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Why Staying Safe in sport this winter means more than just avoiding the virus

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Stay safe! How many times have we all heard or said those words over the past few months?

So much so, perhaps, it’s hard not to immediately link safety with staying clear of the global pandemic.

But, of course, safety extends far further than just reducing the risks of Covid-19 and in sport the issue of safeguarding has moved to the forefront of every organisation and activity in recent years.

National Safeguarding Week 

This week is National Safeguarding Week and an opportunity for all sports to consider not just the issues of physical and mental well-being and duties of care, but how those familiar issues have been altered by lockdown restrictions and new ways of operating.

Since March, sports throughout Wales have had to adapt as never before, but their responsibilities – especially to young people – have not changed.

For every training session that has moved online, or every lost source of revenue, to every furloughed employee, there is always a knock-on effect regarding how those responsibilities can still be met.

One sport that has adapted to meet these new safeguarding challenges is triathlon.

It’s a sport with a broad age range as well as three different components in swimming, cycling and running – with some of those easier to do with less supervision than others.

Welsh Triathlon

Welsh Triathlon chief executive Beverley Lewis says: “In communicating with our clubs, we are obviously less connected in some senses because so much has moved online.

“It became very obvious that our welfare officers were calling for more advice because of the changing nature of what they were doing.”

As a result, the governing body has set up a regular welfare forum where officers within Welsh Triathlon can offer updates and advice to those carrying out welfare roles at the clubs.

For all sports that have moved to a virtual world, there is the obvious issues of security – knowing exactly who has access to see and hear through those online windows – as well as the physical safety of participants who are now no longer within arm’s reach if things go wrong.

But much of the advice being sought, says Beverley, has been to help coaches, too, who have gone from pouring so much of their time into the sport to suddenly having a much reduced role.

From coach to couch

Triathletes have been able to resume training in strictly limited numbers – so they can get out and swim, bike and run – but the prospect of events and competition is still months away.

“For coaches who were giving up their evenings, suddenly, that whole aspect of their life has pretty much gone for many, so that takes some adjustment,” says Beverley.

“It’s a challenge for many people because if they are not training or coaching, then a lot of their self-identity can disappear.

“For a lot of people, keeping the communication going has been an important role to fulfil for the governing body – keeping people connected with each other, so that even if they’re not seeing other athletes so much, they know that they’re still connected socially and this situation isn’t going to last forever. It’s become not just about training – it’s about engagement.”

When young children are involved, then the issues around safeguarding stemming from lockdown can be even more difficult to manage.

Not only are countless young people desperate to maintain organised sport and physical activity in their lives, but that can often be against a backdrop of other pressures in the home.

A safe place

With higher risks of physical and emotional abuse caused by the social and economic impact of the pandemic well documented, sports are keener than ever to offer themselves as a safe place.

Laura Whapham, the child protection in Sport Officer for the NSPCC, says the understandable urgency felt by children, parents, and clubs to keep going has brought fresh challenges when it comes to safeguarding.

The solution was to try and adapt some of the principles and advice given to teachers, to those trying to keep their sport going in a virtual world.

She says: “A lot of that guidance has been useful in running online sports activity for children, but it’s been hard for both clubs and parents.

“Sport is a fun part of their lives for most children and so it’s crucial to their mental health. Getting them back into sport was vital, therefore, even if it meant the people involved having to adapt very quickly. It's been a steep learning curve.

“It’s been difficult to achieve that and stay within the rules. There was some anecdotal evidence where people were breaching lockdown rules to run sessions for children and sometimes sports themselves had to act against those clubs, because clearly that’s in no-one’s best interests.”

Same channel

With new issues to solve as well as the old ones, the NSPCC are encouraged by other sports, such as gymnastics, following triathlon’s lead in creating channels for welfare officers to seek the latest guidance.

But what about the vital channel of reporting a safeguarding concern, where a parent, clubmate or anyone else can voice their anxieties?

Has lockdown and the virtual world reduced the number of calls?

“Thankfully, there’s no evidence of that,” says Laura. 

“The process for how you report a concern in a sport has stayed the same, so all the channels are still there.”

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