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Last updated: 02.03.20

The grooming process in sport

No matter what sport you might think of, chances are that there’s been incidents of harassment and abuse within them. These things can occur at any level of any sport, whether that’s with amateur players or professional athletes, so it’s important to understand the definition of abuse and harassment in a sports context and how it can take form. We’ve taken a detailed look at the grooming process of women within sport specifically, as outlined by Celia Brackenridge and Kari Fasting, to break down the critical points where abusers might target vulnerable athletes so you can get an idea how where’s best to intervene.

Targeting a potential victim

The first thing an abuser will likely do is identify a vulnerable athlete by observing them during training, checking their behaviour to see whether it seems they would be susceptible to typical grooming tactics. Individual abusers may have their own criteria for how they choose targets, but an example criterion might be an athlete who seems more distant from the other athletes or their teammates.  Striking up a friendship and being overtly positive would be the initial move to see whether the target responds to this form of attention.

Building trust and friendship

Once the inroad has been established and the abuser has profiled their target as having exploitable aspects, the abuser will begin to build deeper bonds of trust and emotional connections. Consistency is key at this point, as abusers will want to be perceived as a stable source of support and positivity. Spending more time with their intended target and making them feel special will create a strong relationship between the two, with gifts and rewards being typical tactics abusers will use to create a positive connection between spending time together and receiving presents. At this point, an abuser will potentially start outlining basic conditions around meeting and bargaining (‘you have to do X because I have done Y’). This is where things start to get problematic as an element of obligation is formed and a power imbalance created.

Developing isolation, control and loyalty

From this point, an abuser might start exercising how much control they have over the vulnerable athlete they’ve targeted. This could be done through making the athlete complete little tests or answer questions which check how committed they are to pleasing their abuser. Cutting them off from their support networks, whether that’s friends, family or both, would also be in their interests as it creates a larger sense of isolation and makes their target more reliant on them rather than parents or peers.

Initiation of abuse and securing secrecy

If an abuser is able to almost completely isolate their target athlete and create a general feeling of reliance on them, they will then begin to push into ambiguous territory regarding sexual boundaries. This might be done through entrapment through previous sexual incidents, feelings of obligation around repayment for gifts or help getting further within the sport, or invoking feelings of guilt for a poor performance. The previous tests around commitment and secrecy will likely come into play here, as it’s these elements which an abuser will use to ensure any deviant behaviour goes unreported. Discrediting the athlete may be used if they object, claiming that no one would believe them anyway, and coercive behaviour could be used as a final resort to ensure cooperation. Threats to cut them from the team could also be used against them, holding their athletic career in the balance.

These four steps are the foundation of how an abuser would groom an athlete, each one presenting behaviour to spot which can help prevent a successful grooming incident. If you’re interested in how you can help practice safe sport and protect athletes through implementing proper safeguarding techniques, take a look at our online safeguarding courses. Virtual College offer a number of safeguarding training courses which can be completed at your own pace on almost any device.

You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this poster on spotting the signs of child grooming, and this infographic on the importance of safeguarding children in sport.