Don't Let Child Protection Myths Spoil a Magical Summer of Sport

18/09/2012 00:37 BST | Updated 17/11/2012 10:12 GMT

As the curtain begins to fall on what has been a phenomenally successful summer of sport, it's hard not to feel buoyed up by the wave of positivity that has engulfed the nation. The Olympics and Paralympics have firmly embedded sport within the hearts and minds of Britons everywhere, instilling a sense of pride and community that is all too often lacking in these times of economic hardship. They have also, no doubt, inspired many young people to take up sporting activities themselves.

The vast majority of sports organisations have already begun taking sensible steps towards protecting children, through the establishment of practice guidance and policies. These not only help to protect children, but also serve the dual purpose of reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings or unfounded allegations being made against staff and volunteers.

Unfortunately, there are some people who reject the argument that guidance protects coaches as well as children, believing instead that it is having a negative effect on the reputation of sport and putting many coaches off by cultivating a climate of fear around their contact with children.

Recent research interviewed 'around 100 coaches from a range of sports' - a tiny fraction of the number of sports coaches in the UK - highlighted the danger of misunderstanding where guidance around child protection in sport is concerned.

This research harks back to numerous sensationalist tabloid stories of recent months. Extreme examples cited include a sailing coach who reportedly 'suppresses [his] instinct to grab children out of the water when they appear to be in difficulties and instead thinks through which parts of the life jacket to hold' and one football coach who was said to refuse to shake hands with the young players at the start of a match. But these are, thankfully, rare cases and usually stem from a misunderstanding of the guidance.

The perceived 'no touch rule' is often at the heart of the debate, but in reality there is not, nor has there ever been, such a rule in sport coaching. The Child Protection in Sport Unit, established by the NSPCC in partnership with Sport England in 2001 to provide sports organisations with expert child protection advice and guidance, clearly states that physical contact can be used, for example, when explaining sporting techniques such as how to hold a javelin, or to assist children if they are injured or in danger.

Obviously if a child is in danger there must be no question that the coach can and must do whatever he or she can to help that child. It is a damaging myth that coaches should not immediately rush to the aid of a child if, for example, they are struggling in a pool. And handshakes and high fives when a team wins a game, for example, are clearly fine.

What the NSPCC, Sport England and other key sporting organisations advocate is the promotion of a common sense approach.

The guidelines, far from treating every volunteer as a potential suspect, actually work to remove the risk of misunderstandings and maintain a healthy adult/child relationship. For example, adults should change in separate changing rooms to the children to help keep that separation between coach and pupil and avoid any risk of false allegations. This is just sensible advice.

It is unfortunate that this small minority of coaches and organisations have misinterpreted the guidance. Some have subsequently enforced rules that they have assumed or heard from others, claiming to be so fearful of being accused of abuse that they would rather jeopardise the safety of the children in their care than risk their own careers. But it is important to recognise that such opinions are not representative of the majority. Anecdotal studies suggesting otherwise, therefore, are far more damaging to the reputation of the sporting industry than the guidance itself.

Let us not forget that only 600,000 of the 1.1 million registered sports coaches in the UK are qualified coaches, and the vast majority of these are unpaid volunteers giving up their spare time selflessly. As an organisation with thousands of dedicated volunteers, the NSPCC well understands the vital role they play. It's probably fair to say that without them, neither the sport nor charity sectors would be the same, which is why we should do all we can to celebrate and support them.

In this Olympic and Paralympic year - a time when the entire nation is getting behind sport and recognising its positive contribution to society - we should be celebrating sport more than ever as a means of helping children to focus, learn about winning and losing, work hard as individuals and as part of a team, stay fit and healthy and, above all else, have fun.

Scaremongering stories which draw on the experiences of a minority group are neither helpful nor representative of the true situation. It is only by working together that we can keep children safe whilst also making sure sport remains fun and accessible to all. And it is only by providing a high quality of safeguarding in sport that we can create a positive legacy for future generations of children - and adults - to enjoy.