UNCRC & sports coaching — more than “safeguarding”

I had heard of a “rights-based approach” to coaching children, but not understood how this extends beyond keeping them safe from harm, important as this is.

So I was very interested to find out more about this approach, and how rights-based coaching relates to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), as part of the Open University (OU) course Sports Performance: Different Approaches to Sports Coaching.

The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child

Lots to think about.

I cannot recall any mention of the UNCRC in any coach education programme I have completed (cricket & football, 2011 & 2014) or ongoing “safeguarding” training (last revisited in 2021) — it might have been in the course notes, as a reference for further reading, but never as an explicit component of the education.

And that seems to be a huge omission.

Article 3

For me, Article 3 is perhaps the core statement on the rights of children and, for coaches, best practice in safeguarding. It correctly places the emphasis on the child, not the future sports star nor the coach’s ego.

Article 3. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. All adults should do what is best for children.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Too often, decisions are taken “on behalf of the child” — when to train, how often, where to play — which suit the adult perspective…but perhaps not always the child’s!

And shifting development from something the coach imposes to a right of the child surely changes for the better the emphasis for all coaching activities.

Article 12

Article 12. Children have the right to give their opinions freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and
take children seriously.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Lundy Model, Professor Laura Lundy; Hub na nÓg

Interesting to see the emphasis on the child’s voice having INFLUENCE. It would be all too easy for the coach to follow the first three steps in Prof Laura Lundy’s model, then largely ignore what the children and said!

UNCRC in practice

The OU course includes videos featuring Salisbury Rovers FC, who describe themselves as a “…youth football club in the heart of Salisbury with a very specific identity and purpose. Our club wants to put the joy of football at the heart of everything it does. Joy and competition are not mutually exclusive. Kids are competitive the moment you give them a ball. But kids need to play for themselves not for adults.”

I was struck by how the coaching “philosophy” at Salisbury Rovers demonstrates that it is possible to actively embody the rights of the child to be heard within a coaching plan.

  • In one example, the coach suggests several activities, but the athletes decide which to work on.
  • In another, the players select teams, decide on tactics, deliver their own team talks.

As a coach, I want the athletes I work with to learn to think about what they are doing, in the game and in practice — what better way to encourage this than by explicitly giving them the space to be heard!

Now, this does assume a level of maturity and responsibility amongst the athletes (characteristics not necessarily developed through formal education pathways), so the coach might need to prepare the athletes over time, in advance. But the positives of such an approach must surely be worth the initial coach input.

Article 36

Several recent cases of physical and emotional abuse within high performance programmes (thinking, here, particularly of swimming & gymnastics, where participants in HP programmes often are children) perhaps highlight non-compliance with Article 36 — “Children have the right to be protected from all…kinds of exploitation”.

Article 36. Children have the right to be protected from all other kinds of exploitation (being taken advantage of), even if these are not specifically mentioned in this Convention.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

It would appear that the motivation behind reported abuse has sometimes been the desire of the coach or the governing body to achieve (medal) success and maintain funding. The athletes (the children) are being abused in these systems not primarily from sadistic motives but to reach performance targets, with little regard for the well-being of the child.

See, for example, Dan Roan, for the BBC, on “Gymnastics abuse report again shows darker side of sport

And “I dug up my swimming bullying trauma for nothing

Cases of commercial exploitation of children under the guise of “performance” coaching can be found on the fringes of high performance sport. See, for example, “No Hunger in Paradise” in which Michael Calvin “…exposes bullying and a black economy in which children are commodities…”

Similar allegations exist within cricket, where parents report being advised to book additional (private) coaching sessions with County Age Group coaches as a route into CAG programmes, themselves the entry path to County Academy (early professional) programmes.

This might be considered as (commercial) exploitation of the child, especially, but also of the parents’ wallet.

Implications for coach education

The OU content on the UNCRC could usefully be incorporated into training for all sports, not just as a component of safeguarding.

In safeguarding training, there can sometimes be too much emphasis on spotting cases of abuse and reporting it (important…but does any coach really think such behaviour is ever acceptable?) and not enough on the positives of a rights-based approach.

“Functional” coach education covers the “what” of coaching (techniques (sometimes) & drills) but barely touches on the “how” (how people learn, how coaching can support learning) or “why” (outcomes — yes, enhanced performance is one outcome, but so is engagement and ”psychosocial” development). And the latter, in particular, seems to connect directly with a consideration of the rights of the child, in particular UNCRC articles 3 and 12.

Oh, that some coach educators/developers should see this course!

Questions for the coach

Serious consideration of the implications of the UNCRC for “rights-based” coaching perhaps resolves to the following questions for the coach.

Do the children want to come back next week?

Do they still play the game in the playground or the park?

If you can’t say “yes”, then are you stealing a part of that person’s childhood?

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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