University of Johannesburg: Safeguarding sports requires care for athletes and leaders alike

​A two-day, agenda-setting sport conference at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has encouraged athletes and administrators alike to care for each other just as they do for sports. With more than twenty experts speaking in unison on safeguarding sport, an athlete ‘success was at the centre of it all.

The conference delved into why athletes take banned substances to achieve success, sexual harassment and abuse cases in the recent years, policy implementation to safeguard sports in all angles, and gender-based violence as well as the protection of children in sport.

Speaking on a holistic approach about the various issues plaguing sports of all kinds, speakers reiterated that policy development without thorough execution would not protect athletes from sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of their coaches. Caring for athletes, it was said, begins with empowerment and allowing them to be in control of decision-making about their sport. With a variety of topics presented over two days, some of the presenters unpacked the trauma suffered by athletes during and post their competitive years.

Research shows that athletes lose a part of their identity and suffer from depression when they retire from sport. Dr Kirsten van Heerden on some of the research findings that showed that about 40% of athletes suffer from depression, anxiety and stress once they retire and try to adjust to ordinary life. She said that up to 60% of athletes experience an emotional let-down after retirement and that close to 50% of athletes feel that they lose their identity when they stop competing.

Speaking on “How to develop a safeguarding framework for your sporting organisation ensuring athletes are kept at the centre”, Dr Phil Doorgachurn said that some of the world’s top athletes are considered to be super human because of the performances they are able to produce in their sport codes. However, elite athletes like Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in Olympic history, have suffered from mental health breakdowns. This resulted in her withdrawal from some of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic events.

Biles was attacked on social media and certain news publications for refusing to talk to the media before several major competitions. Japan’s world star tennis player, Naomi Osaka, also made headlines when she pulled out of the French Open citing mental health issues caused by the media pressure on her performances and comparison to fellow.

Dr Doorgachurn raised questions on whether athletes are considered when decisions are made about them and their sport, whether athletes are involved in committees, and whether people felt confident that athletes should be empowered for leadership positions, among other matters.

According to him, when athletes are not empowered, they get exposed to volatile environments that can affect their performances which can derail their mental health capacity to withstand pressure. He said that athletes’ views should be considered in order for sports to prosper. “Young people’s views, those of the athletes themselves, in the planning and implementation sports policies, must be considered in rule making, costume design and other practices that ultimately include the athletes,” he said.

He cited the Australian YMCA which has a board made up of 50% youth, bridging the inter-generational gap between the age groups of Australia and sports as some of the examples for safeguarding and empowerment. Dr Doorgachurn stated that athletes can influence sports in the right direction when athletes’ can express themselves without fear. As a demonstration, Dr Doorgechurn explained how Colin Kaepernick suffered criticism when he started the “take the knee” movement before matches as a sign of recognition and respect for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

In another topic titled “Who is looking after the people who are looking after the people?” said that administrators, coaches and all people in leadership positions needed to take care of their mental health due to the pressure under which they operate. He is a ports and wellness ambassador in the United Kingdom.

Braid said that like athletes, sports administrators and officials experience trauma as a result of sustained pressure to deliver good results from major competitions. He argued that sports federations normally judge success based on the number of medals won at Olympic events and major competitions. This, he said, caused serious mental health issues and trauma for leaders and staff who manage athletes, teams and sports events. Braid argued that sports organisations and countries focus more on safeguarding children and athletes.

To keep up with the rest of the world, athletes also need to enhance their personal branding and be part of the future. Additionally, their existence on digital spaces goes beyond the pitch or court and this requires meticulous management to attract a good following and sponsorships. These were the views of Alex Shahim, an expert in social media and digital platforms with various sports personalities.

Shahim was speaking the topic, “Personal Branding, Marketing, Social media, Media, Unlocking potential and Career Management.” He focused on different aspects of athletes’ lives in the digital space.

He said athletes and their respective clubs have to develop a presence in the digital space because this is where the future lays. Though he acknowledged that there were challenges and risks in using social media, athletes needed to understand that there is life after sports.

As is known, ordinary social media users are quick to pick up on negative stuff, and not always the good stuff. In contrast, having a good profile with good content, visuals and information is to the benefit of any professional athlete.

“Social media presence that is well managed often affords athletes the opportunity to amplify their following and influence through media interviews on radios and magazines as well as charity events, running raffles and interactive competitions. These examples also make it easier for brands to endorse athletes, which in turn brings revenue and exposure,” said Shahim.

Some of the topics were discussed in detail included; The role of Anti-Doping in safeguarding athletes; How do we safeguard school children in the current “Dopogenic” environment?; How it Happens: Understanding sexual harassment and abuse in a Zambian sporting context; Athlete monitoring and load management; and Nutrition in Sport.

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