Zelin: Structure, Positives & Negatives of Athlete Protection Training Course

The following report comes to us from Alex Zelin, who has previously written for SwimSwam on athlete safety. Alex is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga. You can read her previous pieces here and here. With USA Swimming now requiring all adult athletes and non-athlete members to complete the Athlete Protection Training (APT) yearly to maintain eligibility, Alex took the course and took notes, giving a look at what to expect from the course, what the course does well and where it falls short, though the lens of her expertise in psychology, gender studies and the issues of harassment and assault.

With a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology with a focus in gender studies, specifically harassment and assault, my praise and critique of the new SafeSport Athlete Protection Training are based on 1) knowledge of the different types of harassment, and 2) best practices for effective training to prevent harassment.

As noted on the USA Swimming Website, members are required to complete three Athlete Protection Training courses: “Sexual Misconduct Awareness Education,” “Mandatory Reporting,” and “Emotional and Physical Misconduct.” As an alumna of USA Swimming, I sat down to complete the trainings and provide some insight. While I will spare you the full 6.5 pages of notes I took on the training effectiveness, I will share some of my insights, praises, and critiques. To make these easier (and quicker) to read, I present an overall summary followed by informational bullet points on how to continue to improve the training.

Course Structure

The similarly-structured courses followed, for the most part, the guidelines of what makes training actually “effective.” Each course started by giving me a run-down of what to expect and that the content of the course may create emotional discomfort (with a link and number for RAINN!). The courses then began with a pre-quiz for me to gauge my knowledge on the topic at hand, followed by a mixture of videos, activities, and written content to ensure continued participation (active learning) throughout the training. Supplemental materials were provided on corresponding pages and, from clicking on them, are actually quite helpful! After the units finished, I took the post-test to see if my answers would be different/I learned something from the course. Well, I have some thoughts:

  • The pre/post tests are great to determine if someone gained knowledge. However, there is zero indication of which questions were missed/why/what the right answers were. As with many tests, I can assure you that people answer the questions, move on, and forget what they indicated as the right answer. Although the modules said I could review the information, I was never given access. Also, what is considered passing? If I did not pass, then what?
  • The different activities keep people invested, but there was no way to actually ensure that I watched the video other than I could not go to the next screen until it was finished playing. While that is great, I know a fair number of people who put required videos on mute and continue with their day. Asking required questions about the content before moving to the next area is effective in ensuring the understanding of the material.
  • Scenarios. I saw these and went, “OH I love some scenarios!” … to my disappointment, the scenarios were great, but what the courses did with them was lacking. The scenarios in the “Mandatory Reporting” training were the only scenarios that had pathways for “what would happen if you clicked this option.” If only that was the case for the rest of the scenarios! Otherwise, it was a “what would you do?” or “what would you consider?” with no discussion of the right answer. After you click your answer, they tell you to think about this situation and ask if you might change your answer as you read more. From teaching experience, I can tell you that maybe 5-10% of people actually thought about those scenarios as they moved forward with the course. Not effective.
  • The “Emotional and Physical Misconduct” session would be best presented with defining misconduct, then “what do we do about it/how do we prevent it.” By the time you are finished learning about the different types of misconduct, you forget what you can do to prevent it.

Course Content

Without a doubt, the “Mandatory Reporting” and “Emotional and Physical Misconduct” trainings were the best with regard to clear, concise content. I had the least amount of notes on these two trainings with regard to questions about content, presentation of information, and inclusivity of all information. In fact, most of my critiques of these two trainings are structurally-based and are outlined above (with a few comments below). The “Sexual Misconduct Awareness Education” was a different story and, unfortunately, the first training I completed of the three. I will start with saying I have research expertise in the realm of sexual harassment and abuse and I scored a 4/6 on the pre-test quiz. Well, that certainly raised some red flags. As mentioned previously, I still do not know which questions I “missed” (though I have guesses), so cannot tell you which information is incorrect ☺

  • First: the experts in the videos were phenomenal. The material is easily accessible to a wide array of age ranges.
  • The goal of SafeSport is to prevent inappropriate behaviors before they occur, and the trainings provide excellent advice on how to do so, including how to foster a team environment.
  • One of my largest problems was that the content presented in the “Sexual Misconduct and Awareness” training was not on par with information presented in the other two trainings. For instance, a section on the definition of consent says, “As a coach, you may be faced with situations where an athlete describes an incident to you, and you need to address whether this was a case of sexual misconduct that requires you to intervene and make a report.” It is not up to the coach, the parent, the volunteer, or whomever to decide what is/is not sexual harassment. As per mandatory reporting, that is up to the law (although how different offices react to reports of sexual misconduct is a whole different story for a different time).
  • The wording used, especially when talking about sexual violence, is leading. For instance, one of the scenarios describing rape says “the men” and “he,” but when they talk about sex the scenario names the aggressor as “her friend.” Rape myths tell us that harassers/assaulters are the men in dark alleys, but in reality ~90% of assaulters are known to us. By framing someone as a “friend,” people are less likely to believe that an assault occurred.
  • Consent needs to be verbal (pretty sure this was one of the two questions I missed – consent does need to be verbal). However, they do a great job describing consent and that consent is not just a one-time thing; consent needs to be given continually and in every circumstance.
  • The explanation on grooming is a definite upgrade from the previous discussions about grooming in these trainings. More discussion is needed, though, regarding what to do if you think grooming is happening.
  • Read the “How to support a victim of abuse” handout. Print it out. Study it.
  • Lastly, the “Emotional and Physical Misconduct” training discusses “what makes an athlete vulnerable to harassment.” In other words, “let me list the attributes people have which lead to their bullying,” or, simply, victim-blaming. Focusing instead on how to prevent bullying rather than discussing targets is most effective and puts the onus on the harasser, not the harassed. In comparison terms, this looks like, “list the things the spouse did to deserve being abused.”

Additional Thoughts

  • The opening video of the “Sexual Misconduct and Awareness Education” training talked about why training matters and stated “diversity is actively embraced.” But:
    • There were very very few athletes of color in ANY of the videos featuring athletes.
    • Paralympic athletes were pretty much only in the “Emotional and Physical Misconduct” training; they were missing from the sports shots in the other two trainings.
  • The “Emotional and Physical Misconduct” is important because it is so prevalent in athletics. If only I knew then what I know now…
  • Some of the wording could be more precise. There were questions where it was clear what the intended answer was, but that the intended answer, from an academic perspective, did not precisely jive with the question asked.

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John Bradley

Excellent piece. I appreciated the comments both positive and negative about the APT. Nothing is perfect but by having an expert take a good look at the curriculum and offer their thoughts is a great way to promote awareness and educate. Thanks to Dr. Zelin and SwimSwim for providing this.

Thanks for taking the time to react, John. We’re hoping that this continues to push the conversation forward.

Mother Clucker

Some of the policies I find questionable. I have an 18 year old daughter who occasionally drives her 17 year old friend to practice – something the 17year old’s mom and I have negotiated. Not sure what the private arranging of car pooling has to do with USA Swimming, but that now requires a waiver. It is unclear to me if my daughter grabs breakfast after Saturday morning practice with this friend, and my daughter drives her there, if a waiver is required. If I take that 17 year old to a travel meet and she spends the night with my daughter and me in a hotel, despite her mom and I being best friends, this needs yet another waiver.… Read more »

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