Beyond the StEPS:
Reducing Young Athlete Abuse in Sports
In this article we will be discussing the pros and cons of having a “no touch policy” with student athletes. We're going to break it down today on a more granular level and we're going to present research and information for you to consider and see where you fall on this topic. Oftentimes we jump and we go “I feel this way, no way could we do that” and often we don't even know what that exactly means, it's just different than what we're comfortable with. We're going beyond the steps with Grace French** to explain all the ins and outs of having a no-touch policy and what does that actually mean.
Trigger Warning: The following topics that we will discuss may trigger some readers. This could be triggering for people who have had, or are currently experiencing matters that deal with sexual abuse. We want you to make sure that you take every opportunity to protect your peace and protect your space. If you need to stop reading, please do so at any point, you can always return to our post when you are ready. We will be talking about sexual abuse, and will be touching on physical abuse, and some of the experiences have been had in the past. Take the time to protect your peace. If you're feeling any particular way about any of the topics/questions and conversations that we're discussing please step away again, protect your peace and make sure that you put your feelings and your space first and make that a priority.
Grace, can you tell us what led you to step into the creation of Army of Survivors, its purpose and why it's important to have an organization like this?
Grace: A bit of background, I grew up in the suburbs of Lansing, Michigan and had a dream of becoming a professional ballerina. At the age of 12, I was playing red rover on the playground and sprained my wrist, and that day I had gymnastics practice and a couple of performances coming up with my dance company. My parents did what seemed logical, which was to ask around for who I should go see, and everybody in the community recommended the now defamed Olympic doctor content warning perpetrator name Dr Larry Nassar. From the age of 12 to 19 I saw Larry and was sexually abused at every appointment. I never questioned it because I thought it was osteopathic manipulation that he was doing so when at in 2018 I came forward with about 500 other victims of Larry Nassar of sexual abuse and those cases spanned decades and even sports from volleyball and soccer, to diving, gymnastics and dance. We step forward as an army, to face our perpetrator and those who enabled the abuse. We saw cases from other athletes around the world begin to come forward and we recognized that this was an institutional problem, it wasn't just a problem with one perpetrator or one community. I heard from my sister survivors that they wanted to make change, and they wanted to feel empowered by the experiences that they had, to make sure that nobody else experiences the same thing that we did. About 40 of us came together in the beginning to create the Army of Survivors in order to bring accountability awareness and transparency to sexual violence against athletes at all levels.
Grace your website highlights some very staggering statistics, 7% of student athletes are victim of sexual assault, and there are over 3.75 million survivors in the US alone. That is shocking, that is absolutely shocking to hear, that such a large number (and we're talking about those are the people that we know about, right? Not even including some people we don't know about) Why do you think an organization like Army of Survivors was not created sooner?
Grace: Simply put, we weren't talking openly about sexual violence 20 or even 10 years ago. I think the “me too movement” has really brought greater awareness to sexual violence at all levels from all different intersectionalities and has given a voice to so many that were not being listened to, or who were afraid to speak up because of the backlash and the stigma that used to exist, and sometimes still does in some communities with survivors and victims coming forward with their truth. Additionally, I think the institutions that we are up against when we're talking about protecting athletes are huge and they have a lot of money, and they have a lot of power in these communities and they profit off of keeping those athletes silent. The longer those athletes keep their mouths shut or the longer they have power over them, they can continue to churn out those championships and medals and endorsements and sponsorships and therefore the power we're up against is huge.
There appears clearly to be a systemic problem in youth athletics. What do you think is the root cause that has supported a system that has harmed so many children and young adults? Why is that happening? Why hasn't there been more accountability to this point ?
Grace: I'd say at the simplest level I believe that the culture in athletics does not recognize athletes as humans or children
first before they are appreciating them as athletes. It goes athlete first, then child second. I think we need to rethink the way that we're approaching athletics. Child first as a person, and then athlete second. In a recent study done by the World Players Association called The Care Project it was found that 69% of athletes were not aware they had rights when they were children in sport. It's really easy to take advantage of those who don't understand they can demand anything different. Additionally as athletes we are taught from a young age that our body is not our own as we enter the studio, the gym, the practice. Our body belongs to the sport and to the coach and then to your point about accountability, I think it comes down to who would enforce it right now? There's not really any type of enforcement and method to incentivize studios, competitions, etc. to keep kids safe. There's no type of licenses to revoke, there's no insurance system for studios for any type of abuse so to me it really comes down to enforcement
Bri: It's a huge problem across the board and fixing that is not simple and it's not as easy as it should seem. It's clearly not simple and we find that week after week after week.
Melissa: That's just so sad, it seems so overwhelming when you say “it's just not that simple” and I also think that there's this place as a competitive athlete, and a competitive performer where you start you leave your emotions at the door, and that emotional detachment can lead to not being able to express yourself or not even being able to process the emotions that you may be feeling when you're being victimized.
Bri: As dancers too, we're always trained to to emote and be something else, and go into a pretend world. That probably helps people escape a little bit for a minute, which is probably a little bit dangerous as well because you're not really staying in those feelings and sitting in those feelings. You're able to escape and become someone else on that stage and become someone else in the studio when you're rehearsing.
Melissa: We know this is happening at all levels, intermediate and entry-level athletics, high school sports, and even just from reading the research on your website, even at the college level we consider college level athletes to be young adults. Do you find that there's an age group when student athletes are more vulnerable to predatory behavior like this than others and if so why ?
Grace: I wouldn't say there's a specific age group, but I would say that at elite levels, at all age groups, there are studies that show that those elite levels are more susceptible to abuse. I think that has to come with this inherent identity that is connected to sport when you get to that level, and then this combined with the drive of those athletes to continue progressing in their sport, having hours of training and power dynamics between student and mentor. There are drastic differences in the power dynamics between student and mentor as you progress to an elite level because a perpetrator (for this conversation I'm just referring to any any perpetrator who has access to this athlete has more leverage to abuse at that point because they can threaten the athlete's identity the career of the athlete and then their physical and mental well-being) have much more leverage at an elite level and that's why I think elite athletes are more susceptible at any age level.
Bri: Do you think the way that we've set up the education process “I'm in a leadership position you're my student, you don't question me, you don't ask questions, you don't tell me when you're uncomfortable, because that's disrespectful”. I'm not saying we intentionally have set it up that way, but that is really how it goes if a student speaks up against something that they're told to do, or speaks up because they feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we can deem that as disrespectful in terms of the student to coach relationship. Do you think that we need to go back to the drawing board and in our studio cultures and the way we're training kids to advocate for them themselves in that space?
Grace: I think in sports, which children peak earlier, have a higher level of abuse. In gymnastics and dance you are professional at a much younger age than other sports, and so therefore that power dynamic is even worse because you have the child to adult dynamic there. Creating spaces where athletes feel that they can use their voice is so important to this subject because if you don't have an athlete or dancer that can stick up for themselves and can advocate without negative consequences, when are they ever going to do that because they're not going to want to jeopardize their career, jeopardize their friends that they have at the studio, jeopardize the relationship with or that mentor.
Melissa: We had a facebook viewer comment “we demand compliance and call it respect”. That really puts it in perspective, and it has to make you feel convicted as an educator like, “oh okay just because a child does exactly what I tell them to do doesn't necessarily mean that they respect me and because I issue commands doesn't mean that I am worthy of respect”. It's about the relationship. I do want to get to the no touch policy. Can you explain to us what it actually means to have a no touch policy in place at a dance studio?
Grace: Having a no touch policy means touch corrections are not allowed so instead of using your hands to show a dancer how to put their hip under in ala second, you teach them with your hands showing them here or demonstrating on yourself instead.
Melissa: I have seen a few times where people have decided that using the back of your hand is a better option than using the palm and have you ever seen that before?
Grace: I would say that's still touch .
Melissa: I would say that’s still touch, but they kind of use it as, it doesn't count with the back of your hand. I thought well that's not really no touch but I think that some people for some reason feel comfortable with that more so than actually using their palm. I wanted to say that to clear up that, that's not a no touch policy. Using the back of your hand is not a no touch policy. We're talking about no touch whatsoever in your studio in your studio space. I've been dancing for 38 years with what I just said, I have never worked in a studio or been a student in a studio where they had no touch policy. Do you find that the call for these policies is growing in dance and other youth sports now?
Grace: I'm definitely hearing a lot more conversation about it and I think this right here is more evidence that there is a greater call, there's more wanting to find out more about what this means and why it's important.
Bri: All of you as survivors, that step forward, that case made such an impact on the world of youth sports. How can it not be a conversation? How can you look at that and go this is just an enigma, this doesn't happen everywhere? This is happening, and even dance, in the last two years, the amount of people that are being called out for inappropriate conduct with minors and things of that nature is just staggering at this point. You guys really paved the way in terms of the conversations happening.
Melissa: What are some of the reasons that a teacher or studio owner might consider a no-touch policy?
Grace: There was a study done in 2012 that found that 25 of dancers experience post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. According to child help studies, indicate that 40% to 50% of athletes have experienced anything from mild harassment to severe trauma in sports. 40% to 50% percent! I think it's important to realize those numbers and realize that the people that you're working with most likely have experienced some type of trauma in their life and with that in mind it's important to adjust to those negative impacts that trauma can have on a person and with high levels of stress that come with trauma. What happens is that the more complex areas of the brain shut down and you go into a primitive sort of survival state and that survival brain has different reactions which are:
Fight- which is anger, aggression, reactive, and a violence response.
Flight- which is pulling away emotionally or physically closing off not communicating, communicating or isolating freeze which is being non-reactive unemotional or being completely numb.
Fawn- which is avoiding conflict, people pleasing, not saying no, validation seeking, and being extremely un-opinionated, which I think is a lot of student dancers.
Those reactions become a pattern over time for trauma survivors, because they have been responses that have been necessary for them to survive in their past. The brain is malleable, and are dependent on the situations that cause those responses, they are widespread. Trauma survivors have an overactive stress response and touch can exasperate that especially for those who've experienced physical or sexual abuse. It doesn't matter the intent behind the touch whether it was malicious or not, it just matters how it is feeling to the survivor and they might not have control over the stress response that happens because it's biological.
Bri: The part we need to focus on is our intent. Just because it feels okay to you, you're not aware of what they're going through and having this no touch policy, if I'm hearing you right, is a way to preserve the students. We don't know what that child might be feeling or experiencing and so rather than taking the chance of putting them in an uncomfortable position or triggering a bigger reaction in them or triggering their trauma we're going to not contribute to that we're going to pull away and make sure we're protecting their space whether they've been affected or not.
Grace: Recognizing that there are so many dancers and athletes who have experienced that, that you have to change the way that you're teaching because you don't know everything that's going on, and even that athletes may not understand. I started having PTSD
symptoms far before I understood that I was going through trauma myself so it even goes further than the athlete understanding themselves that they've been through abuse.
Bri: What do you say to the educators out there that are like “I've known this student for years, I know them, I know my students, I have a good relationship, it's fine, I know the parents the parents are fine with it” How do you address that?
Grace: I think there's a deeper understanding of trauma that is not connected to knowing the family.
Melissa: I want to highlight an “aha” moment for me. When talking about the ways that you respond to trauma, the fawning way is often rewarded, especially in the dance industry. Extreme compliance, people pleasing, did I do that right, lack of being far less opinionated is actually rewarded and I think we need to as educators understand how that can be very detrimental and when you have a student who does behave like that it's not necessarily your star student, but that could be somebody who is experiencing trauma, I really wanted to highlight that.
Bri: I think it's important there is no governing body, there is no regulatory agency, so how can dance educators and studio directors and even parents get educated on the warning signs and the red flags and things that you may attribute as behavioral issues? How can they get information on that because it seems like there's a whole lot of things that people need to be aware of if they're going to be working with student athletes.
Grace: I think that's a really good point, and one of the resources that I often refer people to for education especially for parents is Darkness to Light. They have an amazing program about warning sides of abuse how to be trauma informed for parents.
Bri: Virtual dance has shown us that we can accomplish teaching without touch. Are there downfalls of a no touch policy?
Grace: If you have a student who's extremely tactile and has to understand things with touch, that might be a challenge. The other challenge that I thought of was retraining teachers. We have to re-educate, there are ways to communicate through other experiences and auditory communication that can get you to the desired result it's just a little bit harder and that's okay we just have to be okay with having a hard time at first
Bri: We're creative people, we can figure that out I'm sure. We can overcome pretty much anything if we made it through 2020. We can certainly figure out how to implement a no-touch policy in our studio spaces
Melissa: It's a little bit harder and I think that that's where the rub is going to be with a lot of people, it's so much easier to fall back into what you already know. You have a lesson plan and it says you do this and it says you do this. We probably have to take a few steps back if we are going to institute policies like this and establish them because there's going to be a learning curve for us all.
Bri: And to give yourself grace and give your faculty grace because we're not going to get it right 100% of the time especially at first. The fact that you're taking the steps and you're trying and you're putting forth the energy, and you're recognizing this is an important issue. I think that's the bigger picture. Knowing that we're working on it, that's step one.
Melissa: Do you think, not the back of the hand model, but a hybrid model, so a hybrid model where consent from the student is paramount, it kind of gives them permission to opt in or out of a physical touch policy. Do you think that still poses the same possible issues? Do you think that that's a middle ground that we may be able to take? What are your thoughts on that?
Grace: Incorporating consent into any touch of the studio is incredibly important whether or not you have a no touch policy or a hybrid model. I think it's important to consider power dynamics when you're thinking of a hybrid model because if you're creating an environment where we mentioned before, those dancers or athletes don't feel like they have the voice to speak up, then they're not going to feel comfortable saying no. That hybrid policy basically does not exist anymore, if they don't have their voice, they don't have that power. Creating an environment first and in a culture first where athletes feel that they have a voice and are empowered would be crucial in having a hybrid model work the way that it's supposed to
Melissa: We talked about earlier there's no governing body. We always say that over and over again there's no real checks and balances in place. I think the other hard thing about possibly coming forward is who do you come forward to. There's really no place to go. Do you see that in doing this work, on the horizon do you see a reporting structure coming? Do you think there's talk of that or even the possibility that something like that can even be done in this industry?
Grace: I know that with governing bodies under USOPC they have safe sport now, but I think with dance, because there is no NGBs or organizations that are independent oversight. It would be harder and I think that's where a lot of organizations are struggling. How can we organize, as dance educators, as dance studio owners, in order to support something that could be created? I know there's a lot of conversation around enforcement and how to make sure that those incentives to keep kids safe, that there are incentives to make sure that those dancers, in environments, that they're safe for them. I think a reporting structure is incredibly important and hopefully comes about soon.
Bri: We have some really great organizations that are doing work to facilitate improvement in these areas the dance safe I think it's thedancesafe.org or the dance safe on Instagram you can follow them, they have really great resources, they've assembled an amazing team. We have Speak Your Truth Worldwide which Sierra Lauren formed. Jerry Brown at Dance Equity Association and Liberate dance artists doing a lot of great work to propel the industry forward in a lot of these ways and the thinking and of course armyofsurvivors.org
Let's talk about a situation where a student athlete comes forward to say they felt uncomfortable with a correction or a physical correction or an adjustment that was made, but as a dance educator your intention was not to hurt them and you didn't have that on your mind. You didn't know how do you address it without dismissing, or invalidating that student's concerns and still making them feel safe and heard?
Grace: I think it's really necessary here to talk about intent versus impact and what we've said before is even if your intention is pure the impact on the dancer is what matters the most because in order to move forward in a way where they feel as if they were heard you have to acknowledge that impact that it made because if you don't acknowledge and apologize for the impact, they are not going to feel safe coming forward about potential other negative impacts that have happened to them outside of dance. What I would say first is to acknowledge impact, apologize and then talk through what would be more comfortable in the future for other corrections and ask them how you can adjust to make sure that they feel safe and supported in their environment.
Bri: It's better obviously to address that immediately not waiting until after class or something and really just addressing it the moment the concern is brought to you and resisting the urge, clearly to react defensively because I know that's probably a natural instinct that happens when that's not what I meant, of course not absolutely right, but try to realize that you're put yourself in their shoes and react with empathy and and take accountability for it even though you didn't mean it to be harmful.
Grace: Understanding the power that you have in that moment because the way you react in that moment can potentially impact the way that they move forward in the world with other negative impacts as well.
Melissa: We're talking about no touch student-to- teacher to student-to-student, what do you say to student to student (students like to partner stretch each other) thow does that dynamic work because they're isn't necessarily a power dynamic there but that could trigger.
Grace: It's important to acknowledge that not all violence and sport is teacher, coach to athlete, it is also between athletes, it's between trainers, doctors etc. With that I would institute a policy around consent, making sure that students understand the language that they can use in order to do partner stretching, in order to talk through that partner stretch, “am I going too far, to how does this feel, are you feeling okay?” Make sure that they're not over stretching each other because that can be extremely triggering.
Bri: What are we doing to take steps forward, I have the power to implement a no-touch policy in my studio so bam, this is a new policy I've had my faculty meeting, ideally we would want to see some training in there to to make sure everybody understands why we're having this policy and that it's not just this rule that goes unobserved half the time but you really want to enforce this, implement this, and you've had this studio culture this way for x amount of years. Now we implement this no touch policy, how do we communicate that to everybody without making it this awkward, bright shining spotlight, or do we shout it from the rooftops, that look this is the position that I'm taking with my studio, we're proud of it come on in and this is what you're gonna get! How do you breach that with the parents that have been there for years who are used to a certain way?
Grace: My policy with this would always be complete transparency and shouting it from the rooftops because in order for this to work everybody has to be on the same page as to why it's happening, first understanding the importance of a no-touch policy understanding the decision and how you got to that point first and then being transparent with those who are still at the studio and those who may be coming into the studio as well, but also I think there's an accountability and enforcement that I'm hearing you say, as well which is you've got to make sure that if you're putting this in place that you're enforcing it that you're taking accountability giving yourself grace, but also taking accountability towards those breaks in policy and making sure that you're addressing them and acknowledging them with the students
with the classes with the teachers etc.
Bri: Often times teachers are independent contractors and you may be on this road and be enlightened and have this understanding but you can't be in that room with everyone, especially if you're at a larger organization you have a larger faculty you can't be in the room 24/7 with each teacher so you really have to make sure that they understand why this is going in place exactly and giving them the tools to change the way that they have taught for so long.
Grace: Making sure that they understand alternatives because if a teacher walks into a space only knowing one way to communicate a correction and they don't have the tools to make adjustments, I think it's going to be a lot harder for them to acknowledge and accept this policy rather than if you give them the tools they'll be able to I think adjust more accordingly.
We like to give homework on the show immediate action what is one thing that you want everybody watching to work on this week one step they can take between now and our show next week, seven days to make improvement and progress;
in terms of understanding and maybe even implementing a no-touch policy I think first I would like you all to take a look at armyofsurvivors.org because I do think there are wonderful resources on there that do a really good job of describing the science behind trauma so that you can deeply understand what trauma survivors are going through, to better understand why this is important and we are at the armyofsurvivors.org . I think the step that you can take between now and next week is to do some more research on the prevalence of abuse and support to really understand why this happens and how many people this has affected that have been affected by this take time to reflect on that and realize how you can implement different policies, no touch, an example of one of them to make sure that trauma survivors are safe that all athletes are safer in these environments that have those extreme power dynamics.
Before you take the step to implement it I'm not saying don't implement it, but if you're on the ledge and you're afraid to really go forward and what that means, and take that dive, you can just start with your classes you don't even have to tell anybody that you're doing it but see maybe it's not as hard as you think it's gonna be to implement a no-touch policy maybe you can do it and when you're ready you feel more confident in that then you take the next step.
**Grace is a classically trained dancer, dance educator and founder and president of a non-profit the Army of Survivors. Army of Survivors is a non-profit, committed to ending sexual violence against athletes through education advocacy and resources. Her work in survivors rights and advocacy for athletes rights has been globally recognized leading her to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. As a survivor of the now defamed Olympic doctor she is one of the recipients of the Arthur Ash courage award at the 2018 ESPYs as well as a 2018 Glamor women of the Year awardee.
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