More than 80% of people we asked said they've experienced violence in junior sport – and women and gender-diverse people cop it most

·4-min read
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Every week millions of Australian children play community sport. Participating in community sport can improve children’s mental, physical and social wellbeing, but only if the sport environment is physically and emotionally safe.

Our new research shows community sport spaces aren’t safe for everyone. We found 82% of 886 survey respondents said they experienced violence while playing community sport as a child in Australia.

Our study was one of the first in Australia to include the experiences of non-gender-binary individuals. We found gender-diverse people reported particularly high rates of violence while playing sport as children. Some 81% reported experiencing psychological violence from a coach, compared to 55% and 50% for women and men respectively.

Women also had high rates compared to men of psychological (82% vs 74%) and sexual (40% vs 33%) violence.

So how can we change this?

Violence in community sport

In recent years, cases of violence against children in elite sport in Australia have garnered national media attention. Swimming and gymnastics are perhaps the most visible examples of the widespread nature of violence against children in sport, but they aren’t alone.

The media often focus on single sports and the abuse experienced by elite athletes, which can lead to a false sense of security in other sports and in sport at the community level.

Read more: Whether teams win or lose, sporting events lead to spikes in violence against women and children

The short- and long-term consequences of violence are profound and include anxiety, depression, mistrust, impaired relationship dynamics and more.

Understanding how often children experience violence playing sport is critical to monitoring this violence and keeping children safe.

What we studied

Our team at Victoria University completed the largest study to date in Australia exploring how often children experience violence in community sport.

We surveyed 886 Australian adults who had played organised community sport when they were younger than 18, asking them about their experiences of violence in sport. Specifically, they were asked about unsanctioned violence, that is, violence occurring outside the specified rules of the game. This could have occurred in diverse environments such as on the field, in the locker rooms, or during travel for sport.

It’s important to note that because the study didn’t use a nationally representative sample, the data can’t be extrapolated out to represent the whole of community sport in Australia.

Respondents were mostly women (63%), but came from all states and territories in Australia and had participated in 68 different sports. Around 18% of respondents were between 18 and 25 years old, which highlights how recent some of the reported experiences are.

81% of gender-diverse people said they experienced violence from a sports coach when they were kids. Shutterstock
81% of gender-diverse people said they experienced violence from a sports coach when they were kids. Shutterstock

Psychological, physical, sexual

We found 82% of respondents experienced violence while participating in sport as children in Australia.

Psychological violence was the most frequent form (76% of respondents), but rates of physical violence (66%) and sexual violence (38%) were also high.

The survey also distinguished between different types of perpetrators – peers, coaches and parents. Our respondents reported high rates of psychological violence by peers (68%), and high rates (>50%) of physical and psychological violence perpetrated by a coach.

Read more: The long history of gender violence in Australia, and why it matters today

We found non-gender-binary people experienced higher rates of several types of violence than both women and men combined. Peer-perpetrated sexual harassment was particularly high for these individuals (59%), as was peer physical violence (53%).

Women experienced more psychological and sexual violence, whereas men experienced more physical violence by their peers when playing sport as a child.

While our sample wasn’t representative of the Australian population, our findings echo international research findings. A Canadian study from 2020, which used the same survey in 14-17 year olds, also found high rates of psychological (79%), physical (40%) and sexual violence (28%).

How we can change things

These data can be quite confronting, especially for those of us (ourselves included) who are so passionate about sport.

The aim of this article and study isn’t to demonise sport. Instead, it’s to acknowledge we need to understand the depth and breadth of violence against children in sport, in order to make sport safer.

In the long-term, a national study with a representative sample is needed to establish how often violence against children in community sport occurs. It’s the only way to measure whether our policies and practices are preventing violence against children in sport. Such studies take time, expertise and funding, but they are achievable with the right support.

National frameworks and policies are essential to ensuring sporting clubs are complying with safeguarding standards.

However, national policies and campaigns take time to have impact at the grassroots level. This is complicated by a context where many community sport clubs are surviving on the capacity of very few, burnt-out volunteers.

Read more: How sport can tackle violence against women and girls

A top-down approach to behaviour change isn’t our only option. There’s an opportunity to start creating change with and within community sport. This can help identify the most effective strategies for preventing violence against children in community sport.

Community sport can and should be a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment. We can only achieve this through a whole-of-community effort.

Awareness that violence in community sport exists is a first step.

If this article has raised issues for you or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Mary Woessner, Victoria University and Aurélie Pankowiak, Victoria University.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.