ATHLETES AT RISK: 7 Tips to Prevent Sexual Abuse, Misconduct

Fourth in a 5-part series

By Cathy Chapaty

I’ve made a plethora of mistakes in my martial arts teaching career that horrify me today. Years ago, I:

  • Took a 15-year-old student out to dinner at the behest of his parents. The student was struggling emotionally, and his mom thought he’d talk to me about what was bothering him. It didn’t occur to me that this might be wrong.
  • Let a 14-year-old student spend the night at my house. All week, we’d volunteered at the Taekwondo National Championships in Austin, Texas—early mornings and late nights. The student’s parents asked me if he could sleep at my house and I give him a ride to the tournament Saturday morning so that they could sleep in. I agreed. Back then, I didn’t know any better.
  • Held overnight lock-ins at my school. In fact, the setting for my book, No Pouting in the Dojo: Life Lessons through Martial Arts, is a lock-in. Today I wouldn’t host such an event. Now I know better.

Each of the above examples either represents a teacher-student boundary violation or presents the opportunity for abuse. Given the recent sexual abuse claims by athletes in organized sports, it’s clear that good intentions are no longer good enough to keep athletes safe.

1 in 10

In a 2004 nationwide survey of students in grades 8-11, Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Va., found that nearly 7 percent—about 3.5 million students—reported having physical sexual contact from an adult in their school, primarily a teacher or coach.

Those numbers rise to about 10 percent, or nearly 4.5 million students, when eliminating misconduct that doesn’t include touching (sharing pornography, sexual talk, or sexual exhibitionism), Shakeshift said in a 2013 Phi Delta Kappan article.

According to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit organization tasked with combatting bullying, hazing, harassment, and sexual abuse in organized sports, 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before turning 18.

How does abuse occur—and recur?

A 2004 U.S. Department of Education study reported that perpetrators often “target vulnerable or marginal students who are grateful for the attention.” The study also found that complaints from marginal students against popular teachers are less likely be accepted as credible.

According to SafeSport’s Sexual Misconduct Awareness and Education training module, “Trust and power are inherent to the coach-athlete relationship: The coach is in a position of authority, instructing the athlete. The athlete trusts that their coach has their best interests at heart. When a coach misuses trust and power, athletes are more vulnerable to abuse and misconduct.”

To combat abuse in Olympic sports, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and all national sports organizations require coaches, staff, and volunteers to earn education credits through three SafeSport training modules that cover emotional and physical misconduct, mandatory reporting, and sexual misconduct awareness education. This training will soon available be available to the public.

Background checks are also a standard practice.

What else can athletes, parents, coaches, staff, and volunteers do to ensure all athletes train in a safe space? Here are seven tips to combat sexual abuse and misconduct.

Tip 1: Maintain professional teacher-student boundaries

It’s normal for a young student who admires her coach to invite him to birthday and pool parties and other social events. Some instructors have a “no social interaction” policy. Others attend students’ events without hesitation. But it’s important to remember that coaches should avoid accepting social invitations that involve the student and coach being alone.

Also, when traveling, have a safe-travel plan:

  • If minors travel to competitions without parents, insist on a chaperone.
  • Avoid one-on-one trips between an instructor and student.
  • Ensure the understanding that coaches should never share rooms with students, regardless of age.

To save money on overnight competition trips, coaches and students sometimes pile everyone in the same room. John Graden, executive director of the Martial Arts Teachers’ Association (MATA), said this sets a dangerous boundary-crossing precedent.

“Some schools take students to tournaments,” he said. “Everyone sleeps in one hotel room with sleeping bags on the floor. This is a really bad idea in today’s environment.”

Tip 2: Keep all social media contact professional

In today’s fast-paced, social media-driven society, it’s common for instructors to text their students about schedule changes due to inclement weather, tournament arrival times, and other reminders. However, SafeSports warns:

  • An instructor shouldn’t text or e-mail a 14-year-old, for example, without also copying the parents;
  • Parents should be wary if they discover their child texting an instructor late at night—especially if the conversation doesn’t involve school matters; and
  • Athletes shouldn’t join or “like” a coach or volunteer’s personal social media page, and vice versa.

Personally, I now only accept social media invitations from former students who have been gone for two years.

Tip 3: Enforce a zero-tolerance dating policy

SafeSport warns that a coach in an intimate or sexual relationship with an athlete he or she instructs “is considered a serious breach of the SafeSport Code.” It also warns:

  • “Any non-consensual sexual conduct is sexual misconduct and is a violation of the SafeSport Code and may also violate criminal law,” and
  • “Where there is a power imbalance, SafeSport prohibits sexual relationships between coaches and athletes, regardless of the ages of the athlete and coach involved.”

Tip 4: Insist on full disclosure

SafeSport recommends that meetings between athletes and coaches:

  • Never be one-on-one and out of sight of others, and
  • Be held where interactions can be easily observed or interrupted.

The organization advises that coaches keep the office door unlocked and open if an individual meeting needs to take place.

Tip 5: Prohibit inappropriate touching

In martial arts, coaches will touch athletes to help them understand the mechanics of movement and to correct body positioning. This is normal.

However, no one should touch athletes—not even a coach—in a manner that makes the athletes feel uncomfortable. SafeSport advises that coaches, parents, and athletes keep the following in mind:

  • Students love their coach for bringing out the best in them, but coach-student relationships should always be professional.
  • If the athlete feels like the coach is becoming too friendly, it’s perfectly acceptable to set a boundary.
  • Massages should only be performed by a licensed massage therapist or other certified professional.
  • Even if a coach is a certified massage professional, SafeSport warns against allowing the coach to massage an athlete.
  • Athletes should never feel coerced to do something they don’t want to do. If the coach is persistent, no matter how good that coach is and how much the student may like him or her, leave.
  • A minor cannot legally give consent.

Tip 6: Tell someone about it

There’s a reason for the saying, “Our secrets keep us sick.” SafeSport and safety industry experts recommend:

  • If you see something, say something—no matter the time, place, or circumstance, and regardless of the high profile of the person suspected of abuse.
  • Trust your gut.
  • Question anything that doesn’t seem right. A good coach won’t mind answering questions and clarifying misunderstandings; and
  • If the coach balks, walk. Immediately report the incident to local law enforcement authorities and SafeSport.
  • And finally…

Tip 7: Educate yourself

Athletes and parents don’t have to figure this out alone. Learn the signs of bullying, harassment, and sexual abuse and misconduct by:

  • Visiting SafeSport for training on sexual abuse and misconduct awareness and prevention, emotional and physical misconduct, and mandatory reporting; and
  • Checking out Darkness to Light (D2L), a nonprofit committed to empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse. D2L offers a variety of training options, including Stewards of Children certification. Courses are available to the public, and some cost as little as $5.

Reporting is now mandatory

For years in many states, teachers have been considered mandated reporters, and there have been legal penalties for not reporting suspicions of abuse. (To find out the reporting statutes in your state, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway website.)

But in mid-February, President Donald Trump signed a bill to strengthen mandatory reporting laws for amateur athletic organizations; these organizations now must report any allegations of sexual assault immediately to law enforcement.

SafeSport recommends that when in doubt, call 911 to report sexual misconduct or abuse to local law enforcement. If the abused is an athlete in an Olympic sport, SafeSport has an online Sexual Misconduct Incident Reporting Form, or athletes can call (720) 531-0340. SafeSport accepts anonymous reports.

When we know better…

“When we know better, we do better,” George Schorn, board chair of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation, told me recently. Indeed.

The above tips are by no means comprehensive. There’s still more to learn, and to combat this problem, we all must look for ways to hold clear conversations with one another and to establish and maintain professional boundaries.

When I began teaching, I made a lot of innocent mistakes because I didn’t know any better. Today, though, the stakes are too high and the resources too plentiful to be ignorant about the dangers of sexual abuse and misconduct. It will take all of us to keep our athletes safe.

As for me, no one will be staying at my house again.

Now I know better.

Cathy Chapaty is a veteran martial artist, teacher, and youth mentor. She is the author of No Pouting in the Dojo: Life Lessons through Martial Arts and is an ambassador for the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors. Contact her at

Athletes at Risk Series

This five-part series explores sexual abuse and misconduct in Olympic Taekwondo. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, some sources have asked to remain anonymous.

Part 1: Convincing Athletes to Report Sexual Abuse, Misconduct a Hard Art

Part 2: The Evolution of Abuse of Power

Part 3: Martial Arts Leaders: Education Key to Ending Sexual Abuse

Part 4: 7 Tips to Prevent Sexual Abuse, Misconduct

Part 5: COMMENTARY: Congress Must Intervene to Ensure Athletes’ Safety

Cathy Chapaty is a veteran martial artist, teacher and youth mentor, and author of No Pouting in the Dojo: Life Lessons through Martial Arts. An ambassador for the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors (AWMAI), Chapaty is respected as an empowering, positive teacher with a knack for helping children of all ages and abilities learn martial arts. In 2012 the Embassy of the Republic of Korea honored her for an essay on the transformational power of Taekwondo. The National Women’s Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF) named her member of the year in 2011. She is a member of the NWMAF, AWMAI, USA Taekwondo, and the Writers’ League of Texas, and lives in Austin, Texas, with her wife of 20 years, three dogs—two with three legs—and a hopelessly predatory cat. Contact her at
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