Introduction and background
There is growing concern about what is and isn’t permissible in terms of physical contact with children in sport. Some misleading and inaccurate information has been promoted within the sports sector, which can undermine the confidence of coaches and others in their ability to use safe, appropriate coaching methods.
There have also been instances in which adults who are motivated to harm and abuse children have done so by falsely claiming that their behaviour was part of legitimate teaching, coaching or caring practices.
The purpose of this part of the website is to clarify the position of the CPSU in relation to this issue and offer guidance to all those involved in working with children in sport.
There are a number of principles that should be followed when the activity involves physical contact.
Physical contact should be in response to the needs of the child and a good general guideline to keep in mind is don't do something that the child can do for themself.
Physical contact during sport should always be intended to meet the child's needs, not the adult’s. The adult should only use physical contact if their aim is to:
- develop sports skills or techniques;
- treat an injury;
- prevent an injury or accident from occurring;
- meet the requirements of the sport.
The adult should explain to the child the nature and reason for any physical contact reinforcing the teaching or coaching skill. Unless the situation is an emergency, the adult should ask the child for permission.
It’s good practice for sport clubs, as part of an induction process or pack for new members, to explain to parents and their child, or give written guidance, about any physical contact that will be required as part of that activity. Children should be encouraged to voice concerns if any physical contact makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.
Contact should not involve touching genital areas, buttocks, breasts or any other part of the body that might cause a child distress or embarrassment. Any physical contact should always take place only in an open or public environment and not in secret or out of the sight of others.
The CPSU is not aware of any sports bodies that have stated that no physical contact is permissible under any circumstances within the context of coaching or teaching.
Any form of physical punishment is unlawful, as is any form of physical response to misbehaviour unless it is by way of restraint. See our Managing Challenging Behaviour page for more information. It is particularly important that adults understand this, to protect their own position as well as the overall reputation of the organisation.
Contact as part of coaching
Some sport or physical activities are more likely to require coaches or teachers to come into physical contact with children from time to time in the course of their duties. Examples include showing a pupil how to use a piece of apparatus or equipment, or demonstrating a move or exercise during a coaching or teaching session in order to reduce the risk of injury due to falls or errors when performing. Adults should be aware of the limits within which such contact should take place and of the possibility of it being misinterpreted.
A number of sport or physical activities may require physical contact between young athletes and those teaching them, for reasons of both teaching and the participant’s safety. A number of sports Governing Bodies have developed guidance to assist coaches in this area. Those teaching these sports should follow this guidance. Even in sports where there is a need to support or touch a child, over-handling should be avoided.
It should be recognised that physical contact between an adult and a child that may occur during legitimate teaching or coaching may be misconstrued or misunderstood by a pupil, parent or observer. Touching young participants, including well-intentioned informal and formal gestures such as putting a hand on the shoulder or arm, can, if repeated regularly, lead to the possibility of questions being raised. As a general principle, adults in positions of responsibility should not make gratuitous or unnecessary physical contact with children. It is particularly unwise to attribute frequent touching to their teaching or coaching style or as a way of relating to young participants.
Responding to distress and success
There may be occasions where a distressed child needs comfort and reassurance, which may include physical comforting, such as a caring parent would give. Physical contact may also be required to prevent an accident or injury and this would be wholly appropriate. A child or coach may want to mark a success or achievement with a hug or other gesture. Adults should use their discretion in such cases to ensure that what is normal and natural (and seen by others that way) does not become unnecessary and unjustified contact, particularly with the same child over a period of time.
Sports science and medicine
There may be some roles within sport or physical activities where physical contact is commonplace and/or a requirement of the role, particularly sports science or medicine. These tasks should only be undertaken by properly trained or qualified practitioners. This guidance does not seek to replace the specific guidance and codes of practice developed for those professionals and reference should be made to the appropriate body for that discipline.