Keeping safe in sport: child protection training for coaches and volunteers

As part of the A-Star Sports programme, we encourage children and families to look at sports clubs and physical activity organisations after their time with us and particularly as they progress beyond the primary school years.  Here, Keir McDonald MBE writes for A-Star Sports about keeping safe in sport throughout this progression:

Keeping all children and young people safe while participating in youth sports is something in which everyone involved with sports organisations needs to participate. Creating a safe, fun and secure environment often begins with coaches and volunteers.

The best volunteer and youth coach sports training programmes incorporate four critical elements, including; anti bullying policies, concussion training, recognising signs of abuse, and criminal records checks.

All coaches and volunteers of youth sports leagues and teams should consider training on the following topics to know to keep children as safe as possible.

Anti-bullying training and policy implementation

Increasingly, bullying is prevalent on sports fields and in the daily lives of children and adolescents. Bullying has a significant impact on the emotional and overall functioning of children making it critical that youth sports leagues take steps to tackle this problem head on.

By training and supporting your coaches, volunteers, and parents when it comes to anti bullying, you can promote a culture of vigilance in your youth sports organisation, which can make all the difference in safeguarding children. Experts at Bullying UK and Family Lives have endorsed a number of professionally authored online learning programmes focusing on duty of care issues.

These programmes also explain how to identify bullying behaviour, what to do about it, and how to ensure best practices in your sports organisation. By taking these steps towards a more educated youth sports community, bullying will be minimised, if not completely eradicated.

Finally, it’s worth noting that although most coaches use affirming and encouraging coaching styles, bullying behaviour such as demeaning, shaming, and name-calling remains a concerningly common aspect of coaching in sports at any level. Anti-bullying policies and education play an important role in eliminating any and all demeaning behaviour.

Concussion screening and training

During a sport-related concussion incident, coaches, volunteers and athletic trainers are often the first responders. To be most effective as one of the first responders on the scene, knowing your athletes before the season is very important. At the beginning of each season, coaches, volunteers and athletic trainers should assess the athlete’s concussion history and administer baseline concussion testing.

Not only can this assessment greatly help manage a concussion if it ever occurs, but the very act of getting tested will raise concussion awareness for athletes, parents and coaches.

This communication and screening is important because studies have shown that many athletes do not report concussion symptoms to coaches, parents and trainers because they do not know what the symptoms feel like. Training coaches and athletes about concussions and concussion symptoms is very important to keep youth athlete safe.

Knowing and recognising signs of abuse

Youth sports coaches are in a unique position to help recognise the symptoms of child abuse. Child abuse most frequently occurs in the home and the perpetrator is typically a member of the family. Sadly, the vast majority of abuse goes unreported.

While there are numerous warning signs exhibited by children who have been abused or molested, the majority of these signs are emotional and can be difficult to detect. While rare, physical warning signs should be reported immediately. The less-obvious presence of signs such as depression, anxiety, sudden changes in eating habits or self-mutilation should be taken seriously and the child should be closely monitored.

Again, training here is critical because when coaches and volunteers know what to look for, they are better able to step in and help when necessary.

Checking for criminal records

Concerns about youth sports organisations screening coaches for criminal history has intensified in recent months. While background investigation is not required for all youth sports teams, any time numerous volunteers are lined up it is a good idea to have an evaluation process for volunteers at which the background checks can be done to reduce the team and oranisation’s liability.

Youth-based sports programmes should try to screen out people with a criminal past that makes them unsuitable for working with children. There are a number of organisations worldwide who offer simple and cost-effective background checks online. At a minimum, violent and sex offenders or anyone with an extensive criminal past could cause irreparable damage to a sports organisation and the individual athletes and should be screened out from the beginning.

About the author

Keir McDonald MBE is founder and Director of EduCare, an online training solutions company that specialises in child protection, exploitation and online safety, and bullying and child neglect. EduCare is associated with both Kidscape and Family Lives and customers include over 4000 schools and colleges and 12000 pre-schools as well as councils, NHS, charities and more.


A-Star Sports coaches have enhanced DBS checks, first aid qualifications, have achieved or are currently striving for Level 2 coaching certificates or above and receive child protection/safeguarding children and positive child behaviour management training, supported by the associated best practice policies and procedures.

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