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Young Skaters at Risk: Understanding Sexual Misconduct in Sports

Growing Up Exploited

"Most of the coaches spent a lot more time with the kids then the parents did. In my own situation, I often stayed over at my coach's house, babysat for her, ate dinner with her, went to out-of-state competitions only with her, etc... We (me and the skaters I used to train with) also trusted our coaches immensely. A lot more than our parents, in general. We would go to them with our problems and ask for advice, in most situations. So they had a huge influence on our life."

-- A former competitive skater

To be a coach in today's high-pressure sports world means much more than the teaching of proper technique. With very little formal training or certification requirements, coaches in many U.S. sports often take on tremendous unspoken responsibilities when they agree to guide a child toward high Olympic goals. When families are burdened by the high cost of training expenses and even may temporarily split up in order to have access to the best facilities in the country, it seems that any good coach has to be "almost like family" in order for a young athlete to meet the challenges of a life in competitive sports. Few parents or athletes would disagree. Yet this reality only makes the proper boundaries between a coach and a student more important to define and maintain as a young athlete grows into adulthood.

Any good coach helps an athlete overcome his or her fears. But in figure skating, this often involves much more than just overcoming the fear of doing a difficult jump. Since figure skaters are expected to be outgoing performers -- mature beyond their years -- an athlete may look to a coach for guidance on overcoming inhibitions, or looking and acting more "adult." An unethical coach could take advantage of these needs of young skaters and use them to push a relationship across boundaries where it should never go. As Mariah Burton Nelson, a noted speaker on abuse in sports, observes, "[A coach] says, 'It's OK to do a flip off the high dive,' and then he says 'It's OK to have sex with me.'" (1) A young student may feel flattered by such attention, feeling the coach sees them as a fellow adult or an equal, and may not object when a coach warns him or her that their time together must be kept secret from parents and friends. Nelson notes that young women may be particularly vulnerable to flattery by their male coaches. "Sometimes [the coach] is the only man in their lives supporting their athletic passion," she says. "Men take advantage of the crush and create a secret liaison, and explain to the girl that this is love. They tell her no one else would understand." (2)

Normal aspects of growing up can be exploited by a coach who is accustomed to using his young students for his own emotional or sexual needs. A young skater may develop a crush on his or her coach. An ethical coach would not take advantage of such feelings, and would not invite a skater to engage in sexual behavior (kissing, touching, or intercourse). An ethical coach would understand that such feelings are better directed toward people the skater's own age, and the coach would either talk to a student frankly about this -- or more likely, would just encourage the student to go out on dates with friends their own age. An abusive or harassing coach, on the other hand, may be more likely to prevent students from pursuing these normal activities, whether through subtle pressure in the guise of seemingly plausible advice ("boyfriends will ruin your focus"), or through outright intimidation.

Romantic feelings are not the only ones that unethical coaches take advantage of. Whether a skater is male or female, they may feel like their coach is a good friend - especially since they spend a lot of time together training or traveling, and because the skater may not spend much time with people his or her own age at school or on off-ice activities. When with their good friends, teens of both sexes normally feel free to engage in physical horseplay, drinking alcohol, or some limited sexual experimentation (even with others of the same gender, which can be a normal part of growing up in the lives of both gay and straight teens).

When an unethical coach crosses the line from being a coach into being a skater's "good friend," such activities can be pushed too far. In convincing a student that he or she is "just one of the boys" or "just one of the girls," a coach may use this familiarity to pressure his or her student into sexual activity that the student would never have sought on his or her own with a peer. It can be difficult for the athlete to realize that a relationship with a coach is sliding into something beyond his or her control. He or she may become unable to separate the roles that an unethical coach begins to assume in his or her life -- are they coach, mentor, paternal figure, best friend, or object of a "crush"?

Olympic swimmer Mary T. Meagher once found herself in a situation with a coach that threatened to become unhealthy: "There was kidding around, there was flirting, but then I could see how I might get trapped in a bad situation. Anyone who has had a dynamic coach who makes you feel like every lap you swim is the greatest knows the feeling, like sort of a crush. I lived and died for my coaches." (3)

Such psychological holds over athletes are a common feature of exploitative sexual relationships between them and their coaches. A friend of an abused volleyball player said of the young woman's relationship with her coach, "She became like this machine. She wasn't fun any more. [He] controlled every thought and emotion she had." (4) Although types of psychological manipulation may be more or less extreme, one aspect they all have in common is that the unethical coach begins to assume more and more control over an athlete's decisions -- diet, career goals, financial affairs, even their education and social life.

Again, figure skaters seem at especial risk for such manipulation. A dedicated competitive figure skater typically has many important decisions to make each season -- not just about diet, career and technical goals, but about suitable music, costumes, choreography, and overall "image," all of which are vitally important matters of strategy in high-level competition, not just matters of personal preference. A young skater's life is filled with dozens of decisions not faced by the typical athlete. Such pressures to choose can overwhelm young athletes and their parents, who typically rely on the guidance of a coach (and choreographer) to help them make these important decisions. An unethical coach can also take advantage of this need, convincing a skater that he or she cannot handle these decisions on his or her own. This can feed a psychological over-reliance on an abusive coach that can be hard for an athlete to break, particularly if they are successful in competition. When an athlete is in this situation, there is little they feel they can (or perhaps should) do if an unethical coach expects sexual attentions in return for teaching them a needed skill, spending adequate time with them during a lesson period, or allowing them to compete in an important event.

Unethical coaches can abuse their influence over athletes in more overt ways, through misuse of drugs or alcohol or the threat of physical violence. Recently, a former Olympic gymnast said that her coach had coerced her into a sexual relationship at age 17, with the help of alcohol to entice her into bed and physical abuse to keep her line. "He was afraid [of the relationship becoming known] and used to beat me up," she said. "I would come back home covered with bruises and lie that I had suffered a fall...I was still a child, with no experience of life and completely dependent on my trainer." (5)

Those who oversee the welfare of young figure skaters (parents, coaches and officials) need to become more conscious of the ways in which these athletes are expected to "grow up fast." A young skater knows that pretending to be mature is all part of the game. This expectation is steadily reinforced by the adults around them -- judges, coaches, and even parents, who can sometimes be so dazzled by their child's precocious "maturity" that they may begin to forget that their son or daughter is just a normal child or teen, with the usual insecurities and vulnerabilities of growing up. But a young skater who has been molested or sexually exploited by a powerful adult in their lives is "growing up" far too early.

Next: The Silent Minority

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(1) Quoted in the Phoenix Gazette, 4/18/94
(2) Quoted in the Palm Beach Post, 6/21/98
(3) Quoted in the Arizona Republic, 1/15/94
(4) "She Says She's Haunted By Coach's Misconduct,"Los Angeles Times, 10/19/95
(5) Quoted in the Ottawa Citizen, 6/24/99