Recent years have seen a great deal of media attention for wrongdoing in sports, but there is still a lot of ground to cover. Nicolette Schipper-Van Veldhoven is conducting research at the University of Twente on how to recognise and prevent bullying and physical or sexual violence at sports clubs. On 1 June 2022, she was appointed professor of Sports Risks & Safety at the faculties of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS) and Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS). One of Schipper-Van Veldhoven's methods is to use ‘embedded scientists’ who conduct research at the club, as well as sensors and videos to map out social interactions in sports.
The Netherlands has 22,600 sports clubs. Together they have 4.3 million members, 1.3 million of which are minors. But not all young sports participants feel at home at their clubs. In fact, in surveys two thirds of people questioned said that as children they had sometimes felt unsafe when engaged in sports. For example, there was bullying or physical or sexual violence.
There are many different degrees of inappropriate behaviour, says Schipper-Van Veldhoven. “From a newcomer at a club who isn't properly looked after and quickly falls prey to bullying, to sexual abuse by a coach that lasts for years,” she says. In her research, which she is also conducting as a lecturer Sports Pedagogy at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, she considers all forms of socially unsafe situations. What should clubs and coaches do to prevent those from occurring? And is it possible to make children less vulnerable?
Physical and emotional abuse by coaches in the world of international gymnastics and sexual abuse in other sports have been widely covered in the media. That has helped put the problem on the map and increase awareness of inappropriate behaviour in sports. At an organisational level, the issue has been on the agenda for some time. For instance, according to Schipper-Van Veldhoven, NOC*NSF (which she advises) has for years been pursuing a policy of raising the issue of harassment in sports and preventing it, at first primarily in the sexual domain, but now also in the emotional and physical spheres. She herself has developed the Jeugdsportkompas (‘young people's sports compass’), a conceptual framework to help sports coaches and clubs create a socially safe and pleasant learning climate for children and young people.
Through her research at the University of Twente, Schipper-Van Veldhoven wants to ascertain how this kind of policy at the higher level ultimately plays out at the clubs in practice. Is the policy effective, what changes can be seen? One of her methods has been to use ‘embedded scientists’ at clubs, supporting the people there but at the same time conducting research. “What is the key to getting people to embrace the pedagogical philosophy? How do we create a safe environment for everyone? That's what we want to know,” she says. She says that in a certain sense, many clubs are too focused on the sports. “People think: we'll just put some children in a team, we'll give them a coach and we're done. That isn't enough. There needs to be more awareness about the relationships between sports participants and coaches, and among the participants themselves. The aim is a pleasant learning climate for everybody. This does not only require clear policy but also a cultural change at the clubs, amongst the volunteers and amongst those who go there to engage in sports. For instance, awareness of what young people really want and what motivates them,” she says.
Schipper-Van Veldhoven holds posts at two faculties who support her research in different ways. At the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences, the focus is on improving the understanding of human behaviour, for example through interviews with victims and perpetrators and by recognising underlying patterns of action. The Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science gives her new technological tools in order to investigate social interactions. For example, she wants to use motion sensors and tracking technology in groups of sports participants. “That gives you extensive data about who had contact with whom during a match and how often, and you can add whether those interactions were friendly or unfriendly,” she says. ”The question is whether we can ultimately distil social connections from that, and perhaps indications of inappropriate behaviour. For example, if you have a child who almost always stands by themselves, you can ask yourself what it is like for that child in the group. Then you can start a conversation.”
With the help of feedback (for example, via WhatsApp) or video analyses of coaches or parents on the sidelines, you can reflect on behaviour. ”Coaches and indeed parents are often unaware of their behaviour, and a video or short feedback like that can help to draw their attention to it. Communication in sports can be very direct, and videos capture that. If a participant says they find a coach intimidating, you can show the images to explain that. For a coach, that can be quite confronting,” she says. “People are often unaware of their coaching styles. In that sense, there is a lot of unconscious incompetence in sports, and there is a tendency to say ‘oh, that's all part of the game’ or ‘it's always been done like that’. We need to break that pattern.” Schipper-Van Veldhoven is also looking into the opportunities offered by serious gaming to study people's behaviour.
Cultural change is not easy to achieve, says Schipper-Van Veldhoven. On top of that, the large numbers of youthful sports participants, clubs and sports associations in the Netherlands form a complex system. So making effective policy to counter inappropriate behaviour requires an approach at multiple ‘tiers’. That starts with the coaches, the assistants and the young people themselves, but the clubs also need to have clear rules which are themselves based on policy at the highest level.
Policy for improving the pedagogical sports climate, i.e. for a safe and nurturing sports environment, is enshrined in the Hoofdlijnen Sportakkoord II SPORT VERSTERKT ('Outline Sports Agreement II SPORT STRENGTHENS’). Signatories to this agreement reached last December include sports organisation NOC*NSF and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. But that doesn’t mean all the clubs have rushed to embrace it. Things are sometimes different in practice, says Schipper-Van Veldhoven. And even when change has been initiated at the club, it is far from certain that it will be permanent. “You train a coach who then returns to the club and is told they don't do things that way there. Due to pressure from others, they easily fall back into the old system,” she says. The solution is to try to work at as many different levels as possible at the same time. ”Incorporate the pedagogical philosophy into coaching courses, provide refresher training and support at the club, coach the children, appoint sports pedagogists to provide peer support, address the atmosphere at the club, establish clear rules. If everyone involved is pulling in the same direction, you will achieve results more quickly.”
The importance of a safe sports climate is already higher on the agenda than it was some years ago, Schipper-Van Veldhoven has noticed. ”Before, the typical response from people was that there was no problem at their club, or that they thought the pedagogical angle was ‘soft’. Now a lot of people understand that something needs to be done. So that’s a positive trend.”