Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Sexual Abuse in Sports

Know the facts. Learn the tips.

Research shows that sexual abuse happens in all sports and at all levels. From beginning youth sports programs, across school, community and university settings, even to Olympic elite athletes. The sporting culture, with its larger-than-life coaches, fierce competition, the need for funding, and a "win at all costs" philosophy, creates an environment that contributes to the sexual exploitation of athletes.

Studies report about 7% of athletes (both minors and young adults) are victims of sexual assault - with elite athletes having higher rates of sexual assault than lower-level athletes. Also, studies indicate females are sexually abused in sports more often than males.

Damage Done

Sexual abuse is trauma that is both a physical act *and* a psychological experience. As a physical act, sexual abuse involves touching and non-touching behaviors. This can be done in coercive or seductive ways. As a psychological experience, the abuse of power and authority by the predator renders the young athlete powerless. First, a cycle of dependency is created between the predator and the child, involving special attention and friendship. Predators look to build a bond of loyalty, and then move to isolate and control the athlete. This specialness descends into sexual attention, where intimidation, guilt, secrecy and further dependency are manipulated. Sometimes the abuse occurs with threats and violence. Sometimes with deception or even with misdirected love. By the time the child wants to - or wishes - to disclose the nature of the sexual trauma, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness secures their silence.


Members of an athlete's sports community in positions of power and authority are often identified as sexual abuse predators. This includes coaches, trainers, athletic directors, physical therapists, bus drivers, chaperones, etc. Here are things to keep in mind:

  • The risk of sexual abuse is greater when there are loose guidelines, unstructured and unsupervised practice times and high athlete vulnerability, especially in relation to age and maturation.
  • Research identifies risk situations as the locker-room, the playing field, trips away, the coach's home or car, and social events, especially where alcohol is involved. Team initiations or end-of-season celebrations are also risk factors.
  • Passive attitudes, non-intervention, denial, and/or silence by people in positions of power in sports culture increases the psychological harm of sexual abuse for the athlete.
  • Lack of bystander action also creates the impression for victims that sexual abuse is legal and socially acceptable - and that those involved in the sporting world will be powerless to speak out against it.

The Depressive Fallout of Sexual Abuse

Research demonstrates that sexual abuse in sports results in significant depression, psychosomatic illnesses, substance abuse, self harm, and suicide.

  • When children find it hard to understand betrayal by someone who should be trusted, the child will blame himself or herself. This blaming of the self significantly crushes well-being and any hope for healing from sexual assault.
  • Sexually Abused athletes are re-victimized if they are rejected or disbelieved by their sports organization, community and society.
  • The depression, isolation and self-destructiveness an athlete experiences will also have an adverse effect on his or her family.
  • Children who make direct statements, indirect statements or display highly sexualized behavior are signaling their trauma. However, there are many who cannot, and descend into the depths of despair.
  • If the process of healing does not take place, sexual trauma can last a lifetime.

Tips for Parents

  • Communicate honestly and openly with your child. Encourage your child to keep no secrets from you.
  • Reinforce safe boundaries for your child's physical, sexual and emotional life.
  • Discuss trustworthy versus untrustworthy behavior in every day conversation.
  • Keep an open dialogue going when your child is spending time with adults outside of your reach.
  • When involving your child in sports, ensure the organization and coaches have gone through criminal checks, child abuse registry etc.
  • Be present at practices and games so you can observe the interaction between your child and his or her coach.
  • Be wary of coaches who tell you things about your child that in your heart you know are not true.
  • If your child discloses that something inappropriate has occurred, reassure and support them.
  • Tell your child you believe them - and don't blame them.
  • Tell your child you willkeep them safe.
  • Let them know you are glad they told you.
  • Try not to appear shocked, disgusted by our child's disclosure.
  • Resist the urge to interview your child to gain more information.
  • Don't tell your child that you blame yourself for not knowing this was going on.
  • Don't confront the predator or take matters into your own hands.
  • Call the authorities and seek professional help immediately.

More from Deborah Serani Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today