- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

When people do very bad things, “we want them to look like very bad people,” said sports psychologist Caroline Silby. But this to a great extent is what makes the issue of sexual abuse by high school and amateur coaches so frightening.

“Very often they’re the people who appear to be doing what’s best for the athlete,” Silby said. “That’s the way they gain an athlete’s trust. And they can be very well-educated people.

“Abuse is often an action of opportunity,” Silby said. “So [an abusive] coach usually seeks out the trust of the athlete. You have to have an athlete looking to please the coach, who is a people-pleaser. Female athletes usually fall into that category. Adolescent girls tend to be people-pleasers.”

Silby offers several recommendations — for parents, especially — to help keep young athletes from situations in which they might be subject to sexual harassment or abuse:

• Listen. “Kids often communicate things about a coach,” Silby said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘He’s really mean because he made us run.’ It’s another when they come home and say he was talking about his sex life. Coaches have, in a lot of instances, made inappropriate remarks about a young woman’s body, or sometimes they talk about their own sex lives at home.”

• Communicate. “We need to have parents talk about this,” Silby said. “Address what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate, that it’s never their fault and that if anything were to happen, come to an adult and speak about it. We don’t want to scare our kids, but we do want to have frank discussions with them.”

• Be involved. “I like parents to be informed about what’s going on in the athletic environment,” Silby said. “I work with so many parents who are overinvolved, but in the wrong aspect: How much playing time their child is getting rather than whether this is a safe environment.”

• Be wary of too much praise or when a coach overstates an athlete’s potential. Such as, when a coach says, “I’m gonna take your kid to the Olympics,” when the child is eight. “Who can know that?” Silby said. “Just kind of be aware of when they’re being courted by the coach.”

• Remember who the parents are. “People need to be careful to not abdicate parenting responsibility to the coach,” Silby said.

• Pay attention. “You don’t need to overreact, but things that happen in patterns or repetitively is when you need to step in and be the child’s advocate,” Silby said.

• Talk to the coach. “It’s important to have conversations with coaches if you’re confused by something or think he or she might have crossed the line,” Silby said. “Make sure you deal with conflicts in an appropriate way. That sets the boundaries.”

• Volunteer to be the “bad guys.” Silby said it’s OK for a child to tell a coach he or she can’t go to the mall with them because “my parents won’t allow it,” or “I have to call my mother first.” Let your child know they can call you any time, for any reason.

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