Sport should be a safe place for athletes of all ages. The lessons learned are meant to be technical, physical and character-building, not traumatizing.
But the recent sexual assault cases involving former U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and former Canadian alpine ski coach Bertrand Charest have left many parents like me wondering: what are we doing to ensure sport is a safe place for our children?
The CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada, Lorraine Lafrenière, has worked toward establishing a common set of rules for all sports to follow.
"When it comes to a child's safety, each sport owns their own domain," she says. "Or, in some instances, like the Olympic Games, it is a shared domain. But nobody has one accountability.
"When I started back at the CAC in 2013, I knew there needed to be someone taking the lead. Something had to be done."
The CAC has become an important resource for sport organizations on how to better implement policies to promote personal safety. After extensive consultation with more than 50 sport organizations, the CAC began co-ordinating the Responsible Coaching Movement to address issues relating to the health and safety of athletes, both on and off the field of play.
As of today, more than 100 sport organizations have committed to implementing supportive policies and processes. But Lafrenière says it's also important for parents to ask the right questions about their child's coaches — particularly these three:
1. Does the coach follow the Rule of Two?
This is an essential element of the RCM that calls for at least two screened and National Coaching Certification Program-certified coaches to be present with an athlete, especially a minor athlete, when the athletes is in a potentially vulnerable situation.
2. Does your child's sport conduct background screenings on coaches and volunteers?
Sport organizations should develop a screening process that includes an interview, reference checks and a criminal-background check of all coaches and volunteers, especially those with access to minors.
3. Has your child's coach taken NCCP and ethics training?
The CAC has partnered with two organizations on this initiative — the Respect Group and Commit to Kids — and highly recommends coaches and organizations are familiar with their training. The Respect Group, an e-learning platform co-founded by Sheldon Kennedy, helps empower people to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment. Commit to Kids, a step-by-step program created by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, aims to help prevent sexual abuse from happening within child-serving organizations. Courses are available through provincial, territorial and national sport organizations.
As Lafrenière sees it, the conversation about safety in sport is owned by the whole sporting community, and any step forward a sport can make is a good one. Just acknowledging the uniquely authoritarian relationship between an athlete and a coach or staff member helps advance the conversation and is an important first step.
"Creating a safe environment in sport isn't an end point. It is a never-ending journey," Lafrenière says. "The sheer nature of volunteerism in sport makes it transient. It requires ongoing training and development."
Best practices and continued diligence are important because, realistically, it shouldn't take a traumatic event to ensure our sports are implementing safety measures. As Olympic champion gymnast McKayla Maroney aptly stated in her social media message accusing Nassar of sexual abuse: "I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting."
Those are far kinder words than I would have used. Sport should be a safe haven, not a place for predators to prey on victims. Let's make sure, collectively, that we are demanding enough to ensure our sports are moving toward creating the safest possible environment for our children.