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Navigating the Fine Line: When Safeguarding Becomes a Weapon in Sports Coaching

In the dynamic world of martial arts, coaches serve as instructors, guiding their students through physical and mental challenges. However, a troubling issue has emerged where coaches find themselves unfairly vilified and falsely accused, with safeguarding and harassment protection measures being weaponized as tools of spite. As a martial arts coach, navigating this delicate balance requires a nuanced understanding of the dynamics between instructor and student.

In the realm of sports and martial arts coaching, the vulnerability of instructors is a stark reality that often goes unacknowledged. Coaches, dedicated to fostering growth and discipline in their students, operate in an environment where they might not always have insight into the history or character of the individuals walking through their doors.

Coaches bear a significant responsibility for the holistic development and well-being of their athletes. Acquiring a Level 2 Sports Coaching Qualification, undergoing a comprehensive Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, and attending first aid and safeguarding training (at minimum) are essential components of ensuring coaches possess the necessary competence. Additionally, holding public liability insurance is crucial for financial coverage in unforeseen incidents. Education is paramount, serving as a vital shield against false accusations. Emphasising the importance of avoiding mistakes and acting responsibly in the coaching profession, ongoing education reinforces the integrity of coaches and the secure environment they strive to maintain.

While coaches diligently hone their skills and ensure their credentials are in order, the same cannot be said for every person seeking instruction. This vulnerability extends beyond the professional realm, as coaches may find themselves in a physically precarious position when dealing with individuals whose backgrounds remain unknown.

The trusting relationship between coach and athlete is fundamental, yet the coach, in many instances, cannot perform a thorough background check on every individual. This lack of reciprocity in information sharing places coaches in a position where their dedication to the sport may inadvertently expose them to potential risks, both physically and professionally. Despite these challenges, many coaches persevere, driven by their passion for the art form and their commitment to shaping the character of those who step onto the mat or into the training arena.

Martial arts coaches invest not only time but also a profound sense of responsibility in shaping the character and skills of their students. The bond between instructor and athlete is unique, built on trust, discipline, and mutual respect. Yet, this relationship can sometimes be taken advantage of and disrespected by the athlete, leading to personal conflicts that escalate to unforeseen proportions.

This video shares glimpses of my personal journey, revealing the catalyst that inspired me to assist fellow coaches and educate them about their rights to ensure a secure coaching environment while overseeing their athletes.

Safeguarding Weaponized

The misuse of and weaponizing of safeguarding or harassment measures typically begins with a disgruntled athlete distorting coaching methods or interactions, leveraging concerns about safety to cast a dark shadow over an instructor's reputation.

False accusations, when not addressed with care, can have devastating consequences, not just for the coach personally but for the entire martial arts community. Trust can be eroded, aspiring coaches may be discouraged, and an atmosphere of suspicion may permeate Dojangs and training halls.

If it puts a weapon in your hand, it is aiming at some kind of violence. - Carl Jung

The impact on an instructor, both mentally and professionally, cannot be understated. The mental toll of being falsely accused can be profound, leading to heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. In my case, it extended to the point of grappling with suicidal thoughts. Martial arts instructors invest not just their time but their passion into their work, and the weight of malicious false allegations can shatter their sense of purpose. Such accusations may leave them questioning their unwavering dedication to a profession they hold dear, one in which they've often been active for a longer duration than the athlete has been alive.

Professionally, the consequences can be substantial. A damaged reputation may result in a loss or decline in student enrolment, removal of affiliation/membership status, and a compromised standing within the martial arts community. This not only impacts the instructor's financial stability but also hampers their capacity to inspire and guide aspiring martial artists. The lasting impact of unfounded accusations makes it difficult for instructors to regain trust within the martial arts community.

How do I protect myself?

To protect themselves from false accusations, martial arts instructors need to establish robust structures within their business management and training facilities. This includes implementing clear codes of conduct that outline expectations for both instructors and members, including parents. Feel free to download a sample Code of Conduct for members below and modify it as necessary to align with the specific requirements and values of your school.

Example Code of Conduct for Members
Download DOCX • 11KB

Also check out UKCoachings Code of Practice for Sports Coaches

How can I establish and integrate safeguarding measures within my school?

Best practices in safeguarding are paramount in mitigating the risks associated with coaching, particularly in martial arts. Safeguarding involves creating and maintaining a safe environment that protects participants from harm, both physical and emotional. Instructors must be vigilant in implementing policies and procedures that ensure the well-being of everyone involved in their training programs.

One exemplary approach is to prominently display safeguarding information within your venues or on your webpage, providing a transparent framework for maintaining a safe and respectful environment. These policies serve as a guide for both instructors and students, outlining expectations and boundaries to ensure a positive learning atmosphere. For further insights into safeguarding practices, check out our website Worcestershire Martial Arts for valuable information and resources. Here are our Safeguarding and Child Protection Policies:

Safeguarding Policy
Download PDF • 4.41MB
Child Protection Policy
Download PDF • 4.44MB

For more information about safeguarding for martial arts instructors, check out the Safeguarding Code in Martial Arts:

If you are an ITF Taekwon-Do Instructor please familiarise yourself with these two crucial links:

What if you have a problem student?

A robust disciplinary policy is paramount, delineating clear procedures to promptly and fairly address any concerns or grievances that may arise within the dojang. Instructors play a pivotal role in upholding safety and fairness by encouraging open communication. Cultivating an atmosphere that values dialogue over the escalation of conflicts ensures that boundaries are not only established but also maintained, reinforcing the coach's commitment to a secure and equitable training environment. Don't be afraid to enforce your disciplinary policy with your students, you have more rights than you think. Here is our Disciplinary Policy:

Disciplinary Policy
Download PDF • 4.38MB

Who else can help me?

Membership in a National Governing Body (NGB) or National Association (NA) offers an extra layer of security for martial arts instructors. These entities frequently furnish guidelines on ethical conduct, codes of practice, and safeguarding protocols. Additionally, they offer insights and recommendations concerning the implementation of disciplinary measures within your school. Affiliation with a respected governing body not only enhances the credibility of an instructor's establishment but also sets a benchmark for excellence and accountability.

Where do you stand legally?

From a legal standpoint, martial arts instructors are protected by trade laws, ensuring fair business practices. In England, these laws, including the Consumer Rights Act 2015, establish a framework that safeguards the rights of both instructors and consumers involved in contractual agreements. This legislation not only ensures transparency in business dealings but also empowers instructors to uphold ethical standards within their martial arts community.

Trade laws, under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, grant instructors the right to refuse service to individuals who may pose a threat to the safety or well-being of others within their martial arts community. This right to refuse service is a crucial aspect of protecting both the instructor and the community they serve, allowing them to maintain a secure and harmonious environment. A martial arts business may have the right to refuse service in certain situations such as:

  1. Safety Concerns: If an individual poses a safety risk to themselves or others.

  2. Inability to Fulfill Eligibility Criteria: Should a prospective student or participant fail to satisfy the martial arts school's eligibility criteria, including age restrictions or health conditions, care must be taken to avoid discrimination based on any protected characteristics, including: Age (if the individual is 18 years or older), Disability, Gender reassignment, Pregnancy and maternity, Race, Religion or belief, Sex and Sexual orientation.

  3. Disruptive Behaviour: Persistent disruptive or disrespectful behaviour that hinders the learning environment or puts others at risk.

  4. Offensive or Inappropriate Behaviour: Engaging in offensive, disrespectful, or inappropriate behaviour or language towards others, including fellow students, staff, or the coach.

  5. Failure to Comply with Policies or Code of Conduct: If an individual consistently fails to comply with the martial arts school's policies and rules, such as dress code or attendance requirements.

  6. Refusal to Sign Required Waivers: Martial arts businesses often require participants to sign liability waivers or other legal documents such as PARQ or Membership Forms.

  7. Refusal to Provide Important Medical Information: Martial arts businesses often require participants to provide important medical information on legal documents such as PARQ or Membership Forms.

  8. Non-Payment or Default: If a student consistently fails to pay fees or defaults on payment agreements, the martial arts business may refuse further service until financial matters are resolved.

  9. Lack of Commitment: If a student repeatedly shows a lack of commitment to the martial arts program or fails to attend classes regularly without valid reasons, the business may refuse further service.

  10. Violation of Ethical Standards: Engaging in unethical behaviour or conduct that goes against the principles and values of the martial arts school i.e. a couple attending your classes with sexual marks on their person, causing complaints from other members.

  11. Failure to Provide Required Information/Documentation: In certain cases, such as competitions or events, participants may need to provide specific documentation (e.g., medical clearance, medical information).

  12. Instructor's Discretion: In some instances, the decision to refuse service may be at the discretion of the martial arts instructor or school owner, based on individual circumstances that warrant such action.

What if I dismiss someone, and they initiate a campaign to tarnish my reputation?

Defamation laws also play a pivotal role in safeguarding an instructor's reputation. In England, defamation laws are primarily governed by the Defamation Act 2013, which outlines the legal framework for protecting individuals from false statements that harm their reputation. Instructors falsely accused have legal recourse against defamatory statements that could harm their personal or professional standing.

In the face of false accusations, seeking legal advice becomes a crucial step for martial arts instructors. While it's important to note that legal representation may come with associated costs, the adage holds true that no price is too high to seek justice and repair the damage done to one's good name. The expertise of legal professionals can guide instructors through the complexities of defamation laws, helping them navigate the legal terrain and formulate a robust defence.

Time Wasted

False accusations not only damage the accused instructor but also divert valuable time and resources from safeguarding investigations where there are real victims needing protection. These false claims create unnecessary distractions, hindering the timely resolution of genuine cases and potentially putting real victims at risk.

In the midst of these challenges, it is essential to remember that safeguarding is intended to be a shield to defend, not a sword to attack.

"Safeguarding is a shield, protecting both athlete and coach. It should never be wielded as a sword in personal vendettas, for in doing so, we not only harm individuals but jeopardise the very essence of our martial arts community."

Safeguarding is undeniably crucial in the martial arts community to ensure the well-being of athletes. However, it should not be manipulated as a weapon against instructors.

In summary, the delicate balance between safeguarding and coaching in martial arts highlights the vulnerability of instructors and the potential misuse of protective measures. False accusations, as revealed in my personal journey, have profound effects on mental and professional well-being, impacting my community of members.

To navigate this challenge, instructors should establish clear codes of conduct, transparent safeguarding information, and disciplinary policies. Affiliation with national governing bodies provides additional guidance on ethical conduct and safeguarding protocols.

Legally, instructors are protected by trade and defamation laws, allowing them to refuse service and seek recourse against false statements. Seeking legal advice is crucial to safeguard one's reputation.

It's vital to stress that safeguarding should be a shield, not a weapon. Upholding the integrity of these measures collectively ensures a positive and secure learning environment for athletes and coaches alike, preserving the essence of martial arts.

About the Author

Sally Gleaves, V Dan, ITF Taekwon-Do

Director of Worcestershire Martial Arts—a multifaceted martial artist with 27 years of experience, multiple national and world medals, and a dedication to coach development.

A 5th Dan Black Belt, she's represented England in Taekwon-Do and Kickboxing, earning accolades in patterns, sparring, and destruction. Sally's journey started as a response to bullying, evolving into a passion that led her to a 5th Dan in 2018.

Beyond her martial arts achievements, Sally is a qualified teacher, personal trainer, and sports coach. As an advocate for women in Taekwon-Do, she contributes to the AETF Women's Committee, promoting equality and safety.

As the Coach Development lead for ITF England, Sally leverages her extensive experience in the adult education sector. She offers Level 2 coaching sport qualifications and conducts various coach education workshops, contributing to the development of the next generation of instructors in collaboration with 1st4Sport and the ITF Coaches Committee. Sally is recognised as a leader in safeguarding, delivering keynotes and educational training sessions focused on raising awareness about sexual grooming.


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