We’re not talking about grooming a horse here. Or priming a young person to take over the family business.
We’re talking about the other kind of grooming.
The predatory tactic abusers use to gradually draw minor athletes into, and maintain secrecy within, a sexual relationship. As our collective understanding of trauma and sexual abuse in sport has grown, so has awareness of the inestimable and adverse ripple effects that grooming and abuse can have on the lives of young athletes.
But those ripple effects don’t end with the survivor alone. Sexual abuse takes a toll on the entire family and their friends as well—of both the victim and the abuser.
Now, as a parent, you might think, “I would know if something was happening with my child.” But such notions are exactly the kind of pretense that abusers expect—and seek to manipulate to their advantage. According to a special report published by Sports Illustrated, “The average ‘preferential’ molester, the kind most common in youth sports, victimizes about 120 children before he is caught.”
Grooming sets the stage for abuse. It is a gradual and insidious process that can last months or even years—and, in most cases, abusers target parents and caregivers as intentionally as they do their young victims. This is because abusers know that to gain access to and time alone with a child, they have to have the trust of the adults in the child’s life.
“There’s this idea that abuse happens to kids whose parents ‘abandon them’ at the barn or the gym or the field. But the fact is, it can happen to anyone. Even to kids whose parents are very involved. And the abuser is typically someone trusted by the family,” said Carrie Kehring, founder of #WeRideTogether, a charity dedicated to preventing sexual misconduct in sport through education and awareness resources, and mother of a sexual abuse survivor.
“You never think it’s going to happen to your family. Until it does.”
Your best defense? Shifting the notion of the ‘perfect victim’ and also the’ perfect victim’s family.’ As athletes, and as the parents of athletes, it’s essential to familiarize ourselves with the six stages of grooming (read on!) in order to recognize the elaborate lengths abusers will go to gain trust and maintain control.
1. Targeting the Athlete
Abusers will use their position of power to exploit an athlete’s desire to excel in their sport. This can happen to any athlete, anywhere, in any sport. What’s more: targeting an athlete doesn’t begin in the shadows, out of view of other teammates, parents, or coaches. Abuse can take place in broad daylight and in the places where athletes prepare, practice, and play every day.
2. Gaining Trust
By providing calculated attention and support, abusers can lower suspicion and gain undue confidence from athletes and their caregivers—including even the most involved parents.
In most cases, athletes and those closest to them are unaware that the relationship has become unhealthy until it’s too late. It’s also common for an athlete’s family to be targeted and groomed by an abuser at the same time, taught to defer to a coach or authority figure’s expertise to better support the time, money, and resources the family has invested in a talented child.
3. Fulfilling their needs
By giving small gifts, money, or attention, abusers endear themselves to an athlete while creating emotional dependency. In this way, abusers can build an athlete’s trust while simultaneously breaking down interpersonal barriers. It’s a process that can take weeks, months, or even years.
4. Isolating the athlete
Abusers want privacy and look for opportunities to be alone with an athlete. They may offer a ride home, private meetings, or extra one-on-one coaching. In addition to gifts, abusers may send private messages to the athlete asking them “not to tell anyone” so that other members of the team, etc. “don’t get jealous.” Their ultimate goal: to isolate the athlete.
5. Sexualizing the relationship
Once dependence and trust have been built, abusers will introduce inappropriate behavior, gradually pushing and blurring boundaries until they no longer exist—a process which is often complicated by the physical nature of sports.
For example, it is not unusual in sports for a coach to touch an athlete to make a physical correction in their stance or technique. In the case of an abusive relationship, this physical contact is often used as a cover for an abuser’s actions. Inappropriate behavior may also include sexualized language, emotional manipulation, or harassment.
6. Maintaining control
Once abuse starts, abusers will use secrecy, threats, and manipulation to maintain the athlete’s compliance and silence. Intentionally cutting an athlete off from their parents or support networks, abusers may use previous sexual incidents as a means to entrap their victims, or create a sense of obligation from gifts or opportunities. In some cases, this may escalate to outright threats, all in an effort to preserve secrecy of the abuser’s control.
Learning the stages of grooming is the first step in preventing an unhealthy relationship. The second step is speaking with your kids about this process.
It’s never too early to teach kids about their bodies and boundaries. Make sure they know they can come to you if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, no matter who that person may be.
It’s equally important to have these conversations with your child’s coaches and to understand what measures they have in place to maintain healthy and transparent training environments. One way to start that conversation is with the Coach Athlete Pledge, a summary of ten best practices to help ensure future generations of athletes have safe and positive experiences.
No parent signs their child up to be abused by a coach. With proactive prevention, we can work to prevent it from happening to the athletes in your life, together.
To learn more about grooming, watch the latest PSA from #WeRideTogether, “Preventing Misconduct in Sport: The Window Rule.” Visit weridetogether.today for more information on prevention best practices.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or misconduct, help is available 24/7. For information on confidential helplines, sexual assault reporting procedures, and mental health resources, click here.