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How to protect and safeguard people taking part in sport

As well as understanding and minimising risk, you need a system to respond to any concerns about a child or vulnerable adult in your programme
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Historically the do no harm agenda can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek civilization, embedded in what we know today as the Hippocratic oath, and essentially refers to the notion that whatever you do to help someone should not affect them adversely, whether deliberately or inadvertently. So if you’re a sport administrator, as a policy maker, coach or volunteer in the sports sector, that do no harm agenda suggests that you have an individual and collective responsibility, to ensure that your actions do not adversely affect the health, the well being, the dignity, and rights of individuals.
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The principle of do no harm has also been adopted by the humanitarian sector and became a core principle guiding humanitarian work, emerging from some good lessons learned, or hard lessons learnt in the humanitarian aid sector. I think it’s important to note that the do no harm agenda within the sport sector has its origins in the efforts to reduce sexual harassment against women, in what still remains a very male dominated sector. I think it’s also important that we acknowledge some of the pioneers in the field, including Celia Brackenridge and Kari Fasting and Sandi Kirby and others, whose early efforts lay the foundation for the current do no harm agenda in sport.
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Sport is such an authentic environment, an environment that we become so absorbed in emotionally, that it has the potential to make us quite vulnerable. And that authentic environment also facilitates the development of strong relationships between and among players, between coaches and players. And these relationships are often based on trust and sometimes trust between players and/or between coach and player, trust between parents and coaches can create vulnerability. Of course, some populations are more vulnerable than others, including children, and millions of children all over the world enjoy playing sports so that adds further complications to a sector.
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Similar challenges exists for persons living in poverty, persons with disabilities, and the LGBT community also tend to be more vulnerable and therefore, are at higher risk of harm in the sports sector. And then there is inherent competitive nature of sport. That can also complicate things, particularly if there’s that desire to win at all costs. And in some cultures when someone perseveres through injury for the benefit of the team’s victory, they are celebrated as hero’s, even though their playing through the injury may have detrimental consequences for their personal health. So that strong focus on performance results in the sport sector, often clouds our perspectives and further complicates our responsibility to do no harm.
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And finally, although in the last two decades, we’ve seen significant progress in the safeguarding agenda in sport, admittedly, we still have an absence of sufficient evidence to indicate the impact of those interventions and initiatives. So we’ve been rolling out policies and guidelines and toolkits and so adopting a do no harm agenda is not simply a statement of intent or a mantra. It requires very specific actions on the part of individuals and organisations involved in the administration and implementation of sport at all levels.
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So yes, if we’re designing policy, we have a responsibility to include safeguarding guidelines and if we’re planning a programme, we have an obligation to cope with the necessary protocols, but the ‘do no harm’ agenda also requires a duty to intervene at any stage if persons are at risk to prevent further harm. In some cases, those responses may require the engagement of experts who have qualifications and who have experience to be able to do those interventions. And that requires organisations to embed good safeguarding principles and practice at all levels of the organisation. If safeguarding is not built into the design stage, we end up responding in an adhoc ways to safe guarding issues that may arise.
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So by including safeguarding in the development and the design of programmes, you’re more likely to have consistency in the application of safeguarding guidelines for good practice. Including safeguarding and programme design and development also sends a message to those involved that the organisation is taking the do no harm agenda seriously and not simply treating it as a convenient add on.
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And finally, when the do no harm agenda is embedded at the programme level, with sufficient thought given to safeguarding the welfare of all involved, and to know that the organisation has systems in place to respond to and address their concerns, so they no longer feel powerless because they are now operating within the context of an organisation that promotes and supports a positive safeguarding culture. But the truth is, we can only realise the value of these guidelines if we adopt and implement them across the sports sector.
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So yes, by 2030 I think we will certainly see a shift in the culture of organisations involved in sport with greater concern for the health well being, the dignity and the rights of all individuals in the sports sector.

It is crucial to mitigate risks when designing, delivering and evaluating your sporting policies and programmes. It is imperative to consider any risks to participant safety, security, and wellbeing throughout and not just after a major incident.

It is your responsibility to ensure that programme participants are appropriately protected. Everyone involved in the process has an equally important part to play. But remember, even when you manage risks really well, things can still go wrong.

So as well as understanding and minimising risk, you also need to develop a system to respond to any concerns about a child or vulnerable adult in your programme — and you need to have this in place before activities begin. For example, participants may be at risk on their way to and from your intervention, before you even see them.

Managing risk and responding to concerns is at the core of safeguarding and will help your organisation ‘do no harm’.

Key aspects to consider

  • How are you interacting with different children and adults in your programme? During activities? In transport? Virtually? If you map out the ways you interact, that will give you a great starting point to understand where the risks might be.
  • Are you supporting vulnerable groups such as children, forcibly displaced persons, women and girls, or people with a disability?
  • Are there any specific needs the participant community has (e.g. low economic status) that would mean equipment or participation may be limited?
  • Do you have any biases or prejudices that could impact the programme design, even unconsciously?
  • Are there other stakeholders that should be involved in the planning (e.g. carers or parents)?
  • How does the programme align to your theory of change? Does your programme team have the expertise to effectively implement your plans?
  • Who in the community can help you? Are there government services or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are already working to protect children who you can link with for advice and support?

International safeguards

Comprehensive guidelines on sport and protecting children are provided by the Safeguarding Children in Sport Working Group: International Safeguards.

The toolkit is available in multiple languages and covers the following:

  • How to assess an organisation
  • How to develop a child protection and safeguarding policy
  • How to include children’s, parents’ and coaches’ voices
  • How to communicate the ‘keep children safe’ message
  • How to review procedures, practices and policies

The International Safeguards for Children in Sport guide highlights the right of children to participate in safe and enjoyable sporting activities. The guide highlights eight required actions (safeguards) to ensure children are safe from harm in sport activities:

  1. Developing Your Policy
  2. Procedures for Responding to Safeguarding Concerns
  3. Advice and Support
  4. Minimising Risks to Children
  5. Guidelines for Behaviour
  6. Recruiting, Training and Communicating
  7. Working with Partners
  8. Monitoring and Evaluation

Many organisations have signed and endorsed these safeguards and put them into practice. This includes the founding partners of this online course — sportanddev, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Australian government.

Further resources

The Sport for Protection Toolkit: Programming with Young People in Forced Displacement Settings is an example of a comprehensive sport and development manual that explicitly puts the needs of vulnerable participants first.

Principles 4-6 in The Commonwealth Guide outline key dimensions for maximising positive outcomes, stipulating that programmes should ensure safeguarding, adopt decentralised approaches which consider local needs, and be designed on a strong evidence base. These principles collectively act as a framework for ‘do no harm’ considerations in all programme development.

The FIFA Guardians Safeguarding in Sport Diploma, developed with the Open University (OU), is a complete open learning experience available in English, French and Spanish. It is designed to strengthen and professionalise safeguarding standards.

UEFA, in partnership with Terre des hommes, has developed a dedicated safeguarding platform with a range of resources (available in various languages) to improve safeguards for children in European football

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is launched an International Safeguarding Officer in Sport Certificate in September 2021.

More information on child protection and safeguarding

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Sport for Sustainable Development: Designing Effective Policies and Programmes

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