Sports clubs can also be crime scenes for sexual abuse and violence. On Tuesday (September 27, 2022), the federal government published the study on sport by its “Commission for the Study of Child Sexual Abuse”. The stories of 72 people affected have shocked. Mandy Owczarzak of the North Rhine-Westphalia State Sports Association has been advising on prevention for years. In the interview with Sportschau she gives concrete tips for parents, clubs and coaches.
Sportschau: What should parents pay attention to if they have registered their child with a sports club?
Mandy Owczarzak: You have to see if the association is fundamentally involved 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 contacts? Do the club employees show their code of ethics and their proof of good behaviour? These are all things parents can ask about.
Mandy Owczarzak of the State Sports Association of North Rhine-Westphalia
If the parents do that and realize that the club has not yet addressed these problems, should they look for another club?
Owczarzak: Of course not, but you can ask yourself whether appropriate measures are being planned. Some clubs have already started to address these issues. Neither do some clubs. Perhaps there is still a lack of sensitivity because the prevailing view is that something like this has never happened in the club before. I hear that time and again in my coaching. But of course it makes a lot of sense to deal with it. Sometimes clubs need a helping hand from parenthood to do this.
Are there any behaviors from coaches that could indicate that something is not right at the club?
Owczarzak: Violence can take place in different settings, not only from adults, such as the trainer, but also as violence by peers, ie violence, assault or border-crossing against 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 handled? How is physical contact, such as changing rooms and showers, etc. handled?
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 they don’t like, such as hugging people. You need to talk to children and young people about your own boundaries and emotions. It would also be helpful to provide age-appropriate sex education in the family. Potential offenders can often take advantage of children’s ignorance and natural curiosity, especially when children have no expression for what is happening and don’t know it’s not okay.
What changes in their children’s behavior should parents distrust?
Owczarzak: There is no symptom or change in behavior that clearly indicates violence or sexual abuse. But those affected keep trying to communicate through hidden clues. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be: withdrawn, depressed or just the opposite: overly nervous, sometimes restless, showing aggressive behaviour. Those affected may also have nightmares and develop speech disorders, some patients develop addictions or eating disorders, neglect personal hygiene or have problems at school. The offer is therefore large and varied. In sports there is also the fact that sports performance can deteriorate and sports are no longer fun. Hidden clues may also be that the child no longer wants to exercise or says, “Person xy is stupid.”
How can I respond as a parent?
Owczarzak: It’s important to be attentive, address the subject, and offer help if you notice something isn’t right. To say: if you want to talk, I’m here. 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 association. Affected people need seven to eight adults before they are really heard. It is therefore important to sensitize all those involved.
If I am involved in an association that has not yet covered the subject, what might my first steps look like?
Owczarzak: The association must create a culture of watching and participating and asking itself: what do our structures look like? What can we change? And how do we involve trainers, parents, children and young people in this process? If a club deals with it, the chance of sexual violence is significantly lower. This is evident from the Safe Sport study that was released in 2016. The aim should be to protect everyone involved, be they children, young people or adults.
Where can clubs get support for their efforts?
Owczarzak: You can contact the city, neighborhood and national sports associations and 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 sexual violence, which the clubs can join.
For some, the inhibition threshold is certainly nice to bring this sensitive subject to the table in their own club.
Owczarzak: A first step would be to break the taboo about this in the association and to raise awareness among all employees and members of the association. It is certainly a quality mark if an association is well positioned to protect children and young people and has an individual protection concept. This makes it more attractive to parents. This means, among other things, that the board supports the subject, it is anchored in the articles of association and there are specially trained contact persons. The trainers and trainers are also sensitized and trained. The more building blocks an association provides, the less attractive it becomes for potential offenders.
Finally, about the role of the trainers: how should they behave in order to avoid misunderstandings?
Owczarzak: You have to look: Where are there possible sources of danger and moments in my work where I myself might have a strange gut feeling? For example, as an adult, do I have to be there when the children change? No I don’t have to. How do I handle 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 offering help? You have to make your actions transparent. And if I’m not sure, I need to get help.