The UK based National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says it received 50 calls in the first two hours of opening a hotline for reports of sexual abuse after reports by professional Football players.  The devastating revelations made by a number of players lead by English representative, Andy Woodward, started with abuse allegations at the hands of Coach Barry Bennell, now a convicted pedophile.   

This problem is not isolated to the UK or to Football.  In the book “Sport Children’s Rights and Violence Prevention” by Brackenridge, Kay and Rhind (2015), reported on a study that looked into sexual abuse in Australian sport found the following disturbing facts.  In a population sample of 370 gender matched, elite and club based participants. 

“…31% of female and 21% of male athletes reported experiencing sexual abuse at some time in their lives. Of these, 41% of females, and 29% of males had been sexually abused within the sports environment. It was also found that almost half, 46.4%, of the elite group reporting sexual abuse had been sexually abused by sports personnel. For the club group, this figure was 25.6%.”

The researchers found, the primarily abusers were coaches, (less frequently support staff or other athletes).  Perpetrators imposed their version of reality on the young athlete and isolated them in that reality.  Psychologically controlling the athlete’s sporting and public environment, so that they have no way of determining an alternative reality. The young athlete becomes locked into a reward/punishment cycle by someone they trust and whom has power over their sporting dreams and goals. These circumstances leave individuals feeling confused, ensuring their silence.  This silence has been found to be particularly high in elite sport where individuals are not expected to challenge authority, leaving them feeling isolated and trapped.

Child sexual predators may look to industries like sport because of their access to children. I am passionate about sport and the important role it plays in the lives of many of our children, giving them access to mostly good mentors, shared community experiences and opportunities to develop important life-skills.   As a psychologist, however, I have had to support young athletes in their decisions to report sexual abuse to the police, or help them find the words to put around their experiences so that they can talk to their parents or loved ones. These are the supported victims, but many more remain silent.  No form of abuse, sexual, physical, emotional is okay in our industry.

1. Make you’re your organisation has policies and procedures in place that cover sexual harassment and abuse. 

2. Don’t leave it up to children/youth themselves to report abuse. 

3. Be clear that the victim is not responsible for the abuse.

4. Provide education and awareness.    

5. For more information on abuse, types, effect and how to access help REACHOUT  



Author Gayelene Clews is a Performance Psychologist and author of “Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete”.  She has worked with many of the very best sporting teams in the world including Olympic and World Champions.