Professional Members: How to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse Prevention
posted on 04/12/2018

By Toby Stark, USA Gymnastics Director of Safe Sport

Child sexual abuse prevention is one of the most important topics you need to talk about, and possibly one of the most uncomfortable. Many of us don’t know where to start.  What words should I use?  Will the conversation scare a gymnast? Will I offend my colleagues?  Will parents of my gymnasts think there is a problem because I’m talking about it? 

Child sexual abuse prevention does not start and stop at a gymnastics club’s doorstep. All families and youth-serving organizations need to address this issue. USA Gymnastics and its members are helping facilitate those conversations by focusing on athlete safety and further developing a culture of empowerment that encourages speaking up, especially on difficult topics like abuse.  

Here are two troubling, but very true, statistics for your consideration.

  • One in 10 children is sexually abused by her/his 18th birthday.
  • Ninety percent of those children are abused by someone they know, love and trust.

These statistics should erase any doubts you may have about how important it is to talk about child sexual abuse prevention at the gym.

Are you unsure who should be a part of the conversation? The audience varies depending on your role, whether you are a gym owner, a coach or an administrator.  Below are some audiences for you to consider.  

  1. Your staff and volunteers.
  2. Your colleagues.
  3. Your gymnasts’ parents.
  4. Your gymnasts.

Most gyms already have gym, team or class rules, as well expectations that are communicated to staff, gymnasts and/or parents.  Child sexual abuse prevention is absolutely no different and shouldn’t be treated as such. This article is intended to help reduce the discomfort related to these conversations.  Athletes, their parents, coaches, professional members, and your club family can be empowered through conversations that increase awareness and educate them about child abuse prevention and other pertinent safe sport topics.

Club owners 

As a gym owner, you likely inform your staff and volunteers about your expectations and requirements for their job responsibilities and behavior. “Appropriate behavior with gymnasts” should be added to that list.   

All USA Gymnastics member clubs must have a Safe Sport Policy, Athlete Protection Policy or Code of Conduct that incorporates the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy (www.usagym.org/safesport), especially the Proactive Policies.  These policies provide the framework needed for talking about prohibited behaviors with their staff.  

Suggestions on what to say to staff

  • The club has “zero tolerance” for inappropriate behavior with athletes (as detailed in your gym’s policies).
  • Outline what staff can expect if they break any of those policies.
  • Discuss how the mandatory safe sport training required by USA Gymnastics leads to a safer, more positive environment because professional members are educated on the prohibited categories of misconduct and received instruction on how to recognize warning signs.

And then, you should act accordingly and consistently.  

Colleagues

Creating a culture where staff and co-workers aren’t afraid to talk about child sexual abuse prevention is important.  Having those conversations doesn’t indicate a problem exists nor is it accusatory. Everyone in the gym needs to become familiar with the gym’s prohibited behaviors and feel empowered to speak up if they see a boundary violation.  It can be as simple as: “I saw such-and-such.  I don’t know if you are aware, but that violates club policy. In the future, you could do such-and-such.” This conversation can be between a boss and subordinate or co-workers. 

The overall message is if you see something that doesn’t seem right, say something.  Silence is a predator’s best weapon.

Gym parents

Parents need to know their child is at a facility and with a coach where their child’s safety a top priority. 

If you are a club owner, you should make sure your parents know about and are familiar with your policies and how they are strictly and consistently enforced, as well as your staff’s training.  Highlighting this in parent meetings, on registration papers, on your website (with a link to www.usagym.org/safesport), and in the gym provides positive reinforcement of your commitment to their child’s safety and well-being. 

Coaches can help educate parents on the club’s child protection policies and acknowledge their understanding, support and implementation of those policies through their coaching.  

Parents will not think the gym has a problem with child sexual abuse because you are talking about it.  You will find the exact opposite occurs.  Parents will be more engaged with you and their trust is strengthened once they see how proactive you are in protecting their children.

Language to use with parents: “Your child’s safety and well-being are our highest priorities, and we do many things to protect your children.”  You can then go on to address how you keep your equipment safe, you work to protect your gymnasts from injury (proper warm-up, stretching, nutrition resources), the importance and existence of safe sport (athlete protection) policies and procedures, and others.  You should also provide each of your athlete ‘s parents a copy of your athlete protection policies/procedures and the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy.  Don’t be afraid to do that. We need to encourage knowledge and empowerment if we truly want to protect our gymnasts.

Gymnasts

Gymnasts –– need to know, in an age-appropriate manner, how people in the gym are and are not allowed to treat them, along with how they are and are not allowed to treat others.  Athlete protection is as important talk to your athletes about as it is to address bullying behavior, unsportsmanlike conduct and being aware of their gym surroundings so they don’t walk into someone using the equipment.   

For your gymnasts under 8 years old, you simply can tell them you want them to be safe when they are at your gym. That means talking about the importance of following the coach’s instructions and watching before they cross the vault runway, as well as that no gym staff is allowed to be alone with them. You can give them examples of when they shouldn’t be alone with an adult, including in the bathroom or changing area, when trying on attire, etc. These are outlined in the One-on-One Proactive Policy in the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy. Finally, you can help them identify a few people within the gym they can talk to if they don’t feel safe, as well as encourage them always to talk to their parents if they feel unsafe.

For kids 9 years and older, you actually can tell them about your athlete protection policies and procedures, and specifically, but briefly, about the eight Proactive Policies.  As you did with the younger kids, you assist them in identifying several people within the gym they can talk to if they don’t feel safe and encourage them always to talk to their parents if they feel unsafe.

If you haven’t already, please start having these conversations.  If you have begun, continuing and strengthening these conversations is important.  

Coaches and club owners can help each other with these conversations.  The gymnastics community can and should support one another in implementing these new ways of doing things and strengthening what we’ve already been doing.  Together we can and must protect children through a safe environment.