Graham Kelly: FA's child protection initiative deserves whole-hearted support

"Lynne has been taking her two children, Rashid (aged seven) and Stacey (nine) to football training once a week for the past few months. You are the coach and have got to know them all quite well over this period. You know that things have been very difficult for Lynne since her husband, Youstus, walked out almost a year ago. Today Lynne arrives a little late to collect the children and appears upset and looks as though she has been crying. When you speak with her, she blurts out that she can't cope with the children and shared that last night she completely lost her cool and hit Rashid with a wooden spoon leaving marks on his leg. You noticed that Rashid and Stacey had been rather subdued in training that day."

Since the Football Association launched its child protection and best practice campaign in partnership with the NSPCC in 2001, over 50,000 participants in the Goal workshop have been confronted with this and similar scenarios, where they were asked to examine their feelings as persons in positions of responsibility towards young people, then given guidance as to what course of action they should follow. All applicants for FA coaching qualifications at any level must currently attend the three-hour workshop. Peter Schmeichel was one recent participant.

With four million young people under the age of 18 currently playing football in England and over 500,000 adults involved with them in some capacity, the need for a campaign to raise awareness and to improve practice was compelling. Child abuse arises in five forms: neglect, physical, sexual, emotional, and bullying.

In football, neglect could occur if children do not have proper supervision or clothing or play whilst injured.

Physical abuse could arise through inappropriate training methods, or when inappropriate drugs or alcohol are offered.

Sexual abuse could arise through inappropriate touching or where intimate relationships are formed.

Coaches or parents may emotionally abuse children if they constantly criticise, abuse their authority, or impose unrealistic pressure to perform to a high standard. Anyone who regularly watches children's football will have seen plentiful examples of players being belittled by an adult living out his fantasies on the touchline. Thankfully, this is now outlawed in centres of excellence and academies. Emotional abuse or verbal bullying might be more common than physical bullying in a football team.

In the workshop I attended last week we were presented with a range of different situations and required to discuss whether they signified possible abuse (red card), poor practice (yellow card) or best practice (green card). We found it very challenging to analyse our feelings objectively, particularly on the limited information given.

"A male manager puts his arm round a young girl who is hurt." Green card. No problem.

"A manager takes players home regularly alone in his or her car." Opinion was split on this one. The young teacher thought it was acceptable on grounds of the child's safety, but in fact it could be open to wrongful allegations, for example, grooming. Therefore: yellow card.

"A female coach gives a 10-year-old lad a hug when he is upset after missing a vital penalty." Green card. No problem. Except to the Great Harwood Rovers contingent, who felt this could lead to more missed penalties at their club.

"A coach tells a lad: 'You're useless, you should wear a skirt'." This provoked an interesting debate. Clearly, the coach is unfeeling, but should his emotional taunting indicate evidence of wider abuse or bullying now that the England captain wears a sarong and has made significant inroads into the homophobia which afflicts the game? Answer: yellow card.

Details of the FA campaign dropped on the doormat of the secretary of one of the 40,000 clubs contacted recently. During a weekend match an under-sixteen player hobbled off injured and, although the injury was not serious, the official noted other injuries, which were clearly long-term and non-accidental.

The manager raised the concerns with the child's carer and, because of the carer's reaction, the manager and the secretary became convinced that they should report the matter to social services.

An investigation followed and uncovered a number of other issues, resulting in the player and other children in the family being taken into care.

Professor Celia Brackenridge of the University of Gloucestershire is conducting a long-term research project alongside the Goal campaign. Early results indicate, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there is a need to improve behaviour on the sidelines and also that young referees need particular support in terms of clear guidelines of appropriate behaviour for coaches, parents and players off the pitch as well as on it. These themes will be taken up at a national conference at Pride Park, Derby in October. It is a campaign that deserves to succeed.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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