Tarik Bayrakli: Smart plays, Club Respect’s new podcast, is where we bring the biggest problems facing Australian sport out of the darkness and shine a light on the hot topics that nobody wants to talk about. We’re on a journey to bring sport into the modern world of respect and to rebuild the respect for each other that we need to have if sport is going to thrive.
Victoria University released stunning research results recently that showed 82% of Australians experienced one form of interpersonal violence in sport as a child. The study was the most comprehensive of its kind in Australia involving 886 adults asking whether they had experienced physical, sexual, or psychological violence, as well as neglect from either coaches, peers, or parents during childhood.
82% of the survey participants reported experiencing at least one form of interpersonal violence when participating in community sport as a child. 67% had experienced psychological violence or neglect. 66% reported physical violence. 38% reported sexual violence. These statistics would be alarming in a school or workplace.
Yet there’s a sense of, well, that’s just the way it is in community sport, or a belief that abuse and violence leads to resilient humans, with no mention of the trauma attached to these experiences. The rates of violence and aggression experienced in community sport every weekend is worse than ever, and the report is a huge wake up call for clubs and associations.
Co-authors of the research, Aurélie Pankowiak and Mary Woessner join us on today’s episode. Aurélie is a research fellow at Victoria University focusing on sports management, sport participation, and violence in sport. Mary is a researcher at Victoria University with expertise in clinical exercise physiology and violence in sport. Both Aurélie and Mary are founding members of the International Research Network on Violence and Integrity in Sport.
Tarik: What compelled you to actually undertake this study?
Mary Woessner: You know, we saw a real need and it was, several years back. Now it’s crazy to think it’s been so long, but we knew this was happening. Both from personal experiences and knowing people, but also from the broader literature on the issue of violence in sport. So, we absolutely knew that it was a challenge that was out there, but it wasn’t being discussed here in Australia. And we put our heads together and said, well, we’re researchers, we’re trained in the art of asking these questions and finding the answer. So, we made it our mission to do this study to really raise awareness, first on this issue before really delving into how we resolve it.
Aurélie Pankowiak: Yeah. Joining Mary, when we were both doing our PhD at VU (Victoria University) we joined our interest on this topic and the initial, very initial, motivation was quite personal, as I am a survivor of child sexual abuse and exploitation in France. And as we were advancing in our research career, we, as Mary mentioned, we really saw, a gap in research and policy to understand how violence is experienced and tackled in Australia. And so, we decided that we were going to do something about it from a research, policy and advocacy point of view.
Tarik: Thank you for sharing that, Aurélie.
Tarik: Your research talks about physical, sexual, psychological violence. As well as neglect. What do these terms mean? How do you define them? Is psychological violence the same as bullying?
Aurélie: Yeah. This is a very important question. And defining our terms is very important when you measure violence or discussing violence. So, we define these terms, so psychological, physical, and sexual violence and neglects from the scientific literature.
Sexual violence: a sexual act that is committed or attempted by a peer or a coach on the child participating in sports with the child not freely giving consent or unable to give consent. Sexual harassment: for example, offensive sexual remarks on the child’s sexual life or on their body. Sexual assault: an unwanted sexual contact between peers a sexual contact or intercourse between a coach and a child. And there is also non-contact child sexual abuse, which include things like exposure to pornography and things like that.
Physical violence: any action of a physical nature, which hurts the physical and psychological integration of the child. So, for example, a coach hitting, pushing, shaking a child,
Psychological violence: any action that’s psychologically and emotionally harming, such as belittling, threatening, ridiculing all those actions. But in the sporting context, it also includes behaviours where an authority figure like a coach or parent promotes a child to adopt unhealthy behaviours in the sporting context. So, for example, forcing an athlete to train when injured despite medical advice. And we acknowledge that this is of physical nature in terms of consequences of the harm, but, because the act is not physical harm as such, it’s defined as psychological violence. Neglect is really the failure of an adult to protect a child or to provide a positive, and safe environment. So, for example, it’s failing to act when two children are fighting against each other.
Mary: These are important definitions and I think a broader perspective on this as well is that there’s often a hierarchy assigned to these types of violence’s where people believe that the most harmful behaviours are sexually based ones, and that’s what’s commonly focused. But we absolutely know that single experiences of psychological or physical harm can absolutely have long lasting impacts depending on the individual that’s experienced it in the context in which they experienced it. So, though we might be quick to absolutely all agree that sexual abuse is wrong, no matter what the context is, and we normalize some aspects of physical violence and mental toughness, we know that harm is caused throughout all of these types of violence’s, and they need to be treated as such.
Tarik: Yes, good to have that clarity. Because when this, research came out, it made quite a splash in the media. The 82% statistic is quite an eye opener, as researchers where you were surprised as the rest of us?
Aurélie: So, we were saddened, and we need to acknowledge that it is pretty horrific statistics. As researchers, we were not that surprised, just because it does reflect international statistics and evidence. So, if anything that confirms for us that, you know, in Australia, the trends are similar in other countries, and reflecting the systemic nature of violence in sports. And when we released the findings to the public through the media, we did have some responses from the public on diverse media platforms, expressing also the fact that they were not that surprised, and they had experienced it themselves or had seen other people around them experiencing. And if anything, these numbers was validating their experience because it’s not something that talked about.
Mary: Yeah, I think the 82% is absolutely confronting, but I’d actually say that a more pertinent number, or at least an equally important number, is the 33% of individuals who experienced every single form of violence. So, the 82% absolutely got the headlines because it’s shocking and confronting. But when you think that one in three children have experienced all forms of abuse in sport, that’s an intense finding, and I think that’s the one that we want to speak to when we talk about the systemic nature of violence, because it’s not just stamping out one type. It’s not just addressing psychological abuse, bullying, sexual abuse, it’s everything because children are having these multiple experiences. And that’s our biggest challenge as well.
Tarik: Of that 33%, was there a particular weighting towards girls or boys?
Aurélie: Yeah, so there was a gendered experience of violence in that girls experience specific types of violence and boys experience other types of violence more frequently. So, girls were more likely to experience, sexual and emotional abuse, and both physical abuses. Our study is also the first, that includes gender diverse individuals. And we found that in our study they experience higher rates of all forms of violence than both boys and girls combined.
Mary: Yeah, I think when we reported the 33% specifically, it was the full cohort combined. So, we weren’t looking at different trends amongst the shared experiences with multiple types of violence. But we do acknowledge there is absolutely a gendered experience prevalent in the data.
Tarik: And with the report in particular with the 82%, I was curious about why these rates were so high in sport, and not the arts or options that parents entrust their children to.
Aurélie: Yeah, so actually existing statistics globally and in Australia, show that the rate of child abuse in society as a whole is pretty high. But comparing sports to other institution like the arts, Church and so on is very challenging because, experts and researchers don’t necessarily use the same tools or definition to measure violence. So, it’s really hard to even compare those rates.
Mary: Yeah, I mean, it really comes down to what tool you’re using and how you’re defining it, because if you’re asking kids broadly about what they’re experiencing, most children are not naming things as physical or sexual violence. So, you need to use very explicit and specific tools that are very situational and specific to the context, which is why our survey was so important. Because it is a sports specific questionnaire. It doesn’t allow any negotiation of the person to think, was that abuse, or wasn’t it? It asked them if they’ve experienced very specific sport experiences and then we categorize that on the backend. So, I think we actually can’t say that it’s highest in sport relative to other environments. All we can say is it’s really high in sport and we should be doing something about it.
Tarik: There’s an issue across many areas in society, and not just in sport, but being able to actually speak up. And you’ve mentioned that there is a reluctance for kids to speak up in sport, which is often complicated by dysfunctional club processes, that make it almost impossible to gather statistics in real time. Why did you say that kids “won’t come forward for years to come?”
Aurélie: Understanding why/why not children would speak up or talk about violence is very complex. There are many, many factors influencing this. So, another aspect of our research which we haven’t published yet, and we are currently analysing the data, was to, understand how frequently, those children that experience violence, in sport actually talk about it or report it to an adult. And also, we connected interviews with people who wanted to talk with us about their experience of talking to an adult about what they’ve experienced.
So, what we learned through doing this research is, and reading the literature around this topic, is that there are many, many reasons as to why children will not talk about the violence they experience. And that can be internal factors such as feeling ashamed, guilty, fearing consequences, of telling someone. So, for example, being excluded by their community or their team, or not getting playtime. But also importantly, not even recognizing that what they experience is abusive or violence and they are also external, factors that influence children to talk about it when they do understand that what the experience was wrong. And that can include normalizing the events in, the sporting context. So, for example, talking about it as this is something I didn’t like that happened and adults answering “Well, this is what it is in sports”. So, it provides that kind of buffering effect and the child keeps going and keeps experiencing those events and doesn’t talk about it anymore.
Mary: You’re dealing with a very structured system for reporting as it as it needs to be. There needs to be set kind of steps and procedures, but they’re very much reliant on a child recognizing something is happening to them, the parent or adult that they speak to, recognizing that what they’ve experienced “counts” as violence, and I say counts in quotation marks because that’s a very subjective assessment that’s currently being made. The challenge is that even when children do come forward, they don’t use the terms that often adults are looking for or recognize. They’re not saying I was abused, or I was harassed. They’re saying sport isn’t as fun. And the challenge is then going into what does that actually mean? And that’s a huge burden for any adult to bear in terms of recognizing it. But in the sporting system, even more challenging because we’ve got our own past experiences and our normalization of what’s happened in the past. And there is this thing of, just keep going. You’ll be fine. Push through it. You know, and that’s a hard battle to fight. And if we’re asking children to go up against that, it’s going to be a losing battle more often than not.
Tarik: Yeah, and I think a huge challenge is that the people closest to us, in a sports context, are also the people who are our direct line for reporting these instances of abuse. So, in your report, peers, so I assume peers are your teammates in the broader sense, perpetrated the highest rates of psychological violence as 69% and the rates of physical and psychological violence by coaches, both greater than 50% were also high. The most contact we have with anyone in the club or our peers and our coaches. So, what are some practical tips you’ve encountered that can make our immediate playing group a safer place?
Aurélie: I think at an individual level, I think it’s really important for the coaches to know and understand and educate themselves on what violence entails, and to really focus on developing relationships with the kids and creating a culture that is based on respect and empowerment of the kids to allow them to speak. And this can be done by setting rules around what is an acceptable behaviour, and what is not, what is okay, what is not okay, and can be done by simply having those conversation at the beginning of the training sessions about what’s acceptable and not in this team and in these clubs.
But as you’ve mentioned Tarik, unfortunately, what we also see is that coaches are there often the perpetrators of the violence. So, it’s really important for other coaches, parents, club administrators, and any volunteers to also be educated on what violence actually entails and to act when they see those behaviours and really reinforce it’s not okay in our club to behave this way.
And it’s really about creating a culture, as I said, of respect and setting the club as a whole. Yeah, it goes back to leadership and, what it means to setting norms around what’s acceptable and tolerated. And that needs to be supported with policies and processes in a club. But it’s very challenging because we know community sports clubs in Australia are really struggling right now with burnt out volunteers. There are very few volunteers that are doing a lot of the work, and so it’s going to be balanced to make sure that the people in charge of the clubs and the coaches responsible for those kids, really understand that it’s this responsibility and it’s a lot of responsibility, great. But that also doesn’t have to be scary. It can really be as simple as having a minute’s discussion at the beginning of the training session or the game saying, “This is our rules, this is how we behave. And it’s not about winning at all costs, it’s about being a healthy human and having fun”.
Tarik: You’ve also mentioned in your report that when we are thinking about changing culture, we need to go a step further than just education and policy. What can a club do to decrease these alarming statistics?
Aurélie: It jumps back what I said about creating norms, behaviours, and values really around because, so taking a step back, sporting systems, a lot of sporting systems in the world and including Australia are based on that competitive pathway of starting sport the grassroots level organized around competition and going through to the end. So, there is this ingrained culture around sport that’s been built on winning and around that, a culture of winning at all costs has done a lot. And it’s really hard to see a line between community sports and elite sports because competition starts so early and at the grassroots level, and it’s acknowledging, yes, sports is competitive and that’s what also makes it fun, but it’s making sure that it’s not about winning at all costs. And as I’ve mentioned before, it’s really about ensuring kids are having fun and are just healthy and developing.
Mary: So, this first research project was really, really supposed to be about awareness. It was about you can’t solve a problem that you don’t acknowledge exists. And that was the goal of a prevalence study. It was, let’s show how widespread this issue actually is at the community level. Because we didn’t know. We absolutely didn’t know. We had an idea from the international literature of what it would be, but we didn’t know until we did it.
And now we have that data. And I think really behaviours change is hard. And there’s no simple answer to the question you’re asking, which I think is why you’re asking it. If we had that answer, that’s the million-dollar question that everyone around the world wants to know. And I think the challenge is that we’re only at the start.
Our research project was a first step, and our next step is really going into the clubs and understanding what’s underpinning this violence. So, speaking to the themes that, Aurélie rose about. You know, winning at all costs, winning at what costs, what are the underpinnings of why this violence is happening?
What is this normalization that’s happening? Because we don’t yet know what will effectively prevent it around the world. No one has found a, a succinct, decisive, definitive solution to this. So, we’re really at the onset, where we’re now recognizing this is a problem and our next step is really going into those clubs and working with sport to understand what’s happening in sport. It’s a very unique context and we need a lot more information before we can really develop those behaviours change initiatives that we’d like to.
Tarik: Yeah, and I asked that question mainly because I feel like there’s a sense of maybe a prevailing sense of disrespect and having, something that could go further than just education and policies is around this concept of respect and actually having that highlighted in clubs. But I suppose you need education and policies to actually get that through as well. I’m finding it difficult to conceptualize what you mean.
Mary: To be a little more specific than I guess, you see initiatives right now, sport as a whole, at least in Australia, I would say is very much in a compliance focus. We’re trying to meet the child safe standards. We’re trying to comply to all the national policies. A lot of different organizations are creating education-based initiatives and modules that are speaking to the need to prevent violence in sport. The evidence bases they’re framing those around are mostly international and somewhat limited because there’s not a lot of evidence yet generated in the sport specific context. But what we know from other areas is that the way you drive change is not necessarily just by telling people to do it, it’s by making them passionate. Making them want to be champions of those changes, making them want to be drivers of change.
So, to your point, I think some of it relies on the individual. It all comes down to an individual’s focus on whether they’re compliance focussed whether they’re actually passionate about this issue because they know it’s a challenge, they know they need to address it, and they believe that they have the capability to do something or to say something. So, it does come down to education to some extent, but it also comes down to how we empower people and drive forward this passion.
Aurélie: Joining Mary’s point there is that the individual behaviours are constrained by the culture they are in, and that can be the culture of a society as a whole or a specific National Sporting Organisation (NSO) and sports or a specific club at a grassroots level. And to me that also comes back to leadership because one individual’s behaviours need to be rewarded.
So, if it’s person that’s winning at all costs in a system that values winning at all costs, literally, then that behaviours are going to continue. But if within a club, at a club level, a club president or secretary comes to the games on the weekend and says, “Here in this club, we will not accept any violent behaviours, no matter the consequences on the game’s outcome”. That will help an individual making decisions to align with the values that the leadership of the club is really embodying and showing to everyone.
Mary: Yeah. We’ve got a, a whistle-blower almost community right now whereby the people coming forward are the few and not the many. And I think when you talk about wanting change, you want the many calling out the few we’re not there yet. But every step is a step forward. But I think that’s speaking to Aurélie’s point on how you bring together people towards this issue in a common fashion so that that one person speaking out isn’t that one person speaking out anymore.
Tarik: It’s a brave new world!
Tarik: So, the study found respondents had participated in a large variety of sports with nearly 70 represented. Were there any sports that stood out as particularly violent?
Aurélie: We did not do this analysis and that was purposeful. We didn’t want to highlight a specific sport that wasn’t the goal. The goal of the study was really to understand the extent of violent behaviours in Australian community sports as a whole. But I think the fact that in our study we found violence, taking place in all those sports, really shows that it’s not a sport-specific issue, it’s a whole-of-sports system issue, and it’s up to the systemic issue of violence in sports and that we should all be concerned by this issue whether we play in swimming or in Bowls.
Mary: There’s a risk seeing the sports and the media and the brave athletes coming forward, primarily from the elite level, speaking to their own harrowing experiences. There’s a risk that we can distance ourselves from that and say, “Well, that’s not my sport. That wasn’t my experience. I’m not an elite athlete”. There’s a distancing that can happen and the purpose of this study, was to really raise awareness on those broader contexts. We didn’t want to single out a sport because it’s not a one sport issue. The sports you see in the media are just that. The ones that are in the media right now, today, this week, it’s absolutely a whole-of-sport issue.
Aurélie: It’s not to say either that there aren’t specific sporting cultures that enable violent behaviours in specific ways, like we’ve seen in gymnastics, like we’ve seen in swimming. But we also don’t know about other spots, like there is that belief that individual sports will enable violence to occur more so than team sports, but we actually don’t have evidence for this.
Mary: And with the highest rates in our national study, being amongst peers, that goes potentially against that. If you’re working one on one with a coach, but there aren’t peers readily around. I mean, there’s so many different dynamics at play, and there’s not an evidence base to suggest one way or the other.
Tarik: I take the point there, that’s interesting to look at it from the perspective of, you know, once you start highlighting an individual sport, then people might lose a bit of accountability or lack a bit of accountability.
Tarik: So, I got my last question. This one is a dreamer question. Imagine you’ve got unlimited funding and resources, what’s on top of your priority list that will go towards reducing violence in sports clubs?
Aurélie: That is really a dreamer question! I think for me, and that’s because of my research training and background working in sport policy, but also my passion for grassroots work and understanding that change cannot occur only if you target an issue from one specific approach. So, for me it would be really taking a whole-of-sports approach that is evidence based. Because that’s the only way, based on what we’ve researched and experienced, that the culture that enables violence to occur in the first place will change.
And by whole-of-sport approach, I mean ensuring that there is both a top-down prevention, safeguarding policies and processes approach, and that we actually ensure that those policies and processes are being implemented and are effective in preventing violence and helping people reporting it in a safe manner.
We’re also a bottom-up approach, focusing on what we’ve talked about today, grassroots behaviours change initiatives that empower children and empower individuals will value healthy and empowering relationship to be really leading culture change. So really having the top down and bottom approach together to create that pressure and that, change eventually.
And importantly, the last one I’d like to make is that, in my view, would be really important to have the victims and survivors of violence, who want and can, to act and lead, to inform all those intervention levels because we’ve made mistakes in the past and those people have been the very victim of these mistakes, and they would be able to talk to what happened and what went wrong. And that would be a way also to empower those people to feel like they’re making a change.
Tarik: I’m sure they would, definitely.
Mary: Well, I hope it’s not a dream because I firmly believe we’re going to get there at some point, and I hope that we’re a part of this movement that’s to come. If you gave me unlimited funds right now, my first step would be to go into some clubs to actually go into the clubs on the ground and understand what their understanding is of violence, what their understanding is of the policies. Because it takes a long time for policies and procedures to trickle all the way down to the volunteers. And the truth is, we do not know how they’re conceptualizing violence. We don’t know how they’re putting in place or even understanding the policies. And I think that’s really the first step. And then the subsequent steps are really speaking with sport participants, working with children, having them advise the policies and the processes that are happening. So, our focus is to support that work that’s coming down from the national level in terms of policies and safeguards that are going to take years to trickle all the way down. We want to go into the sport clubs and really help farther the evidence base as to how we can inform meaningful change and evidence-based change in this space.
Tarik: And going right down to the clubs. I mean, that’s where a lot of the support is needed for the presidents and for coaches and, everyone involved in making the club run.
Tarik: Aurélie, Mary, well done to you and your colleagues for recognizing the need to address violence in sports clubs and thank you for joining us on Smart Plays.
Mary: Thank you for having us.
Tarik: If you believe you have experienced violence during your childhood participation in sport, you can speak up through Sport Integrity Australia’s online portal. The details will be in the show notes.
Tarik: You’ve been listening to Smart Plays, proudly brought to you by Club Respect, Victorian Women’s Trust and its harm prevention entity the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls.
We would like to thank all of our supporters and donors with special thanks to the Wood Foundation and Spicers Australia. Executive Producer is Mary Crooks. Creative producer is Patrick Skene and thanks to the team at the Victorian Women’s Trust. Smart Plays was edited and mixed by Pariya Taherzadeh. I’m your Executive Producer, Host and Club Respect manager Tarik Bayrakli
This podcast was produced in Melbourne and we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
For more information about this podcast, including show notes and resources, visit clubrespect.org.au and follow us on social media @ClubRespectTeam.You can also find out more about the Victorian Women’s Trust via their website vwt.org.au or follow them on social media: @VicWomensTrust.
Thank you for listening.