“My sporting experience was a wonderful one – we must protect all athletes so that they are afforded the same opportunities”

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Blog by Rachael Sporn, Global Athlete Start-Up Group Member
1 August 2019

When I was nine, I started playing basketball – the sport that was to go on and give me the most privileged opportunities and experiences in life. What ensued was lifelong friendships, world travel, unforgettable life lessons and the Olympics – who knew! 

I grew up in a small country town of 300 people where sport was our entertainment and an integral part of our community togetherness. Basketball was introduced into my hometown of Murrayville in 1968, the year I was born. My mum played and loved this new amazing sport, so once I was old enough (there were no junior grades) I started playing in the ‘B’ grade. For the only time in my life, I was the shortest player in the team because all my team-mates were adults. By the age of 12 I had a major growth spurt and was promoted to the ‘A’ grade, playing alongside my Mum and winning 5 premierships together. That was quite a feeling!

Our coach was a gentle soul and his passion for the game and his ability to get the best out of his team was a testament to his coaching methods. I have often reflected how grateful I am that my first basketball coach was a respectful, honourable man and allowed the experience of my first foray into the sport of basketball to be so positive and fun. This meant that my love of the game just grew and grew, and at no point throughout my career did I come across a coach who made me feel uncomfortable or lead me to not wanting to play my beloved game of basketball. I consider myself to be extremely lucky that my rights to train and play in a safe environment were never compromised.

No matter what gender they are, all athletes at every level have the right to be protected from harassment and abuse and to play in a safe and positive environment. Sadly, there are heartbreaking stories all over the world of athletes who have been abused by the very person they should be able to trust the most.

Karen Leach was a promising young Irish swimmer at the age of 10 when her coach began abusing her. It lasted until she was 17. By then, her budding Olympic career was over.

Karen, who is now a Child Protection Advocate, has shared her pain. “He left me broken, shattered, destroyed, ashamed, dirty, embarrassed. We need policies, procedures, audits manuals, research, all of it. Please never give up working towards giving every child a safe place in sports,” she said.

When it comes to trying to build young children into sporting superstars, parents can sometimes be reluctant to question a coach’s behaviour. Children can’t be expected to protect themselves – they are only children. There needs to be an open, ongoing conversation between the child and parent about the young athlete’s relationship with their coach. It is imperative that you have an open discussion with your child about what is acceptable behaviour from their coach. While it may be uncomfortable for the child to hear about details of sexual assault, it may be the discussion that saves them from unthinkable suffering.

As a parent myself of two teenagers, the questions I ask of their sporting clubs include:

What is the screening process for coaches and staff?

What is the policy for reporting abuse?

Do they have a social media policy?

Who is enforcing the rules?

Do they have the “rule of two” – more than one adult present with a child at all times?

Have you asked these questions when you’ve registered your child at a sporting club?

My advice to everyone, to all parents with children playing sport, is to be proactive. Don’t ever think you are being overbearing or too protective when it comes to your child. You want their sporting experience to be wonderful, rewarding and uplifting, not one of hurt and suffering.

My own experience was uplifting, positive and wonderful and I want that to be the case for all other young sporting potentials.


BlogSam Doherty