This is the fourth and final article in USA Cycling's series on SafeSport Parenting. This series is written by Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, a USA Cycling level 1 coach and member of the USA Cycling Coaching Education Advisory Committee.

By Kristen Dieffenbach
In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this SafeSport Parenting series, we explored the value and structure of the junior athlete-parent-coach team in the quest for a quality youth sport experience and positive development.  While the primary relationship exists between the athlete and coach, parents play a key role as well.  Perhaps one of the most important parental charges in this regard is to ensure that the coaching relationship is both safe and healthy for their athlete. This requires parents to remain engaged and aware, to empower their athlete and to have both the conviction and resources to step in and stand up when there are questions, concerns, or red flags.
"Safe and healthy" seems like an obvious goal, however, without a clear definition, this core concept seems to get lost among the outcome goals and competitive drive of sport as athletes, coaches and parents get caught up in our "win at all cost" culture and forget the true developmental purpose and value of sport for young people.  Sport at all levels, but especially at the nonprofessional level, should be not only a physically safe and healthy place, but it should also be an emotionally and socially safe and healthy place. 

This does not mean that the athlete never experiences frustration, challenge or disappointment.  On the contrary, these are all parts of competition and important elements to learning and developing key skills such as the resiliency necessary both for elite sport and for life.  What it does mean is that the adults involved need to be prepared to help athletes navigate the challenges of sports and develop their skills and be willing to step in when unsafe situations occur. 

Be Proactive

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.  The first three articles in this series provided ideas to help start off the relationship in the right direction with ideas for proactively choosing a development minded coach.  In addition to asking the right questions and being clear on your expectation, once the athlete is working with a coach, it is important to stay engaged. 

Understandably finding the right parental involvement balance can be tricky.  Parents often worry about ‘bothering the coach’, ‘appearing to mistrust’ or hurting their child’s chances to have the coach help them navigate the path to high performance.  A quality coach who is truly invested in your athlete’s development and who is doing the right things will be willing to engage in a dialogue and set up a communication line you both feel comfortable with.   
With your teen, this is one of those times when you should legitimately use the ‘because I am the parent and it is my responsibility’ card. It is tough to be in the monitoring role with teenagers as they seek to develop their autonomy.  It can be especially challenging in cycling, where adults and juniors routinely train and compete together, often on the same team, creating blurred lines for everyone involved.  But if you aren’t willing or able to do it, who will?

Parent Monitoring Rules of Thumb

  • Understand appropriate parental expectations of coaches working with developmental athletes. Talk to others and develop a network of individuals you trust for their insight and honesty who you can turn to when you need to discuss a concern.

  • Don’t hover or try to discuss every workout and every phone call with your athlete or the coach, but do check in regularly following a schedule that all parties are comfortable with. Unlike traditional scholastic sport team, there is often no administrative structure to monitor cycling coaches and provide policies guiding a coach’s actions so this is up to you.

  • Ask questions about travel and training arrangements.  

  • Empower your athlete so they feel comfortable discussing and exploring any coaching communications or relationship concerns they have with you without worrying about your reaction.  In these conversations gauge your responses carefully so they are not reactionary.  For routine communication struggles, focus your efforts on helping your athlete solve the problem (teachable moment!) rather than stepping in for them.  However, when more serious concerns are raised, be confident in your responsibility to intervene.

  • Trust your gut.

When Action is Needed

The position of coach holds a unique place in our culture.  With the title come various types and degrees of power that a coach may use in a positive manner or may knowingly or unknowingly use in a negative or harmful way.  Coaching is ultimately a teaching and leadership position that imparts an implied authority, the ability to offer rewards, an expectation that others will follow and that discipline may be handed out, and informational or knowledge power. 

The importance that we give to those who coach means they have both persuasive and charismatic power over athletes, parents and others in sport.  Disappointingly, research as well as stories in the popular press demonstrate that when winning is valued disproportionately to quality development, the misuse of or abuse of power by coaches is often overlooked with harmful and sometimes devastating consequences for youth athletes sport careers and lives.  
Keep in mind that discussion is not limited or even focused on the egregious (and illegal) abuses of coaching power such as the sexual exploitation or physical abuse of a child.  There is a continuum of concerns as related to inappropriate coaching that may have negative implications the physical, social and/or emotional well-being of the athlete that parents need to be willing and prepared to handle.  Though uncomfortable, thinking through these situations and considering plans of action can help prepare parents to act when faced with a negative situation and more importantly, it can help prepare them to be even more proactive when setting up a quality coach for a junior athlete. 

Watch Out for Warning Signs

  • A coach-athlete relationship that resembles more of a peer or close friendship rather than an appropriate teacher student or mentor connection.

  • A team or coaching culture that pits athletes against one another or encourages athletes to vie for the attention and approval of the coach.

  • An emphasis or singular focus on adult based training or commitment from athletes who are not mature enough across all levels of development (physical, psychological and social).

  • A coach who is unwilling or unable to have a discussion regarding your parenting role and concerns.

  • A coach who embarrasses, belittles, or is negative towards your athlete or other developmental athletes.

  • More interest in his or her own racing or reputation than in the well-being or development of your athlete.

  • A coach who gets possessive, restrictive or demanding regarding an athlete’s time and allegiance.

  • A coach who rarely provides praise or positive feedback.

  • Use of physical activity as punishment.

  • A coach who uses guilt, bullying, pressure or coercion with athletes, parents or others in general.

  • Nagging athlete injuries that go unaddressed.

  • A coach who has inappropriate expectations given the athlete’s age and developmental level.

  • A coach who rushes development.

  • A lack of concern or respect for other activities important to the family or athlete.

  • A lack of concern or emphasis on holistic development and other activities (e.g. school, social interactions) that are important development through the teenage years.
Most coaches don’t knowingly or intentionally abuse the power of their position.  Creating open communication and an environment where concerns can be discussed in a frank and friendly manner with the well-being of the athlete as the central issue can help address the majority of problems. It is essential that this relationship is established well before any concerns are raised.  

If a coach is unwilling or unable to have clear proactive discussions or if you are not satisfied with the response when an issue arise, ending the relationship may be an appropriate course of action.  Keep in mind that the relationship involves other individuals, namely the athlete, so be prepared for this conversation as well.
When there are concerns that a coach has made an ethical or abuse of power mis-step that goes beyond differing values, it is essential that you act immediately.  It is important that you not only support your athlete but that you also consider safety and well-being of other young athletes by discussing your concerns with a person or agency equipped to assist or provide guidance in such matters. 

Places to turn for guidance might include a sport psychology professional, an athletic or program director (even if they are from a different sport program they will know your area resources), a child protection advocate or the USA Cycling SafeSport office. Consider taking a free informational course such as those offered by the USOC SafeSport or the Respect in Sport program to learn about how to be both an advocate for a quality youth sport culture and a protector of young athletes. 
The bottom line is your young athlete only has one chance for a youth sport experience that is positive.  Statistically, it is very unlikely that a youth sport experience will translate into a full professional sport career, regardless of the talent they demonstrate.  However, every young athlete involved in sport will carry the experience and the lessons learned, both positive and negative, throughout their life.  Help ensure cycling is one of the highlights of their developmental journey.

USA Cycling's Role

While ensuring a safe sport experience for young riders is ultimately the responsibility of parents, USA Cycling and their SafeSport Initiative are committed to helping facilitate the development of a safe and healthy culture.  All USAC coaches must undergo specific training to qualify for each level of coaching certification from 3 (beginner) through 1 (elite).  While this training is sport specific, it is primarily aimed at the training of adult athletes.  Ask a prospective coach specifically about their knowledge base for training and working with athletes under 18. 

In order to obtain and maintain a USAC coaching license, coaches are required to undergo routine background checks and compete continuing education credits biannually.  Note that the process does not require coaches to undergo driving record clearance unless they are specifically working at a USAC camp.  If you allow your athlete to travel with a coach, asking questions about a coach’s driving record is appropriate. And don’t be shy about asking a coach about the continuing education they do.

In addition to the current requirements, beginning in 2014, all coaches obtaining or renewing a USAC license will be required to complete the USOC SafeSport training.  This online training (free for everyone) discusses bullying and hazing, emotional, physical and sexual misconduct, and child sexual abuse as well as outlining guideline, resources and responsibilities for adults in leadership positions (e.g., coaches, team managers, and parent).


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This Article Updated March 24, 2017 @ 07:15 PM For more information contact: