• Niall O'Carroll

When is Touch Safe in Sport?

What is your first reaction when you look at the above photo? A young boy shirtless. A coach apparently screaming in his face. Those of you who saw this photo when it was published in an article by Jeff Eisenberg on the Yahoo Sports website on February 8th 2013 will know that the photo is of a jubilant coach, John Groce, celebrating a hugely important victory for his Illinois NCAA team with his son Conner. However how did you react on first sight? 

I believe we live in a society today where paranoia, particularly in relation to children's welfare is at it's highest. No conscientious parent would let their child outside to play unsupervised. I know when I was a kid on school holidays, I was kicked out the door in the morning and told not to return until mealtime. There was no fear of letting kids out in the neighbourhood. So what has changed? Is the world a more dangerous place or are we more aware of the dangers that always existed?

Everyday we are faced with appalling headlines on the news channels and on social media of the harm caused to children all over the globe by predatory adults.  I gave a talk last year at the excellent Cheetham's School of Music in Manchester where union members were arguing that a clause in every teachers contract should include a 'no touch' policy. I must admit to finding this view a little extreme as it is difficult to teach all musical instruments without any physical contact. This, the unions argued, was to protect the teachers. I discovered a similar concern at the Elmhurst Royal Ballet School some months later. This level of paranoia exists throughout sport. Coaches spoke to me of being afraid to do their jobs as a single complaint could ruin their careers and their lives. More and more organizations are putting forward the view that the safest thing for all adults working with children is to have zero contact. 

Now consider that Cheethams and Elmhurst are boarding schools.  Children as young as 12 are living on site. Some of them have never been away from their families before. What should any conscientious adult do if a young child is homesick, upset and asks for a hug? Should they refuse? How awful is it to see a child crying, is it not a natural instinct to want to console them? The model I developed for British Gymnastics was a simple one. It was about considering three simple questions when deciding whether touch was appropriate or not.

  • What was my Motivation?

  • What was the Duration?

  • What was the Perception of those watching and indeed of the child themselves?

This model of MDP is one that BG have taken on and continue to develop.  It is simply about asking a coach to consider these three questions of MDP when deciding if the touch is appropriate. The motivation behind consoling a miserable young child living away from home could lead to a hug, the duration would be a matter of what you feel would be acceptable and appropriate and the perception is simply a matter of is it in the open for all to see, did the child ask for it, did the child feel uncomfortable with the contact? 

The coaches I spoke to were frustrated by the perception of the safeguarding rules. After all in gymnastics for example spotting a child is for the child's protection.  It inevitably includes touch of some form or other. When a child is doing complicated moves it is possible for a coach to unintentionally touch a child in a private part of their body. My argument was that following the rules of MDP meant that your motivation, duration and perception of the touch would mean that the child was protected from harm. It also meant that the parents of the child were given a clear understanding of what they could expect when their child came to the gym. No perception of secrecy, no suspicion, 100% transparency. 

The perceived challenge for all sports in protecting children and their coaches is based on a fear of attracting complaints. It's almost like parents and outside observers are viewed with suspicion by coaches and vice versa. I am very much in favour in as much dialogue as possible between coaches, management, parents and the children in sport. Get the child's input into their coaching plan. Build a strategy with the parents involved. Explain clearly the context of how their child may be touched. If unintentional contact happens, tell the parents and explain how it happened. If as a coach you continue to accidentally touch the child in an inappropriate area then you seriously need to review your technique. Forgive me for sounding flippant here but seriously, if as an adult you don't understand that there are parts of the body that are inappropriate to touch then I would question your suitability to coach children in the first place. 

In short there is no need to allow paranoia influence your behaviour in your coaching environment. Set your standards. Communicate your message clearly. Follow simple models like BG's MDP and be confident in delivering the best coaching experience you can. This is what the excellent staff at Cheethams and Elmhurst have done. They continue to challenge themselves to explore every avenue in their pursuit of excellence. They have also come to realize that a child in a happy environment learns quicker. By creating the kind of surroundings where children feel safe they are allowing their young proteges to thrive. I have long argued that performance and wellbeing are directly linked. If the simple rules of safeguarding can be implemented to make the path to excellence smoother then surely it is a win win. Coaches are free to coach, children are free to learn and we as spectators are free to marvel in the remarkable achievements of our young sports stars.