HomeSportWarning: Children at play

Warning: Children at play

OVER the last five to 10 years, horrifying stories are gradually being told by sportsmen and women who were abused as children by their trusted coaches.


A report was recently published into allegations of sexual abuse in Scottish football clubs and concluded that children in the game were in fact still at risk from team officials, scouts and coaches. That echoes a similar story recently found in an interview with a former soccer “starlet” in another news agency which speaks of the “exploitation of youngsters” within the system which is “tantamount to child abuse”.

Youngsters are sucked into sporting academies at an early age, being persuaded to give up academic studies, full of the promise of making it big-time only to be dumped unceremoniously when others come along who are better or when injuries bite, often after doing too much physical work while the body is still growing.

Our first reaction, no doubt, will be to declare that no such thing happens in school sport here. We would, after all, be very quick to fight against any form of child abuse, be it physical, sexual or emotional. However, we do well to pause a moment and consider other actions which are equally identified as child abuse, namely neglect and in particular exploitation. Exploitation has been defined as, “The act of selfishly taking advantage of someone or a group of people in order to profit from them or otherwise benefit oneself.” Is such activity happening in school sport? Are we using children for our own ends? When does “use” become “misuse” or, worse still, “abuse”? This is serious.

Firstly, there is a very real danger that we may be guilty of using children with our sport; we may use them to enhance the reputation of the coach or even the school. We may demand extra practices prior to a big ‘derby’ match because winning it will boost our image, our standing, our status. We may offer a sports scholarship to a child simply to enhance the coach’s or school’s reputation when the child might well do better staying at his current school, playing against stronger opposition, thus learning and developing far more. We may dress it all up in saying it is for the good of the child but while the child may gain a certain amount, the coach or the school may in truth be gaining far more.

Secondly we may be charged with misuse of our children in school sport, in the sense that misuse occurs if instructions are not heeded or followed; are we following instructions about Long Term Player development? Are we even aware of the physiological and emotional stages that our children are going through when we pressurise them into more and more sport? Have coaches had any training in teaching youngsters? Coaches and sports bodies, desperate to have youngsters commit to their sport before other sports grab them, rush to push and even promote the youngsters with no real concern for their long term development and all-round well-being. Players have been rushed into national teams before they were ready, leading them to give up, disillusioned and broken.

Lastly, most seriously, we may even be guilty of abusing our youngsters in the realm of sport. Abuse is when things are done without regard to the consequences, when things are done excessively and damagingly; are we pushing children too hard, too soon, and causing serious damage to them physically, psychologically, primarily? Why is it that so few youngsters continue with sport once they leave school, be it social or serious? We need to make it very clear that it is not just a talent or a career that a coach may ruin; it is a life, as those scars can remain throughout the whole life.

Here is the nub of it: if we use children for our sport, that is exploitation, and if we exploit children, that is abuse. We need to be very careful with how we treat children in our care: are we (as parents or coaches) using, misusing or abusing our children in sport for our own reputation or profit, putting their lives on the line, taking advantage of their talents and trust for our own ends and benefit?

In Shakespeare’s tragic play King Lear, the character Gloucester cries out in profound despair as he wanders on the heath after being blinded by his mentors, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”.  It may not be the gods who are destroying youngsters, but rather the coaches, coaches who think they are gods, who treat boys and girls in sport like flies for their own sport, who think they are above reproach and judgement. We may well be the blind ones if we do not see the dangers. That will be an even greater tragedy.

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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