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Nowhere to Run: Abused by Our Coach

After Charlie Webster and her friends were abused by their coach, they never spoke again. Years on, an email sets her on a journey back to her past to find them

About the programme

Charlie Webster is a broadcaster and journalist. She’s covered the world’s biggest sporting events. But there is one story she’s never been able to tell.

When she was 12, Charlie joined an all-girls running group. Running became her passion and escape, and the girls in her running group were her best friends. It was a dream. But all that time their sports coach was abusing her. She never spoke to any of her friends about what was happening to her.

When Charlie was 19 their coach was arrested and convicted. He was sent to prison for 10 years.

And it was only then that she realised she wasn’t the only one he’d abused No-one had ever spoken to Charlie about it – not the police, not the athletics club – no-one.

She left Sheffield and didn’t speak to any of her friends again. To this day she doesn’t know what they went through. She has no idea who spoke up, or who else was abused by their coach.

Now she wants to find out. She’s finally ready to talk to them – but she doesn’t know if they’ll talk to her.

For more information about this programme, you can visit the BBC programme page.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

BSc (Honours) Sport, Fitness and Coaching

Diploma of Higher Education in Sport and Fitness

Certificate of Higher Education in Sport, Fitness and Management

A picture of Charlie holding a photograph of herself from when she was in school.
Two teenagers playing football

How can everyone contribute to safer, child-centred sport experiences?

Spend a moment thinking about your car driving. Do you contribute to other road users’ welfare through your driving behaviour but also with your attitudes towards speeding, drink driving, regular MOTs, following road markings and showing your driving licence when requested?

Just as the behaviour of all drivers should contribute to the welfare of other road users so the behaviour of paid and unpaid coaches and participants should also be welfare conscious and people-centred. After all, beyond family and school, children probably spend more time mixing with adults and their peers in sport than virtually any other activity: it deserves everyone’s, full attention and, like the rules of the road, enforceable policies that oblige everyone to play their part. Most sport and physical activity happens without incident and, in general, volunteer and paid coaches are doing a good job. This article argues for improving the quality of what they do, which will improve participant experiences and safety.

What do we mean by everyone?

Everyone - parents, coaches and children – can help ensure the culture of sport and physical activity / play supports young peoples’ ability to thrive; that it’s enjoyable, voices are heard and children’s needs are met  – this is partly what is meant by being child-centred. If we place the child at the centre of designing environments where they can play and / or develop at their pace - and if we help them be part of decisions which affect them - they are more likely to have fun. If they are in the habit of their voice being heard they are also more likely to talk if they are worried about any harm (e.g. CPSU, 2017).

A collaborative effort is needed from the whole sector, to look at how it trains and guides those who volunteer or work in sport. This includes from the leadership of sports organisations through to those working on the front line and everybody in-between – policymakers, standard -bearers, retired athletes and managers.

Currently there is a risk when each sport looks after its own people and there is limited learning from major errors. Imagine what road safety would look like if it were governed by  multiple different car owners’ associations (i.e. Ford, Nissan, Renault etc.) or the airline industry did not reflect on serious failures or near misses by all airlines. The air industry is one of the best sectors that learns from all mistakes and failures to drive customer safety. We do not seem so alert to learning from mistakes or near misses in sport and physical activity. We need to join things together more. Plus, we need to make it easier to ask: is that person properly qualified?

Easy checks?

To loop back to driving, each of us carries a plastic license which shows that we have reached a safe level of competency: most importantly, it is very easy to check. Ideally, in the future a parent could easily check a coach’s credentials and recent training with a few digital clicks. Should all coaches carry a card just like when they drive?

A blend of measures

There is no single measure that will make sport safe and child-centred. James Reason, a psychology professor, likens human defences against risks to a series of slices of randomly holed Swiss Cheese arranged parallel to each other with gaps in-between each slice. When holes in all the slices momentarily align, a hazard can pass through holes in all of the defences, leading to failure in the system. A blend of measures is therefore needed in sport to help reduce risks. 

This short animation shows how the Swiss Cheese model is a useful way of thinking about complex risk management.

A photograph from ground level of two children holding hockey sticks, about to start a game

Many sports in the UK already have a blend of safeguarding measures like in the animation, yet problems still occur. Here are five other things the sport sector could do to help us all contribute and be willing to call out poor practice among those interacting with children and young people.    

  1. Clearly illustrate what best practice to parents and participants looks like in creating safe and child-centred sport experiences.
  2. Consistently model good coaching practice standards and apply them more rigorously across sports.
  3. Reduce risks of harm and abuse through a range of measures that encompass developing safer, enjoyable, inclusive, anti-bullying environments in which children’s views are valued.
  4. Provide an across-sport checking mechanism for key, live digital information about a coach’s fitness to practice that is easy to access. Easy checks by organisations, parents, and participants will help raise expectations and coaching standards.
  5. Lessons learnt from toxic sport system failures need to focus on sector-wide improvement rather than a sport by sport basis where an organisation often evaluates its own work.

To work towards this change in culture will need collaboration and will not happen overnight. It is up to all of us (participants, parents, coaches, facility venues and employers) to apply pressure to raise standards. This is already beginning to happen. A sector wide consultation has concluded that there is ‘a broad appetite … to make improvements and find better ways of preventing harm from occurring’ (CIMSPA, 2021).

A photograph of a group of women running on a  track towards the camera

Sporting aspiration: where power meets vulnerability

Around the world sport has so much power to engage young people. It is not just young peoples’ dream of becoming a player or athlete that makes them excitedly run towards their sport: sometimes opportunities can pull them and their family from poverty and transform lives. Yet evidence from  4,000 athletes shows ‘being an elite (young) athlete, investing an immense amount of time, money, energy in sport, (…) significantly increase the risk of harm and abuse.’ (Vertommen et. al., 2016). Why is this?

Children from deprived backgrounds especially in poorer countries who hope to create a sporting career can have the odds of success stacked against them. Also, the culture of some training centres, academies and clubs around the world can position coaches as powerful and all knowing. If an adult arrives promising a possible elite sport pathway, a child - a family - will often take it, not knowing what it might involve. This may include leaving home at a young age and spending hours supervised by coaches who may see it as their role to stretch and ‘push’ athletes in their training. A young person will often comply with the wishes of an adults through fear and pursuing their dream.

A photograph showing the length of an indoor swimming pool

Many centres or clubs have accommodation where their talented young athletes live, and some pursue opportunities away from home at a young age (12-17 years). Sometimes care from guardians and standards of welfare is impressive but at the other end of the scale, often in poorer countries, sometimes it is missing with harsh discipline, crowded dormitories and basic conditions.

This situation makes young athletes vulnerable and there is often little protection from emotional, physical, or sexual harm, particularly if separated from their families who would normally provide support. Many would never dare to speak out due to fear of losing their opportunity and the sacrifice parents may have made to help them. Communities’ obsession with representative sport can add to the dangerous mix of aspiration, intense training, a coaches power and coercion.

We need to care more and globally change elite sporting culture to be more child-centred, placing development ahead of results. In particular, we should be vigilant and protect when adult power meets vulnerability.

Meet the OU expert

Prof Ben Oakley, Prof. in Sports Performance Education, OU
Professor Ben OakleyProfessor in Sports Performance EducationVIEW FULL PROFILE
Prof Ben Oakley, Prof. in Sports Performance Education, OU
Professor Ben OakleyProfessor in Sports Performance Education

My expertise is in explaining complex sport-related topics to public audiences through online learning, video and audio. My original background was in sports coaching at two Olympic Games in the sport of sailing. At the OU, I have designed learning on coaching, psychology, communication and working relationships in sport. Most recently, I am leading the FIFA Safeguarding in Sport Diploma programme. I knew relatively little about safeguarding in sport at the outset but have become more knowledgeable as we develop this global online programme with the help of FIFA and UNICEF colleagues. The first free course is available here  (click on the Open Learners pathway).

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