Re-imagining how we coach
Updated: Aug 2
As a Designated Safeguarding Officer for multiple cheer and dance organisations, I had been thinking for a long time about the need for more sport specific safeguarding training. I had waited years for someone to produce a course that met the needs of the cheer, dance and gymnastics community. Watching Netflix documentary Athlete A (which documented the appalling historic sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics) was my catalyst. In the end, I stopped waiting for someone else to do it, and wrote one myself.
As a cheer gym owner and dance education manager , I had always (in addition to delivering traditional Safeguarding training) spoken with my staff about how we create and embed a positive, intentional culture in our gyms and studios. I knew coaches and dance teachers needed so much more than just a basic course on how to identify and report abuse, and for some reason I had assumed everyone else knew this too. Then thanks to a scheduling clash in the gym I hired, my eyes were opened to what unchecked, uneducated, unsupported coaching can look like…
For a couple of years my cheer programme was forced to share a training space with a gymnastics school. What I witnessed there made me realise not everyone shared my coaching philosophy! Starting out professionally in community dance, I came from a background that was all about making creative, supportive, engaging spaces; where everyone was welcome, and participants had autonomy over their learning. In my early days as a cheer coach I would frequently debate with other coaches why we couldn’t just recreate that community dance ethos in a gym environment and still be competitive? I believed that if you looked after the whole person, then you created healthy, motivated athletes, who wanted to train hard and succeed for themselves because they felt happy and safe. If you had to use fear to force a child to train, then something had gone badly wrong. On many occasions I heard coaches mutter in response to some awful incident we'd witnessed on the gymnastics floor that most dangerous of phrases “but it’s how we’ve always done it, and it works”.
I worked professionally for many years in roles with a responsibility for Safeguarding. Undertaking training myself and organising courses for others, I became aware how inadequate the content was for the specific environments of cheer, dance and gymnastics; where coaches are often engaged in physical hands-on instruction, where athletes require a high level of trust in coaches for their physical safety and success, where thousands of pounds are invested in training and competition, and where social media plays such a huge role in young people’s lives - turning youth athletes into ‘influencers’ and brand ambassadors, or as they’re known in the world of cheerleading, “Cheerlebrities”.
I recognised that unless we also addressed these issues directly through training, these sports were the perfect breeding ground for abuse. I began by taking matters into my own hands. I would organise training for my staff with an external safeguarding provider, but then additionally either spend time with the service provider beforehand, explaining what the activity entailed and therefore the types of things I’d like covered, or I would spend time myself after a course, giving my staff more sport-specific training. I would often say I might as well have saved the money and run it myself, and now, after further research and training ...I am.
Squad Safe’s Safeguarding for Cheer, Dance and Gymnastics course is a CPD credentialed, globally recognised certification course in safeguarding and child protection. It covers all of the content you would expect from a safeguarding course, but uses sport specific examples and solutions throughout. It also includes facilitated discussions, to help participants think about how to embed a culture in their specific gym/studio that promotes a positive, child centered approach to their training. I work with them to identify any next steps required and involve everyone in the creation of initiatives to improve the culture in their gym/studio. Like my days as a community dance practitioner, the participants help shape the content - giving them autonomy over their learning, and as a result, the motivation to follow through back in their own gyms/studios.
I believe there needs to be a complete overhaul in education for cheer, dance and gymnastics coaches; one that values and promotes the duty of care and intersectionality between childhood development, female health, mental health and safeguarding as equally important as physical preparedness. Coaches need to be able to identify good and poor practice, not just the obvious cases of abuse, and they need to know how to be intentional in creating a positive environment in their gym or studio. As a result of recent high-profile abuse cases in both cheerleading and gymnastics, thankfully more people are now talking about these ideas and stepping forward with healthy solutions (and those that have been talking about it for years are finally getting the coverage they deserve). Hopefully the conversations I was having with my coaches back in the day will no longer be viewed as just the idealistic vision of a community dance artist.
Joanna is the owner of Squad Safe and the Chair of SportCheer England, the National Governing Body for Cheerleading in England. She is a former dancer, athlete, coach, programme owner and national team manager for Team England ParaCheer.
“I believe in the transformational power of the sport of Cheerleading, to develop skills like team-work and trust, raise aspirations, develop grit, determination, and empower young people to become leaders in all walks of life.”
Squad Safe’s Safeguarding for Cheer, Dance and Gymnastics course is accredited by CPD. Successful participants receive a Continued Professional Development certification in Safeguarding for Cheerleading, Dance and Gymnastics, compatible with global CPD requirements. www.squadsafe.org