USA Swimming Revelations just a tipping point…

 By:  Doug Gardner, Ed.D.

Over the past several years, I have been asked what are the new and upcoming trends in sport and applied sport psychology.  These questions usually come from graduate students or others interested in gaining my insight into the cutting-edge training methods for elite athlete of the future.  I usually counter with something unexpected and rather shocking.

I have said and I will continue to argue that over the next decade, we will hear more and more stories related to sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young athletes, who participated in the explosive period of specialization and professionalization of youth sport, starting in, roughly the early 1990’s.  Specifically, I believe we will hear revelations of these types of abuses ten to twenty years, after-the-fact, when the children and adolescents who have experienced such devastating experiences, are old enough to both come to grips with their experiences and feel safe enough to come forward.

In Northern California alone, there  are well over 5,000 travel sport programs, covering several sports, for players between the ages of 7 to 19.  Many of these sport teams are formed in response to the dumbing down of other youth programs, where competition is replaced with feel good games, where everyone is a winner.  In my opinion, this has given rise to polarization and extremism as to what is the most appropriate venue for youth sport.    Travel teams compete in weekend tournaments where coaches, parents and young players stay in hotels and share much common space and time, especially when considering the year-around nature of youth sport. 

The danger in these travel programs is the lack of rules, governing and licensing bodies and overall oversight over the individual teams and the adults who coach, teach and supervise young athletes.  The revelations discussed in the recent ESPN Outside the Lines investigation about wide-spread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within USA Swimming(, is our warning that this issue is much larger than we know and should serve as a wake-up call to all parents, youth sport organizations, teams, coaches and most importantly, to the young and impressionable children and adolescents who entrust us with their physical, social and psychological well-being. 

As more cases similar to the USA swimming scandal come out into the open, I contend that we will hear more stories of these types of abuses.  I hope that I am wrong about this, but I do believe that the youth sport environment, especially when not regulated, can be a fertile ground for those who have ill intentions with young children and adolescent athletes.   Little League and other national non-profit sport organizations have governing bodies who establish and enforce rules, regulations and educational growth.  

Where are these governing bodies for the thousands of travel programs who bounce from one weekend tournament to the next?  Is there a system in place for background checks, coaching education and other skill-development aspects of sport?  Theoretically, travel programs are supposed to have the best coaches and teachers, but how does the consumer really know about these coaches outside of their working relationship? 

Yet, parents often blindly buy into so-call gurus, at what-ever cost, because their son or daughter may get a scholarship or have a measure of success they deem important.  If I were the parents of one of these USA swimmers, I do not know what I would do.

Something has to be done.  Not just within USA swimming, but in all of youth sport, especially with travel programs who work outside of traditional youth sport systems.   If nothing is done, than youth sport may go the way of the Catholic Church, by continuing to deny the existence of such deep-seeded problems and then crumble under its own weight of this denial.   

At what cost and jeopardy do we place our children, just for the chance of elusive and short-lived victory or success?

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