Fencing club owners, coaches, parents and athletes across the United States are feeling the impact of increased awareness of abuse in the sport of fencing and the reporting of it. As we ask ourselves, “What more can I do to help keep my athletes safe?”, WFencing offers ten practical steps and actions that any coach or club owner who is concerned can take today:
Hire for Diversity. Working to make sure you have the best club reflecting the values you want your team to embody can be a challenge. You want your staff to reflect the community you are serving in as many ways as possible, when possible. Differences can include less obvious things like accents, place of origin, type of school attended. Start with just paying attention to your thoughts and feelings about hiring something different than you. A diverse environment is a significant way to empower different voices and perspectives that work toward an accountable and open environment.
Acknowledge Mistakes Openly. When you mess up, thank the person who called you out for bringing the mistake to your attention. This starts at a very young age when a student corrects you for saying their name incorrectly or points out a misspelled word in your materials. Kids who feel safe expressing themselves to adults grow up feeling more comfortable talking about difficult subjects as they arise. Reward this behavior at every level of development with parents, athletes, and staff.
Interrupt Unfairness. Every fencer knows what unfairness feels like. Often we feel powerless to change the outcomes when a referee makes a bad call or as a coach you suspect a bias is being acted upon. Understand the difference between coaching for resilience (letting things go which impede performance) and being an advocate for fairness and justice (being vocal with a complaint to the tournament bout committee). Define how you will speak up and speak out in benefit of fair play.
Request Pronouns on Intake Forms. Gender identity is not rigid. Many people today are changing their names, redefining gender on their terms, openly, and with more confidence than previous generations. Why pronouns matter.
Ask permission to touch and explain what you are doing as you are correcting or helping. Often examples of this are found around helping a new fencer learn how to get on their equipment. After asking permission to help -- and waiting to hear the response -- explain, “I am going to reach and connect this strap behind your back.” When you notice a safety issue, ask, “Can you zip your jacket or do you need some extra help right now?” Facilitate as often as possible a choice for how they decide physical contact occurs.
Safesport Training for All. Normalize talking about abuse and reporting by making it part of your camps and regular programing. Identify other adults in your club who have had training (in addition to staff) on where anyone can go with suspicions or questions when something doesn't feel right or seems off. Such training should include minors themselves because so many minors are victims of abuse; see USAFencing’s guidance and training courses for minors, including a SafeSport Youth Athlete Training Course under the Parent resources page: https://www.usafencing.org/safe-sport
Grooming is a learned skill. Predators learn by practicing in different environments and learning what they can get away with. Sexual abuse can often be accompanided by other forms of abuse and, according to SafeSport, the most common abuse type is emotional abuse. Acting on thoughts or impulses are more likely to happen when professional boundaries, as such defined by the SafeSport Code, are ignored or dismissed. Click here to read more about the stages of grooming: https://www.d2l.org/child-grooming-signs-behavior-awareness/
Be observable and interruptible. As hard as you work to keep doors open, work just as hard to keep communication two-way and varied within your own sport communities. Ask for help from a wide variety of parents and adult members participating. Digital communication should be observable and interruptible as well, and always so with minors.
Educate yourself on guilt and shame. These feelings impede reporting, contribute to open secrets, and prevent speaking up and seeking help. Brene Brown is the leading expert on our understanding of these feelings today.
Consult. Consult. Consult. We are human. We love a fighting sport where we vie for power and control on the piste. When that quest for domination and innate desire for positive attention or sense of belonging/acceptance turn into abuse it requires the community to step and intercept. We need to develop new habits of consulting about behaviors with other coaches, parents, law enforcement, school officials and counselors - people in and/or outside the world of fencing - who can help us as individuals and communities make tough decisions. Sport fencing is unique, and wonderful. Let's grow ourselves stronger and make it more safe for everyone to participate in.
As competitive communities work to keep athletes safe, it is important to know there is not a checklist of items that must be completed in order to maintain safety. This will be an ongoing process the fencing community has to figure out and hold itself accountable for. No club is fully secure from a predator. We can work together as a USA Fencing community to reduce the chances of abuse by creating an open, inclusive and diverse environment where athletes, parents and coaches feel comfortable consulting and getting help when needed. Our sport deserves this level of attention to one another!
If you are struggling when reading this post, reach out to someone in your community you trust:
Jen Oldham is a practicing fencing coach and club owner in Durham, NC who has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and is a Fencing Master. Coach Jen has been the Head Coach of Mid-South Fencers club for 13 years and is a Co-Founder of WFencing. Her latest project is Forge Teams in order to assist in building leaders and fostering equity within competitive sport environments. Coach Jen can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org