By Josephina Wang
Every year, more than 800 Safe Sport cases are reported to USA Swimming. These range from minor incidents, like a selfie in the locker room, to extremely serious issues, like sexual harassment. As a high school freshman who swims for my high school team and a local club team, I wanted to learn more about how my peers feel about their interactions with their coaches.
I recently surveyed more than 40 female athletes, who are members of several different teams in the Washington, DC area. The interviews revealed that many of the swimmers are in close contact with their male coaches, and they see this contact as contributing to their development in and out of the pool. Several girls mentioned that their coaches are funny, supportive, and encourage them to work hard. While all of that was positive, 20 percent of the girls had concerns about their coaches texting them (which they thought was weird and unprofessional), giving them hugs (awkward and uncomfortable), and launching into verbal outbursts.
The interactions between a coach and his (or her) swimmer should always be safe and professional, and based on mutual respect. But with these survey results suggesting that’s not always the case, I decided to start an initiative called Girls Speak Up. My goal is to empower all female swimmers and help them face the reality of harassment, with an emphasis on promoting self-advocacy and educating them about Safe Sport. (I started the group with the mentorship of Schoolyard Ventures, a social entrepreneurship program that helps students become entrepreneurs.)
Safe Sport is an athlete abuse prevention program launched by USA Swimming in 2010 as the first such program in the Olympic movement. In 2017, after the U.S. Congress approved the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act, the program was expanded to all 47 national governing bodies under the umbrella of the USOC.
As a member of Potomac Valley Swimming’s Safe Sport Committee, one of the first things I did was to arrange a meeting with four other girls, and we walked through the Safe Sport for Athletes course on the USA Swimming website. This was extremely effective. The girls learned about their boundaries; reflected on their feelings, behavior, and team dynamic; and learned how to properly report abuse. They also identified five trusted people they can turn to if they are struggling with something.
The feedback from the girls made clear that small group meetings to discuss Safe Sport issues are crucial. Every female swimmer needs to be aware of abuse and know how to respond to it. One of the girls who attended the meeting said that, “creating a safer environment for swimmers around their male coaches is important because in the past many female athletes have been taken advantage of by their coaches and physicians.”
To help other girls launch Girls Speak Up groups, I have written a brief instruction sheet: “Girls Speak Up Guide: Seven Steps to Effectively Arrange a Safe Sport Meeting.” I wrote this to emphasize how to prepare for the meeting (to ensure the girls feel safe and comfortable), how to conduct the meeting, and how to collect feedback afterward. Given the sensitivity around any discussion of abuse, and that girls have different levels of knowledge about it, it is important to structure the meetings to ensure that everyone who attends can learn from them. (A copy of the guide appears below.)
My overarching goal is for more girls to know how to identify abuse, process the situation, and report it properly. This knowledge will also help to ensure that the contact between athletes and coaches is always appropriate. Incidents happen and girls need to know how to react. I have seen uncomfortable situations and I wish I had known what to do at the time.
For the past five weeks, I’ve been hosting weekly online meetings with all the girls in my swim group (about 20 girls). We walked through scenarios, played Kahoot, and had great discussion. I look forward to talking to more girls, whether it be online or in person.
I want this project to grow roots and be implemented in as many swim clubs as possible. Ideally, Girls Speak Up, with the help of USA Swimming, can enable every girl to stay safe while swimming to the best of her abilities.
The Girls Speak Up Guide
Seven steps to effectively arrange a meeting where girls can talk about Safe Sport issues
Before the Meeting
- Identify a female swimmer who is willing to facilitate the discussion and who has taken/will take the Safe Sport for Athletes course before the meeting. The coach should also be involved in this process, but does not need to be at the meeting. The identified facilitator should have a copy of the Facilitator Questions document.
- Invite a small group of female swimmers (no more than 6-8 girls), preferably in the same friend group/social circle as to prevent gossip or rumors spreading.
- Find a place that is away from the pool deck to meet. Someone’s house is a great place because it is a more comfortable environment. Then, find a time that works for everyone and a time that does not conflict with a swim practice.
- Make sure each swimmer has parental consent to partake in this meeting and watch the videos in the course. Remind the girls that abuse can be a very sensitive subject and that they should be supportive and kind so as to create a warm, safe environment.
At the Meeting
- The facilitator should be considerate of everyone and should use the discussion questions and encourage the girls to speak up and share. The girls should also be reflecting and discussing. We don’t want the girls to be confused about Safe Sport. Also, it is very important that they identify trusted adults and are confident about their boundaries.
- After completion of the course, the girls can talk amongst themselves about what they learned, how they feel, and even share their own personal experiences. This part is really important because it is team bonding and a safe space for girls to speak up while knowing their friends are there for them.
After the Meeting
- Ask them for feedback and use it to improve the next meeting.
ABOUT JOSEPHINA WANG
Josephina Wang is a freshman at The Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland.