1 in 5 Canadian athletes experience psychological abuse: How to recognize the signs

Youth and child community sports tournaments are allowed to resume in B.C. beginning Feb. 1, as long as all spectators are fully-vaccinated, athletes are masked when idle, and no more than 50 per cent of a venue's seating capacity is filled. FILE - Alistair Berg / Getty

How do you know whether your child’s coach is supporting them in their sport? How do you know when so-called “tough love” becomes emotional abuse?

A new survey from AthletesCAN, the association of the national team’s athletes, shows that 17 per cent of athletes surveyed have experienced psychological abuse — including intimidation, humiliation and fear — usually from coaches.

That number jumps to 23 per cent when talking about athletes who are retired.

All athletes surveyed had played on Canada’s national teams and are over 16 years of age. Retired athletes who participated in the survey had retired within the last 10 years.

The second most reported type of abuse was classified as neglect, which includes being passed over for another athlete (favouritism) or being forced to play injured or exhausted.

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The survey said 15 per cent of current athlete respondents were affected and 22 per cent of retired athletes.

Other harmful behaviours in sport included sexual and physical abuse, although to a lesser extent. Four per cent of respondents said they had experienced sexual abuse, and three per cent said they had experienced physical abuse.

The numbers aren’t surprising to those in the industry.

“This latest study reinforces years of research about athlete mental health,” said Thomas Hall, senior manager of Game Plan, in a release.

WATCH: How to identify sexual assault, abuse victims 

Allison Forsyth, former Olympian and AthletesCAN board member, said that while the “numbers were not shocking,” she wants the findings to provide a baseline from which Canada can work to improve.

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“We know there’s a systemic epidemic of maltreatment in sport in Canada, and the good news is we have the survey done … we’re just moving forward to change,” Forsyth told Global News.

Forsyth, a skier who competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics, said she was abused by her coach, Bertrand Charest, in 1997.

Charest was found guilty of 37 of the 57 sex-related charges he faced in 2017 and given a 12-year prison sentence.

Forsyth said she came forward to Alpine Canada in 1998 and that officials told her not to say anything publicly because the organization would lose its sponsors.

One of the things AthletesCAN is working on is how to recognize abuse. In all instances, retired athletes reported more abuse than current athletes.

“What we’re finding is athletes, when they’re in that world of maltreatment and abuse, they may not understand the gravity and/or feel comfortable to really speak of it,” Forsyth said.

“The biggest thing that we can all do is to have the open conversation about it.”

Warning signs of abuse

Parents and family members should look out for whether their child athlete becomes withdrawn or secretive, Forsyth said.

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“In my particular case, which I talk about, when it was happening to me, I was very embarrassed,” she explained.

Jillian Roberts, a child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Victoria, told Global News that the specific signs to watch for are:

  1. increased irritability
  2. self-isolation
  3. decreased academic success
  4. a loss of passion for the sport

“Sport should be about fun and fitness and our community coming together in order to spend leisure time together,” she said. “For many young people, sport means something very different — something harsh and stressful.”

Harassment and emotional abuse are, ultimately, about an abuse of power, Forsyth said, and there are also mental health symptoms to look out for.

In the survey, AthletesCAN found there was a statistical correlation between things like self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.

Tough love vs. emotional abuse

While each athlete and each team has a different perspective, Forsyth says it’s important to trust your gut on this issue.

“Raising your voice may not be harassment,” she said. “However, if it’s continual and epidemic and really harms the athlete’s mental health then it is harassment.”

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But usually, abuse goes further than “raising your voice.”

Mental performance consultant Natalie Durand-Bush, Co-Founder, Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport, says there’s a “balance between the challenge and the recovery that [coaches] offer athletes,” but punishment that has the potential to lead to injuries is abuse.

Forsyth says less than one per cent of athletes report abuse that isn’t true.

READ MORE: Overcoming abuse — Here’s how children can be affected by family violence

“It’s very, very rare that complaints come in that are false … so just trust your gut,” she said.

What you can do

For parents who are looking to put their children into sport, they “absolutely” need to ask questions of the organizers, Forsyth said.

Those questions include asking about whether policies regarding harassment and abuse are in place and which codes of conduct coaches, or anyone in the organization, are required to follow.

Many organizations — including Canada Soccer — are implementing a “rule of two,” in which any one-on-one interaction between coaches and athletes must take place within earshot of another adult.

Forsyth also recommends “not taking no for an answer” and pulling your child from a sport if you aren’t satisfied with the policies on harassment.

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But the main thing people can do is normalize talking about it, experts said.

“These behaviors have been tolerated for so long in sport that often coaches do this but they I mean they just do it very naturally not knowing how harmful these behaviors are,” Durand-Bush said.

“The most important thing is for people to get educated and to understand what’s happening out there,” Forsyth said.


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