Issues surrounding physical contact in sport can be controversial and complex. Some sports require physical contact between adults and children for skill development; others do not.

If physical contact is to occur, it should always be within clear guidelines to reduce the risk of inappropriate touching and to ensure people working with children e.g., coaches, officials etc. are not placed in situations where they could be accused of abuse.

Physical contact is appropriate if it: 

  • is used to assist in skill development
  • is required for the child’s safety
  • occurs with the player’s understanding and permission
  • is for the child’s benefit, not adult gratification
  • occurs in an open environment.

Physical contact is inappropriate if it:

  • includes touching the groin, genital area, buttocks, breasts or any part of the body that may cause distress or embarrassment
  • frightens, distresses or embarrasses a child
  • destroys their trust
  • occurs in a private place.

Laws exist throughout Australia to protect children and young people from abuse. Measures that are genuinely necessary to protect the health and safety of children and young people are permitted. In deciding whether contact is appropriate ask: “Is it serving the needs of the player/participant or the adult?”

See the video below about the inappropriate demonstration of a skill

 

Touching in sport. It’s a tough topic – emotionally charged and influenced by cultural, social and legal issues and nuances. When is it okay to touch? How do we decide? How do write policies to govern touching in our sporting clubs?

Child sex abuse seems to be a regular item on news bulletins these days and, with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse well under way, it’s time sporting clubs took a good hard look at their own practices and policies surrounding touching, particularly as it relates to junior participants.

Any coach will tell you touch is an important part of teaching a person new skills and techniques. Indeed, some sports actually include touching as part of the game (touch football for example) and there are many other sports that have been modified to encourage juniors to touch in preference to full body contact or tackling.

However clubs, just like any other type of institution, have a clear duty of care to protect those involved from all types of abuse, including sexual abuse and inappropriate touching. So, where is the middle ground? How do we protect athletes (and everyone else involved in club sport) while also ensuring coaches in particular are able to perform their job without regulations and rules holding them back?

Consider your sport

Every sport is different to the next. Touching may be a codified part of the game or it may just be incidental to the way it is played. The development of new skills may require coaches to touch athletes. Other skills may be best taught with a hands-off approach.

What are the unique characteristics of your sport? What is “acceptable touching” for your sport? Talk to coaches about when and why they need to touch athletes. How do they do it?

What about the participants?

No-one knows better than the athletes what makes them feel uncomfortable. Talk to them about what they think is acceptable touching in the context of sport. What is okay? What touching behaviours are acceptable?

Remember that each person will be different from the next. This is particularly relevant if your club or your sport attracts people from varying cultural backgrounds. Culture can play a huge role in determining whether touching is acceptable or not. Be aware of cultural differences and do your research. How will your club cater for someone whose views on touching are very different to those around them?

Even once you have good policy in place and all your coaches are familiar with the new guidelines, it’s always good policy to ask someone before you touch them. “Is it okay if I put my hand on your back to demonstrate the correct position?” “Do you mind if I place my hand there to support your knee?” Think of it as a common courtesy.

Other reasons to touch

Of course, it’s not just about skill development. The coach-athlete relationship can be a very strong one. A coach is often first on the scene when an injury occurs. Athletes often turn to their coaches in moments of jubilation, when they’re upset or disappointed or when they just need comfort.

Touching in these situations should not be discouraged. After all, it’s a perfectly natural and human response. However, it is possible to anticipate these situations and give coaches a set of guidelines outlining acceptable types of touching, for example:

  • Non-intrusive comforting gestures such as a hand on the upper arm or upper back.
  • Non-intrusive congratulative gestures like shaking hands or patting on the upper arm or back.

Develop sound policy

All clubs should have a Code of Behaviour that sets out how the club expects members, players, officials and administrators to behave, both on and off the area of play.  Although this can include guidelines about appropriate touching, we recommend developing a separate policy document dealing with this specific issue.

It’s important to establish boundaries that will clarify the coach’s role, make the coach-athlete relationship predictable and create a safe learning environment. You can begin by focussing on three key areas: physical boundaries, social boundaries and sexual boundaries.  Some examples include:

The coach may touch an athlete on the shoulder, arm or hand to demonstrate how to make contact with the ball (physical).

  • the coach is not allowed in the locker room when athletes are changing or showering (physical).
  • the coach will not attend parties with athletes outside of sport-related situations (social).
  • the coach will not date his/her athletes (social).
  • the coach will not be alone with an athlete (sexual).
  • the coach will not share a room with any athletes for away trips (sexual).

Dealing with touching specifically and setting out more detailed guidelines is a good idea. Be careful though not to over-regulate as this may cause coaches to adopt the “safer” option of avoiding touching altogether, undoubtedly detrimental to any athlete-coach relationship.

Follow the rules

Fundamental to every child-safe environment is the recruitment of staff and volunteers who do not pose a risk to children. Each state and territory requires anyone working with children to undergo a process that can involve criminal history and referee checks, among other things. Screening requirements vary across Australia so make sure you know and understand the relevant process.