In 1975, I accepted my first coaching job as an assistant basketball coach at Norwich University in Northfield, VT. There was no formal orientation or training program. I just took my orders from Head Coach, Ed Hockenbury. When I moved on to become a high school coach, it was the same: no orientation and no special training.
Things have thankfully come a long way since those days. Colleges and universities, public and private high schools, parks and rec departments, YMCAs and youth-serving entities now require everything from background checks to coaching certifications to safety training.
More recently, organizations, including USA Swimming, provide personal responsibility training that covers topics such as coach/athlete relationships, sexual harassment and abuse, and appropriate behavioral boundaries between adults and minors.
These are necessary steps to protect our children from the dangers of abuse and sexual assault. One victim is one too many. Youth-serving organizations are embracing ever-widening roles and accepting social responsibilities far beyond what might have been imagined 10 years ago.
April is “National Child Abuse Prevention Month” and “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” The Centers for Disease Control, the government agency that tracks these things, states that by the age of 18 one in four girls and one in six boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse. These are frightening numbers, and we should all feel an obligation to help eradicate this blight from our society.
USA Swimming can now point to its Safe Sport program as a leader in the much larger national efforts to raise awareness to reduce the risks of both abuse and sexual assault. As part of our tireless efforts to reduce the risk for abuse and create a safe environment in swimming, we’ve learned a great deal.
Even on a personal level, I now talk about abuse-related news stories with my two college-age daughters. As a result, I now believe they are much more aware and thus safer from potentially dangerous situations.
Educational efforts that help both young people and adults to recognize inappropriate behaviors are critically important. It is also essential that people feel empowered to speak up and report questionable behavior when they see it.
Recently, I received a letter from a mother who shared with me her appreciation for USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program. Her daughter was receiving inappropriate text messages from her coach, and this led to an intervention that stopped the situation before it escalated to something far worse. Safe Sport is working because our members have embraced it, and we need to keep raising awareness to reduce the risks.
Our first priority is to protect our members. This is a partnership between our national office, clubs, coaches, parents and the athletes themselves.
By requiring our coaches, officials, volunteers and staff to complete educational programs, we are broadening the base of people who hold responsibility and can now have a positive impact in creating safer environments for children.
USA Swimming continues to expand its Safe Sport resources. The next evolution is through “SwimStaffSelect,” an online human resources management tool designed to help member clubs customize job descriptions, applications and interview questions. Available on the USA Swimming website, it will help a club manage applicant information and store important hiring and HR information.
In addition to our education and training materials, “SwimStaffSelect” will become a valuable tool in a robust new Resource Library to help member clubs become more effective in creating a safer environment.
When I look back and consider all the things that we have done at USA Swimming to construct our Safe Sport program, I am so thankful that our volunteer leaders and our members have recognized the importance and embraced the efforts. The leadership may be national, but the action-steps must be local.
Just out of curiosity, I punched up the website for Norwich University and looked at the Athletic Department Staff Handbook. Needless to say, things have come a very long way over the years, and this is a good thing for everyone involved.