Why treat sports coaches as potential paedophiles?

Professor Heather Piper tells spiked that ‘no touch’ guidelines in sport are helping to poison adult-child relations.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

‘During a swimming lesson with Down’s syndrome children, a disability officer told us that one of the children came towards her for a hug. She described how the child was walking towards her enthusiastically, while she had to back away with her arms behind her back because she doesn’t feel able to touch the kids. There are hundreds of these sorts of things.’

Professor Heather Piper should know about ‘these sorts of things’. With her fellow Manchester Metropolitan University researcher, Bill Taylor, and Professor Dean Garratt of the University of Chester, she has just completed an ESRC-supported research project into the effect of so-called ‘no touch’ guidelines on British children’s sports coaching. Some of the stories would be bizarre if they weren’t so depressing. ‘We’ve examples of adults conducting canoeing lessons’, she tells me, ‘saying they won’t pull a child out of the water because they don’t want to touch them, preferring instead to use the plastic handles on their safety vests’.

How, you might wonder, has it come to this? How have we got to a situation where a football coach won’t even shake the hands of his young charges before a football match because of how the act might be interpreted? The answer is tied up with the extreme anxiety of sporting organisations and national governing-bodies over possibly being perceived as facilitating abuse and any ensuing bad publicity. With support from Sport England, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) established its Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) a decade ago. ‘[No touch in sports coaching] seems to have begun around that time’, says Piper. ‘While the CPSU might not carry out training and issue directives itself, it has certainly issued guidelines on good practice which have shaped the coaching discourse in the sporting world. Of course, children must be protected but there are unintended and negative consequences of particular approaches.’

Indeed, the CPSU has even published specific information documents for sports clubs on the rights and wrongs of physical contact. It does admit that ‘it is sometimes appropriate and necessary to have direct physical contact with children in order to develop their skills in a safe environment’. But it is the caveats that stigmatise what ought to be an unremarkable aspect of sports coaching. The CPSU notes: ‘Adults should be aware of the limits within which such contact should properly take place, and of the possibility of such contact being misinterpreted.’ Furthermore: ‘It should be recognised that physical contact between an adult and a child that may occur during legitimate teaching or coaching may be misconstrued or misunderstood by a pupil, parent or observer.’ That is, regardless of whether you as a sports coach have followed the CPSU’s stipulations, and asked the child for consent to touch them and so on, even then physical contact could be viewed as suspicious. Is it any wonder that many adults involved with sports-coaching provision in the UK prefer to adopt a ‘better no touch than sorry’ approach to physical contact?

In fact, as Piper suggests, the situation might be worse than that. She says many adults are simply deciding that helping out at a local athletics club, for example, is not worth the hassle. ‘During interviews, coaches would say that they know people who didn’t want to coach anymore because there is just too much red tape and it’s not what they came into sport for. What you have to bear in mind is that 70 per cent of coaches are volunteers. So most of them are just turning up to run a kids’ football match on a Saturday or something.’ It is not just ‘no touch’ that is inhibiting volunteers: ‘It’s the risk of allegations, it’s the multiple CRB [Criminal Records Bureau] checks… it’s the whole package that is putting some people off.’

What ‘this whole package’ does, it seems, is help to stigmatise any adult who expresses a desire to get involved with coaching children’s sport. Little wonder that Piper and her team felt moved to launch the Inspired2Greatness campaign, a valiant attempt to recognise ‘the positive contributions and motivations of sports coaches up and down the country’. It is a sad fact that what used to be an innocent, indeed a fun interaction between children and grown-ups – be it on the football field, the athletics track or in the swimming pool – has been sullied over recent years. Thanks to the broader, state-backed moral panic over child abuse (to which the NSPCC clearly contributes), adult-child relations have never been more awkward or riddled with innuendo and suspicion.

As Piper explains to me, ‘if you’re an older guy, and you’ve always gone swimming and you decide you want to coach, you would be viewed very suspiciously by everybody: “What could his motives possibly be?”‘ Piper adds: ‘There’s definitely a gender bias, although that’s not to say women aren’t doing equally bizarre things, saying they wouldn’t touch children in certain situations. But there is a greater fear and suspicion around men, because men are viewed as the likely paedophiles.’

I ask Piper if the prevalence of ‘no touch’ policies among those coaching kids has actually done anything to protect children from abuse. ‘We have absolutely no way of knowing whether children are more protected or not; there are no figures that are meaningful. However, it seems very unlikely that children are being protected to a greater extent than previously. And I would argue that there is sufficient evidence that they’re not, because once you argue that everyone is a potential abuser, then the real abusers become increasingly invisible – everyone is being viewed in the same light.’

Furthermore, the formalisation of adult-child relations, and the abstraction and transformation of an unremarkable part of everyday interaction – physical contact – into a sign of potential wrongdoing, has affected our own capacity, as members of society, to make everyday judgements as to what is and what is not suspicious. As Piper explains: ‘The ability of both children and adults to read other people’s intentions is being eroded by these measures. This is another reason why it seems very unlikely that children are being protected, long term, by current safeguarding practice.’

Piper ends our interview by urging officialdom to look carefully at child protection in the UK. ‘There are many people who are involved in the child-protection industry who are claiming that “we’re the best in the world” and that other countries are coming to us because our child-protection models are so marvellous. I would suggest that they are not so marvellous. We are now living our lives, in effect, as if everyone you meet is a potential paedophile. And to my mind, that is no way for people to view each other.’

Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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