Is sports always a safe place for young people?

The sporting environment can be a place of growth and development, supporting young people in a difficult life phase and in the delicate transition from childhood to adult life. Physical activity is associated with numerous physical benefits such as muscle and bone strengthening, but also psychological benefits, such as the development of social and emotional skills, self–esteem, self–efficacy, problem-solving, and communication, powered by the continuous interaction with peers. However, sport is not always a safe place for young people, as the same types of violence that are perpetrated in families and communities can also happen in the sporting context.

What is child maltreatment?

The WHO (World Health Organization) defines maltreatment as “the abuse and neglect that affect children under 18; this includes any kind any physical and/or emotional maltreatment, sexual abuse, neglect, and exploitation for commercial or other purposes that results in actual or potential damage to the health, survival, development, or dignity of the child in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power.” Child abuse can occur regardless the factors such as age, gender, or the ability of the child, and can involve adult or peer abuse, with bullying and malpractice episodes.

What are the possible types of violence in sports?

International Olympic Committee consensus statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport (2016) identifies multiple forms of child abuse, including:

  • Humiliation and psychological evaluation that may relate to sporting performance, but also to gender or physical characteristics (e.g., body shape)

  • Nutritional and weight loss programs are harmful to both physical and psychological health, with the possible onset of eating disorders
  • Excessive pressure on young athletes and harmful demands to play under injury or other health risks, (such as lack of appropriate post-practice recovery) to achieve high performance

  • Psychological pressure from parents: extreme competitiveness that manifests itself in abusive behavior, violence or emotional distance, and indifference towards the child’s needs

  • Use of psychoactive substances to improve performance (doping)

  • Injuries caused by excessive efforts and dangerous situations in unsafe environments, as well as injuries caused by the use of exercise and other forms of violence as punishment, are believed to be an “incentive” to improve performance

  • Hazing in sports: initiation rites that are harmful to physical health, as well as sexually derogatory rituals (e.g., denuding young athletes)

  • Sexual abuse as a prerequisite to being selected to the team or in order to receive special privileges.

What are the consequences of abuse on the young athlete’s physical and psychological health?

The kinds of violence and physical and emotional abuse perpetrated in the sports environment can have serious consequences. About the body, e.g.:

  • Injuries and lacerations and bleeding

  • Inadequate nutrition and drastic weight loss
  • Onset of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)

  • Worsen sports performance itself.

On the other hand, about the effects on minors’ psyches, possible consequences can be:

  • Onset of eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia)
  • Low self–esteem, difficult to espresses own emotional states and social skills

  • Onset of anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Feelings of inadequacy and guilt; onset of depressive symptoms

  • Self–injurious behaviors (e.g., scratching, cutting, burning)

  • Suicidal ideation, suicide planning, and attempts.

Bullying and sports

Bullying is a widespread and often underestimated phenomenon. The term refers to repetitive and intentional aggressive behavior toward a peer, carried out by a single bully or a group of peers. The victim suffers psychological and often physical violence, with serious risks to their wellbeing, psychological suffering, and social exclusion. Bullying is very common in schools, but also on the web, where it takes on the character of cyberbullying when aggressive behavior is carried out through technological tools. Even in a sporting environment, bullying and unfair practices can occur, with physical and psychological humiliation, insults, and assaults, which can be carried out by teammates in the locker room or through the diffusion of videos or other materials online.

Can Italy be considered a country where youths play sports?

ISTAT President Giorgio Alleva in 2017 illustrated the results of the “I cittadini e il Tempo libero” a survey conducted in 2015, highlighting that:

  • One-third of the Italian population (over 20 million) practice sports in their free time

  • Children under 14 years old represent one-fifth of Italian athletes

  • 6 boys out of 10 and 1 girl out of 2 practice sports continuously

  • Compared to the past, the average age at which people start practicing sports has decreased

  • Compared to the earlier generation, the younger generation shows higher levels of activity

  • approximately 89% of children ages 3 – 14 are supervised by an instructor or coach.

In addition, according to CONI estimates, in 2017 there are about 2,666,000 athletes under 18 (about 57% of members) in Italy: of these, 33% have between 8 and 13 years, while 8% have less than 7.

Sports maltreatment in Italy: a hidden phenomenon

In Italy, the child maltreatment phenomenon in sports is still hidden by a low presence of protection services. The survey by the CESVI Onlus Foundation (Regional Index on Child Maltreatment 2018 and 2019) shows that Abruzzo ranks 15th among regions for the presence of risk factors and services for potential abusers. These data concern the phenomenon of violence against minors in general because in Italy there are no estimates regarding maltreatment and violence against minors in sports environments. These data are also insufficient at the global level, as highlighted by the Unicef (2010) report “Protecting children from violence in sport”. In our country, several critical issues have emerged regarding actions to contrast and prevent violence against minors in sports. There is a lack of an evidence–based policy document and a code of ethics and conduct shared at the national level that also contains useful indications regarding prevention strategies, risk reduction and long–term resolution of the phenomenon. In addition, although Italy has an adequate legislative plan to protect children, there is a lack of training, information, and awareness initiatives on child abuse in sporting settings. In conclusion, in Italy and particularly in Abruzzo, there is a strong need to develop appropriate policies aimed at preventing and fighting this serious social problem.

Some questions to understand if your son or daughter is in a safe sports environment

  • Does the coach require athletes to use correct, never vulgar, or offensive language?

  • If violence (even if only verbal) occurs on the field, does the coach intervene and discuss it with the team?

  • Does the coach take time during practice to talk with athletes about violent attitudes, behaviors, and language?

  • Do the coach and club leadership discourage and disapprove of negative attitudes and behaviors of athletes and parents toward referees?

  • Does the sports club act when the behavior of athletes or parents is ethically wrong (e.g., violent attitudes or actions, violent language…)?