The Beginning: Our Coach
I was a high school athlete. My teammates were—and are—some of my dearest friends. Our team was successful, placing high in our state tournament year after year. But the very best part of being a member of my team, hands down, was our coach. He genuinely cared about us and was an all-around wholesome man. Back in his day, he was competitive in our sport. Yes, he cared about teaching us how to become better athletes and improving in our sport. But he also wanted us to become better people as well. He demonstrated those desires to us through his own conduct at practices and competitions.
He was a grandfather-type figure in all of our lives, and I know that many of us considered him to be our role model. Even though I have a great dad and other positive male role models in my life, Coach was also a very important man in my life — both back in my high school days and up through the present.
Until the day I logged onto Facebook and that all changed.
What Happened: My Teammate
I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true. One day last summer, the star athlete of our team posted online about proper coach-athlete relationships. Many of our peers now have children of their own on sports teams, and along with getting all the gear athletes need to participate in their sports, my teammate encouraged parents to have a conversation with their child about what their relationships with coaches should look like. There are many great coaches out there—but, as we have learned through the recent USA Gymnastics scandal and a plethora of cases at high schools, there are also some who are not. A recent study in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse indicates that coaches are responsible for 25% of school-employee related abuse cases. And, unfortunately, my teammate was posting about this topic because “something bad” happened between her and a high school coach. As I read through the rest of her post, I was able to piece together that the offender was our dear coach.
I spent the rest of the day in shock, crying and feeling sick to my stomach. This could. not. be. true. Could it? But I know this teammate. She was a successful athlete in high school and college and has a prominent career as an adult. Though she was not coming forward in such a way to publicly accuse and/or press charges against anyone, she was coming forward boldly and bravely, using her name and her status to work to enact changes in our school district, state, and sport. A few days later, after thinking and praying and talking with my husband, I decided to message her to ask if my suspicions were true.
Sadly, they were. My teammate did not provide specifics (and I didn’t ask), but I am pretty sure that the situation was not as dire as things in the news. However, does that really make a difference? No. Whether the impropriety of the relationship had sexual, physical, or emotional overtones, it does not matter. She was a minor. He was a responsible adult who took advantage of his role. Period. This relationship greatly affected her mental health and confidence. In the moment, she didn’t seek help from parents, teachers, other coaches, or even her teammates because she was afraid she wouldn’t be believed. Or that she would be blamed. Or that she would be labeled a troublemaker and would thus miss out on college scholarships. She ended up being a star athlete in college as well and now has a successful career. And she is now using her career as a stepping stone for activism.
What Can Parents Do: Be Proactive
So, as a parent, what can you do to prevent this from happening to your child? Sadly, we can’t put our children in a box to protect them from the world. But we can, from an early age, talk to them. Talk to them about sex, talk to them about what friendships should look like with both other kids AND adults, talk to them about what online relationships should look like. The more we talk to our children about hard subjects, the more we normalize them so our children can talk to us. There are tons of resources online about these subjects, but I want to share a few stepping stone questions to talk about proper coach-athlete relationships.
- Do their coaches ever pull them aside out of view of any other athlete or adult?
- Do their coaches text, call, or email them individually? If so, what about?
- Has a coach ever invited your child to their house without other adults present?
- Have they seen their coaches touch someone else inappropriately?
Ask your children these questions — no matter their age or involvement in a sport. Even if you think you know the answers. Then discuss how to handle these situations should they arise. Obviously, this can differ depending on the level of sport or the age of your child, but bringing up this topic in a supportive manner can go a long way for not only your child — but also their teammates.
In retrospect, thinking back to my high school sport days, I knew that my teammate had quite a bit of one on one time with Coach, so the opportunity was there. Everyone knew about this. It was no big deal because Coach was Coach, and he was great, and we ALL wanted time with him. It pains me that we weren’t there for her. While part of me asked for confirmation that it was Coach because I can be a bit nosy and because I just needed to process it in my mind, part of me wanted to apologize to her. I was her teammate . . . and I had no idea. Our team’s experience was much like some of the stories shared here. So parents, talk to your kids. I’ll be doing that right alongside you. Even if it feels awkward. It will get better, and if this doesn’t happen to one more children because of a parental conversation? Then it is 100% worth it.