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  • Joey Gamper Cuthbert

If you don’t build it, it will be built for you!

5 top tips to help build a positive safeguarding culture in your cheer gym



Image credit: Kindly provided by ParaCheer International CIO. All rights reserved



As a gym owner or coach, athlete welfare should be your top priority. It should go without saying that your staff recruitment includes background checks, that you have a clear and accessible process for reporting abuse, and that everyone is appropriately qualified. But we need to go further: Creating an environment in your gym where every athlete (regardless of age, gender, sexuality, disability, faith, ethnicity, or race) feels safe and included is critical to safeguarding the children and young people in your care.


Creating a positive safeguarding culture in your gym is an intentional daily action. If you do not actively take steps to build it on purpose, your culture will unintentionally be built for you by others. A poor culture, where athletes feel psychologically unsafe creates a fertile ground for abuse, and can mean if abuse occurs in your gym, it will be harder to spot. Culture is everything.


Below are 5 top tips to help your gym make cultural shifts.


1. Create a safe space where everyone is welcome

When young people feel safe and accepted, they are more likely to share what’s going on in their life with a coach, including if they have been a victim of abuse. When gyms do not have clear policies and action on diversity and inclusion, not only are young people likely to feel unsafe to disclose abuse, but it can also give rise to unsafe, abusive situations occurring in the gym, such as bullying and discrimination. Be honest with yourself - is your gym truly a safe space for a young person who is Trans? Neurodiverse? Black? for example.


Here are some ideas to begin improving inclusivity in your gym:

  • Find ways to actively celebrate the diversity in your gym and make strong public statements of support on issues such as Black Lives Matter or Pride Month.

  • Have clear policies on inclusion, and don’t allow discriminatory behaviour from coaches or athletes to ever go unchallenged.

  • Educate coaches on things like inclusionary language and disability awareness.

  • Consider how physically accessible and inclusive your gym is and if there is more you can do to improve. For example, does your bathroom need a handrail fitted to assist disabled athletes in accessing your facilities? Is there the option of a private changing space for a trans athlete?

Involve your athletes in creating a more inclusive space too. Ask them what they need in the gym to feel safe and included, so that you can take appropriate steps to support them.


2. Be transparent

Always work in an open environment, avoiding private or unobserved situations and encouraging open communication with no secrets. Always coach in pairs, so no member of staff is ever left alone with a young person.


As we’ve sadly seen time and time again in our sport, it’s critical to have clear polices on coach communication with athletes, and never allow a coach to privately contact a young person via cell phone, email or social media. Don’t just make sure your coaches know these rules, but also communicate them clearly to your athletes and their parents, so that they are aware if a coach contacts them directly, it is inappropriate and should be reported.


3. Give young people control and choice over their own body

Physically hands-on spotting a young person in a tumble or stunt? Make sure you always ask permission and are clear with them where you intend to put your hands. For example, “To spot this back handspring, is it ok if I put my hand on your upper thigh and lower back?” When we do this, we teach children two things:

1. They have autonomy over their bodies, and they have a choice as to whether they are touched.

2. They learn where the correct hand placement is to spot that particular skill, so they can more easily identify if they were ever to be touched inappropriately.


If your coaches are consistent in asking permission every time, you build a culture in your gym that tells young people they have control over their own bodies and the right to say no – an empowering lesson not just for cheerleading but for life!

NB: Make sure if you are going to ask permission, you also have alternative options for a child who chooses to say no! (Can they use a barrel or tumble top? Can they go back to drills until they’re competent enough to attempt the skill unsupported? etc)

Image credit: Kindly provided by ParaCheer International CIO. All rights reserved



4. Challenge!

What you accept and allow to go on in your gym builds your culture. Always challenge bullying, bad behaviour and bad language from athletes and coaches. A culture of fear isn’t just the obvious stereotype of an angry, screaming coach, it’s often far more subtle and passive aggressive: the snide comments, constant put-downs, inappropriate jokes, favouritism, thinly veiled threats, shaming. Those micro aggressions accumulate to create a psychologically unsafe environment where young people feel afraid to speak up. Always challenge athletes and coaches who display these behaviours and ensure your gym has a clear disciplinary procedure for dealing with anything that arises.


5. Respect creates winners.

Treat all young people with respect and dignity. Give enthusiastic and constructive feedback rather than negative criticism. Listen and believe a young person if they are telling you that they are injured or in pain. Allow toilet and water breaks! When young people feel treated with respected, they feel valued, their confidence increases, their intrinsic motivators are higher, and they are far more likely to be successful. Sounds like a winning formula to me!




To discover more ways to promote a culture of safeguarding in your gym, contact Squad Safe for details of training opportunities and consultancy.

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