Child abuse in sport
The news media in the UK are currently full of revelations about child sexual abuse in the world of football. Many men in their forties and fifties are coming forward to talk about what happened to them when they were being coached as children. Some have never spoken about their experiences before. Others did disclose the abuse, but appropriate action was not taken. Some were silenced with non-disclosure agreements and paid to keep quiet. When people begin to talk about the abuse publicly, what can happen next in terms of recovery for the victims?
Counsellors who specialise in working with sexual abuse survivors have many different ways to help. One of the therapist’s tasks is to explain about responsibility for the abuse. Abusers usually try to make the child feel as if they are responsible and somehow complicit in the abuse, as this makes the child feel guilty and stops them telling anyone. They may also give the child treats and give them ‘special’ status, which the child knows they will lose if the abuse is revealed. Sports coaches are in an ideal position to control children psychologically. They have the power to make young people’s dreams come true: Making it into the squad, having a top-flight career, and so on. Some of the general language used in sports training may also be about toughening up and putting up with it. It may also be about bonding and hero-worship. All of these ideas can make the abuser’s life easier and make children feel confused.
Coaches also have access to children’s bodies in a way that other adults don’t, as they are expected to demonstrate sporting moves, do first aid, patrol locker rooms, help with stretching, and so on. It can be impossible for a child to know what is ‘normal’ and when a line has been crossed. Coaching often takes place at residential camps and boarding schools, where coaches have access to children 24/7. Sports success is a big feature of most private schools in the UK. Children in this sector of education are particularly conditioned to be polite and compliant towards adults, which can make disclosing abuse especially difficult.
The international consensus on working with sexual abuse is to use a three-phase trauma approach. The first phase is about safety. This means developing a feeling of trust with the therapist, which can take a while. It also means helping the client learn practical strategies for coping with trauma symptoms like flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares. Therapists can also recognise clients who are experiencing dissociation, a symptom of childhood trauma which can be very difficult to live with in adulthood, but which survivors may not realise is actually a result of abuse. Dissociation is a natural protective mechanism in children where they automatically ‘float away’ or ‘space out’ when abuse happens. This tendency to space out can last into adulthood, and can happen when survivors are triggered, either by a memory or by something in the environment, such as a news item, or a particular smell.
The second stage of the therapy is processing. This means processing what happened in the past but from an adult perspective, within a supportive therapeutic relationship. Memories of traumatic situations can get stored in a part of the brain which is only designed for short-term recall. They need to be ‘moved’ into the long-term memory system, where they will no longer cause difficulties like flashbacks and nightmares. Processing also involves really understanding what the abuse has meant for the victim’s life-story. Revisiting trauma memories can be painful. A feature of trauma is a wish to avoid anything to do with what happened. Some people cannot imagine actually talking about the details of the abuse. This is where EMDR (eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing) can prove beneficial, as it does not require the client to speak out loud about what happened, whilst still facilitating processing. EMDR is validated in the UK by the NHS for treating trauma symptoms. A specially trained therapist knows how to keep the fine balance for the client, between engaging with difficult memories and feeling safe enough to cope.
The final phase of therapy is consolidation. This brings together the new awareness of how to feel safe in yourself and the implications of the processing of memories, and looks at the way this all fits into the client’s life. These three phases are not rigid, and therapy often moves back and forth between them. The outcome is that a victim of abuse moves forward and comes to a new understanding for themselves and the people around them, and is able to live with fewer intrusive symptoms disrupting their life.
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