Safeguarding is everyone’s business. Yet I often find we don’t think about it until something bad happens. What is safeguarding in cheerleading?

TRIGGER WARNING: 

This article is going to cover safeguarding and related topics. We’re also going to briefly mention the Whyte Review, the review after the investigation of malpractice within British Gymnastics; and this may trigger or upset those involved in the review or who were aware of the wrongdoings.

If this topic upsets you, you might want to skip this article as your wellbeing is the priority.

If you do decide to read on, there will be some organisations listed throughout who may be able to offer you some support.

In this article we’re going to be discussing what you can do if you are experiencing a safeguarding concern or potential wrongdoing.

To be clear, this is not going to be professional advice for anyone working within a safeguarding role – although I will provide some information on where you can learn more.

Overall, cheerleading is a super positive community. We spend so much time in the gym with our friends, and time away at competitions – our teammates and coaches become our family. We share the best of times and the worst of times with them. I share each month just how much of a positive impact cheerleading has on our lives. But like anything, the sun doesn’t shine forever and there can be some rainy days. Whether that’s an injury, a fall out with a teammate, or something further like bullying, or issues with a coach. Those issues may fall under the umbrella of safeguarding.

Safeguarding is everyone’s business. Yet I often find we don’t think about it until something bad happens. Safeguarding is the action taken to ensure and promote the safety and welfare of children, young people and service users to protect them from harm. That can be health and safety & risk assessment related in terms of things like making sure the floor is level to prevent injury; it could be child protection in terms of things like child abuse and bullying; or maybe everyone’s favourite topic of GDPR and ensuring confidential information stays confidential, and numerous other things.

We’re all human, and sometimes we make mistakes. But that’s why it’s so important that our people in positions of trust are aware of safeguarding protocols and for us stand up for what is right.

One of my earliest articles was on safeguarding, and I felt it timely to write one again following the release of the Whyte Review.

The Whyte Review is an exploration of the alleged wrongdoings and malpractice within British Gymnastics.

We’re a different sport, but we have many overlaps, including our athletes and coaches. As a member of staff who was involved in a very small part of the Whyte Review, it was heartbreaking to hear that so many athletes, who poured their heart into the sport they loved, had their childhood and their dreams ripped away by those who should have been there to support them.

In many cases, these coaches abused their positions of trust, ignored professional and safeguarding legislation with their eye simply on performance and results.

These accounts I was told were all too familiar to my own experiences in the sport, and that’s exactly the reason I transferred to cheerleading as the grass was very much greener on the other side.

It would be ignorant of me to pretend we don’t have those same issues in cheerleading. Unfortunately these bad eggs can crop up. I’ve met a few of them, I’m sure you have too. But we need to make sure that these bad eggs understand that any poor practise or behaviours have no place in cheerleading, and no place in society.

Every programme should have a Designated Safeguarding Lead. Sometimes they’re not called a “Safeguarding Lead”, sometimes it’s a Welfare Officer, Safeguarding Coordinator, Child Protection Officer or a mixture of those terms. Sometimes it’s the head coach/director who acts as a safeguarding lead, and they have that additional role. As well as the role, just as you often sign an athlete code of conduct, your programme should also have a safeguarding policy. Again, this is something people don’t often take notice of until something happens. This safeguarding policy ensures all athletes, coaches and volunteers are protected from harm. It should also have information on what to do if a safeguarding issue arises. Now, every safeguarding policy is likely to be similar, but not identical. So I can’t say for sure what yours looks like, what it includes, and what your safeguarding procedure is.

[That’s why, if you’re a coach/volunteer/member of staff who has a safeguarding or child protection concern about someone at your gym, I won’t tell you what you should do in this article. That depends on the situation entirely. You should, however, immediately inform your safeguarding lead and take the appropriate action. If you’re unsure of the appropriate action, first look at your safeguarding policy, if that doesn’t help, contact the NSPCC Helpline who can talk you through the issues. After the situation is dealt with, get onto the NSPCC Learning website or NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit website to undertake further safeguarding training so that next time, you feel more prepared and empowered to take the appropriate steps.]

From here I’m instead going to take the point of view of an athlete who feels that things aren’t right.

There are MULTIPLE laws and legislations in place to protect the safety and welfare of children and young people. Most of the safeguarding policy will be in relation to children and young people. There’s a reasonable explanation for that, they’re children and it’s their parent/carer/coach’s job to ensure they are safe.

Children & Young People:

If you’re a child/young person and feel like something is off or you’re being treated differently, tell a trusted adult, tell your coach, or if your coach is the issue, tell the person that’s higher up than them – i.e., the safeguarding/welfare officer/head coach/director. They should listen to your concerns in a non-judgemental way and see if there’s anyway in which they can help. It’s completely normal to be nervous to have those conversations. You might worry about what that person will say or do in response to what you have said. But remember, it’s their job to make sure you’re safe. You might not know what will happen if you speak out, but if you don’t, things will likely continue the way they are. To help you, Childline are a really useful resource for anyone 18 and below. They can give you confidential, free advice on the phone or their web chat. Their phone number doesn’t even show up on your phone bill. Google “Childline” or call 0800 11 11.

Adults:

When it comes to adults, that’s where things can get a bit messy, simply because we have adults who are on the same team as children. Those adults on the team aren’t in positions of trust, so they don’t have that professional responsibility to act in the best interest of the children on the team. HOWEVER, fear not, just because that adult on the team doesn’t have a position of trust, they still have their athlete’s code of conduct to adhere to. If they’re behaviours aren’t in line with the code of conduct, it needs reporting to your safeguarding lead. Again, the safeguarding policy should cover this, and if you have any issues, speak to your coach or welfare officer. These staff members/volunteers should listen to your concerns in a non-judgemental way, note them down, perhaps discuss with another member of staff (still confidentially) and either offer you advice or support.

Non-recent Abuse:

Non-recent abuse, previously called historical abuse, is when the experience or incident of abuse happened some time ago and isn’t happening anymore. Often these experiences happened to you as a child. Now if you or someone you know falls into this category and they haven’t reported what happened to them, it is NEVER to late to report, even if the person that did the hurt is no longer alive. There are a million and one reasons why someone didn’t report the incident/experience/abuse when it happened. Unfortunately, there can be a number of barriers in the way (that’s why we need to ensure that everyone is safeguarding aware to act preventatively, and not after the incident has happened). Professionals are very aware of these barriers and will treat your concerns very sensitively and go at your pace.

On a personal level, you need to prioritise your welfare. But on a professional level, if that person is still working with children or people they could continue to abuse, it’s important that information is shared. There are A LOT of questions when it comes to reporting concerns. A useful organisation to help you navigate is NAPAC (the National Association for People Abused in Childhood). If you are still involved in the club/programme where this person still works/volunteers, you may want to speak with your welfare officer. If not, you can have a word with the police – it’s not as scary as they make out on the tele. A good starting point is this video on the NSPCC’s website:

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/non-recent-abuse/

Remember, it’s never too late, it wasn’t your fault, and there is ALWAYS support available to you.

Current concerns for an adult:

Ok, but what if I have concerns about an adult in relation to another adult? Raising concerns as an adult is a different process, but there IS still a process. I’d still advise speaking to your coach or welfare officer if you feel able to. However, if you believe the action against you is a crime or form of harassment, the police may best be able to answer your questions. Again, it’s not as scary as the TV makes out. You can either dial 101 and speak to an officer that way, or go into your local police station. You’re not the one accused and they will be very sensitive & empathetic towards your situation.

What are the signs I can look out for?

Unfortunately, that’s a trick question. In terms of professionals looking out for signs of abuse within children, there can be some signs. Ultimately, every child, young person, or adult is unique and so may the signs of abuse or harm. In terms of what malpractice looks like, again, it’s tough to answer. I don’t want to sit here listing things, for me to miss something off, and that to be the one thing you experience. Ultimately, if you’re having a lot of negative feelings about something, if you’re having an “I’m not sure about this” feeling, or something just feels “off”, think about what is it that is making you feel off about that situation? Are you feeling pressured to do something you don’t want to do? Is someone purposely hurting you, physically or emotionally? Is someone overstepping the mark or treating you unfairly?

It’s always worth talking it through with someone you trust – a friend of family member maybe. Sometimes we only hear things in our own minds, but once we verbalise it and hear it out loud, it can help us understand what we’re feeling. Quite often we feel like we’re overreacting, and that’s why having a second opinion can be really useful. I don’t think you’re overreacting, all your feelings are valid.

So what if your gut feeling is that something is wrong, what do you do then? My mantra is always, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Speak to your coach or welfare officer. Ask if you can speak to them after training, or if there’s an appropriate time you can have a quiet word (e.g., at the end of the session, coming in early next time, etc.). If it’s urgent, absolutely ask in the middle of a training session. If it’s not urgent, I want you to make sure you have enough time to talk through your concerns fully, where others aren’t going to be listening in or interrupting. If it’s your coach or welfare officer that is the issue, is there another member of staff or volunteer you can speak to? Often we feel like our coaching teams are all best friends and if you tell someone they’ll tell everyone. Ultimately, if you’re asking for a confidential chat because you have concerns to raise, they should respect that. For further support, Victim Support provide support for victims and survivors of crime and traumatic experiences.

Safeguarding can be a minefield and it can feel overwhelming if it’s not something you have a ton of experience in. Just know, if you’re in a situation that doesn’t feel right there IS support available to you. If you’re a professional in a situation that doesn’t feel right, you have that duty to act on that information. As mentioned, the NSPCC Helpline can really discuss the issue with you and talk you through your options. The NSPCC Learning website has a wealth of safeguarding courses available, as well as information on writing policies. If you’re in the process of updating yours, give them a bell and see how they can support you. Let’s not wait until there’s an issue to make sure we have all our ducks in a row. Preventative action is much better than reacting.

If you’re interested in learning more about safeguarding, check out the NSPCC Learning website. They have a ton of information on key legislation, policy writing and so many safeguarding courses in a number of topics.

https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/safeguarding-child-protection

*Disclaimer: every club has their own policies and procedures and may also use different terms to what I have used. Ultimately, if you have concerns speak to your coach/welfare officer*

That’s all for this month. If you have any topics you’d like us to cover, get in touch!

Written by Rachel

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