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Quebec study gains new insight into sexual abuse by coaches

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The modus operandi of sports coaches who sexually abuse young athletes usually consists of six main stages, according to researchers at Université Laval, who were among the first to take a closer look at the problem.

The researchers identified some 50 strategies used by abusive coaches during each stage, for example when it comes to gaining the trust of a child or their parents.

“Our study really looked specifically at the strategies used by each coach," explained researcher Élisabeth St-Pierre. “We didn't know what strategies were used before or after a trainer committed a crime. And we saw that certain strategies were used much more often than others."

This research is based on an analysis of over 2,000 court judgments and newspaper articles concerning 120 cases of sexual assault committed by Canadian sports coaches against 331 athletes, mostly boys, between 1967 and 2020.

Analysis of the sample reveals that 133 girls and 198 boys were victims of a sexual assault by their coach. The average age of the athletes was 13.6. The average age of the coaches was 33.6. Over the years, 85.8 per cent of these adults committed more than one incident of abuse.

The study reveals an average of 2.8 young athlete victims for each coach. Witnesses were present at the time of the abuse in 21 per cent of cases, for example because the acts were committed as part of a "game." The average length of time the aggressors were active is 5.8 years. Finally, an average of 14.1 years elapsed between the first assault and the first report to the police.

The cases studied cover some 25 sports, demonstrating that the phenomenon does not just occur in the most popular sports.

“The aim (of the study) was to suggest avenues of prevention adapted to (the aggressors') modus operandi," said St-Pierre. “When you take into account the modus operandi and develop prevention strategies based on that, you develop prevention strategies that are going to be effective."

The researchers also hope that their study will make it possible to spot the warning signs before it's too late.

“We're a long way from the assailant hiding in the bushes and jumping on his victim at random," said St-Pierre. "It can take other forms, and it's important to know that.”

Surprisingly, the abusive coaches did not use any particular strategy to convince their victims to remain silent. Some youngsters said they kept quiet because they were ashamed, for fear of being excluded from their sport or losing the coach's attention, or because they didn't consider they had been assaulted.

Around 10 per cent of assaults involved international athletes. The fear of losing a coach or sponsors, while being at the height of their athletic career, may have silenced some athletes, the researchers said.

The study recommends educating athletes and parents about the characteristics of sexual assault in sport. The researchers also recommend clarifying the boundaries of the coach-athlete relationship by discouraging coaches from spending time alone with an athlete during activities outside the sporting context.

"You have to ask questions and take as much interest as possible in what your child is doing in sport," concluded St-Pierre.

The findings of this study were published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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In the event of harassment, neglect or violence in a sports environment, file a complaint here 

 - This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Dec. 7, 2023.

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