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  • Writer's pictureDr Victor Thompson

Reducing and dealing with abuse in young athletes - after Larry Nassar, US Gymnastics doctor is sent

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Today’s news about Larry Nassar’s 175-year jail sentence for abusing female US gymnasts has got me activated to write a little on the subject.

A simplified version of why abuse like this happens

Abuse happens when less powerful people are mistreated and targeted by more powerful people. But power isn’t all that is required. The abuser must have the desire to hurt someone, to have an impact on them and/or to have a positive experience oneself. The court received impact statements from 156 survivors (or is that victims?) of his abuse. One abuse is one too many. 156 (or more if there were unreported survivors), shows the massive impact this man has had on the lives of young people.

Larry Nassar’s was in a position of power and access to young people – children – who were in his ‘care.’ As a doctor, he has added to the suffering of those under his care. He has really let down his profession.

As children play and become more serious about sport, they need good support and guidance as they develop:

  • their skills and competence with their body

  • their ability to look after their body and seek help with niggles and injuries

  • their mental control and discipline that training requires

  • their ability to physically and psychologically manage the stresses and strains of competition

  • their ability to manage school workloads and sport

  • their ability to maintain and manage relationships with their peers and friends outside sport

  • their ability to develop and maintain relationships with peers within sport

  • their ability to take on board the good guidance of coaches, managers and other staff

What to do when abuse happens to a child athlete

When abuse happens, children need to know that it is okay to voice what has gone on, that something happened that should not have gone on. Children should be in an environment where they trust those around them, that their welfare is of utmost importance. When a child has this conversation and starts to open-up about their experience, they may be confused, feeling bad or even to blame. It is really important to respond sensitively, so that they remain open to discuss their experience and receptive to help. Often the adult who has had this conversation, will then fact a choice about what they do. Some of your main options are:

  • consider who should support or remain with the child while to consider your options

  • speak to one or both of the child’s parents (if you are not the child’s parent)

  • consult with any safeguarding officer within your club or organisation

  • consider involving your local Social Services Child Safeguarding Team

  • consider if any examination should be conducted by a health professional (perhaps accessed through the Police)

  • consider the Police

For young athletes to develop in sport as individuals and as athletes, they need to be in an environment that helps them develop physically and psychologically. Abusive experiences limit athlete development and can have disastrous life-long consequences. Let’s all help to create great safe environments and help those with effective support, when people abuse their positions.

In the UK, the NSPCC (National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children) have a great website with useful resources. Their preventing abuse page can be found here. The website also includes information on the PANTS campaign which seeks to teach children about abuse and their private parts.

As a Clinical Sports Psychologist, I have experience of working with athletes and non-athletes who have been abused -either relatively recently or decades before. There are effective treatments to help people be less limited by their abusive experiences. But, I’d rather have fewer clients presenting with these life experiences to help!

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