Safeguarding of athletes from maltreatment: Q & A with Professor Gretchen Kerr

Gymnastics competition (by Flickr user Tibor Safar)

Recent reports of widespread sexual abuse in gymnastics, swimming and other sports have jolted many into wondering what measures can be put in place to safeguard athletes from maltreatment. Professor Gretchen Kerr, vice-dean of academic affairs at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, has been volunteering with Gymnastics Canada as an athlete welfare officer, addressing complaints and helping to develop preventative initiatives. We spoke to Kerr, whose research interests include abuse, harassment and bullying in sport, about some of the measures underway in Gymnastics Canada and the potential implications for other sports.

What is the role of an athlete welfare officer?

Athlete welfare officers play important volunteer roles in helping to ensure that athletes are protected from maltreatment, including sexual, emotional and physical abuse, and neglect.  As an athlete welfare officer in the sport of gymnastics, I contribute to the safeguarding of athletes from maltreatment through both prevention and intervention. To advance preventative initiatives, I contribute to the education of coaches, sport administrators, athletes and parents, about their roles in advancing safe and healthy sport and how to intervene when concerns for the welfare of athletes arise. In terms of intervention, I act as a neutral, third-party resource to gather information and pursue investigations when formal complaints are lodged.  

What prompted you to volunteer in this role?

Having this opportunity to serve as an athlete welfare officer enables me to contribute to the safeguarding of athletes, and to do so by using my research and that of my colleagues and graduate students, to inform education, policies, practice and advocacy. Moreover, many important questions for research stem from my experience in the field. Working within this research-education-practice nexus to advocate for change is extremely rewarding. 

How has the role changed since the sexual abuse scandal in gymnastics made media headlines? Has there been an increase in complaints of that nature?

Consistent with what has been observed in other sectors of society, there has been an increase in allegations of sexual misconduct within sport. It is my impression that stakeholders in gymnastics now have been provided the conditions necessary to disclose their concerns. And, while the sexual abuses in gymnastics require serious scrutiny, it’s important to note that the most frequently reported type of maltreatment in gymnastics remains emotional abuse – namely, demeaning or humiliating comments, public shaming, intimidation and threats, and other controlling coaching practices. The frequency with which emotional abuse occurs and the negative impact of these experiences on athletes is confirmed by related research, as well as my practical experiences as an athlete welfare officer. The vast majority of formal complaints lodged in gymnastics are characterized as emotional abuse within the coach-athlete relationship.  

Why don’t we hear more about emotional abuse in sport?

These emotionally abusive practices seem to garner less media attention than do sexual abuse cases, in part because these practices are often assumed to be necessary or part of the development of athletic talent. Curiously, these practices run contrary to what we know about optimal learning and development and are not accepted as standard conduct in other domains in which young people engage such as education. 

Is the situation any different in other sports? 

Research on emotional abuse within the coach-athlete relationship suggests that this type of maltreatment is commonly experienced by both female and male athletes across a range of sports and competitive levels.  The common use of such practices speaks to the need to adopt alternative strategies informed by learning and developmental theories. 

What are some of the proactive and progressive initiatives you’ve been developing to prevent athlete abuse?

Any safeguarding strategies need to be multifaceted, addressing policy development and dissemination, educational initiatives, advocacy campaigns and the use of research to inform these strategies. Many sports organizations, including Gymnastics Canada, the national sport governing body for gymnastics, have established Safe Sport Committees to provide leadership for safeguarding initiatives. These initiatives range from encouraging clubs and organizations to appoint athlete advocates to adopting commercial educational programmes for their members. 

Are those measures enough to promote meaningful change?

One may argue that these interventions serve as band aid solutions that fail to address the underlying causes of athlete maltreatment. More specifically, until there is a shift in assumptions and beliefs about how to best develop athletes and their talents, athletes will remain at risk of harm and human rights violations. Too often, safeguarding and the pursuit of optimal athletic performance are viewed as mutually exclusive. Instead, progress will be seen only when athletes’ developmental needs and rights are prioritized and seen as integral to the pursuit of optimal performance. To achieve these objectives, there is a clear need for research-informed policy development, education, and advocacy for safe and healthy sport – areas in which researchers can make significant contributions.