation. About two years ago, parents and students were put on alert by a west St. Louis County school about a local tennis coach who the Chesterfield police had arrested on alleged charges of statutory rape and statutory sodomy. News articles such as these and stories of other abusive coaches in the recent past like Jerry Sandusky and Rick Curl involving our young athletes are disturbingly becoming too common across the country.

As parents we make sure to teach our kids about the concept of ‘stranger danger’ from a very early age, but the truth according to the American Academy of Pediatrics is that at least 4 of 5 cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated not by a stranger, but by someone who knows the child. The harsh reality is that when these things happen it’s most likely going to be someone you know, someone within your circle. Also, statistics show that 73 percent of children do not tell anyone about their sexual abuse for at least one year. The barrier to early recognition of warning signs is that these are usually people in positions of trust and authority that we don’t associate with such criminal behavior. It’s not always the creepy kinds who perpetrate these crimes- maybe because with such people, we can easily recognize them, put up the guard rails, and decrease the chances.

The key to prevention is COMMUNICATION! Communicate with your kids, communicate with other parents on the team, and communicate with the school. Starting from a very early age, allow your children to freely communicate about how they feel about people they meet in life. Support them to be open about talking about difficult issues without making them feel judged.  Open up channels of trust so they can easily talk to you about situations that they are scared or uncomfortable about. Many parents are hesitant to bring up issues of sexuality with their children. Have age-appropriate talks with your kids about the concepts of private parts and genitals without reluctance on your part. Be clear in defining the limits of physical interaction between the coach and your child. Be honest. If there are current news issues about sexual molestation cases, use that opportunity to open discussions about these topics: reiterate the rules of safety and how they should handle the situation if ever they felt unsafe. Discuss hypothetical situations– like suggestive innuendos, inappropriate touching, or other scenarios where a molester may jeopardize your child’s safety. Prepare your child with possible solutions and how they can respond in these situations. Most of the time, children are shrouded in guilt and shame in these situations and are made to feel like the ‘wrong-doer’ by the perpetrator. Playing out these situations beforehand definitely helps your child to be able to recognize these devious individuals at a very early stage.

Stay involved! Be aware of where and why your children are spending that extra time at practice. As far as possible, do not depend on others to drive them around to practice sessions and games. Be present at their games.  Molesters are usually aware of children whose parents are more ‘hands-off’ than the others and use these situations to their advantage.

Be alert! As much as I hate to promote paranoia, I’d like to stress the importance of watching out for those coaches who want to spend ‘unusual’ amounts of time with your children, shower children with unnecessary gifts, express inordinate praises of your child, etc…  Young athletes are at a very vulnerable stage in life. They are developing sexuality, craving fame and attention and depending on their coaches to help them attain success in the sport they are so passionate about. This common passion for the sport and trust is what the pedophiles maneuver to their advantage. Feel free to do frequent background checks on the coaches and teachers that you are entrusting your most precious possessions with! After all, you do background checks on your baby sitters even before you hire them. It’s the same risk with your school-age kids too – it’s just that the threats are different.

As parents, please become proactive and stay ahead of the game. Sadly, in most of these situations the realization dawns when it’s too late, after the crime has occurred, and after the child is possibly scarred for life. But being aware of these dangers hiding in plain sight can help prevent abuse and the effects of abuse (such as depression, impairment of self-esteem, disruption of important developmental processes, eating disorders, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few).