Contact Sports: Teaching Touch and Consent to Young Athletes
Gymnastics coach Alina Williams discusses the importance of communicating with kids at every level of the sport as an effective measure of teaching touch and consent to young athletes.
On Halloween this year I dressed up as a rabbit. I wore bunny socks with fluffy white ears and a cotton ball tail clipped to the back of my shirt. As the head of a preschool gymnastics program, I spend a lot of time goofing off with kids, making silly faces, talking in funny voices, and occasionally dressing up in costume. My job requires a level of silliness that not everyone feels comfortable with, and I work hard to present myself as friendly and open and outgoing so that kids feel at ease. But my work, despite the persona I present, is serious.
When I dressed as a bunny on Halloween, at least one kid in every class ran up behind me and pulled off my tail. A giant puffball hanging from the back of my shirt is just too tempting! But each time it happened, I took the tail back and said, “we need to ask before we touch someone else’s body.” To which the child would respond, “can I touch your tail?” “Yes.” And the tail came off for the kids to touch. It’s a concept so simple that even my youngest students, just barely three years old, can understand, but it needs to be made explicit and it must be reciprocated from coach to athlete and athlete to coach every day.
The rampant abuse within USA Gymnastics — from Larry Nassar to Vitaly Scherbo, Vitaly Marinitch, and the Karolyis — is heartbreaking and sickening in more ways than I can count, but the prevention of these kinds of acts begins with us, the coaches who work with kids day in and day out in a world where touch is mandatory and societal norms don’t apply. Every day I touch kids in typically off-limits places. Not just hands, arms, and feet; but also legs, hips, stomachs, and chests. This kind of touch is a given in our sport; it’s unavoidable, so we need to talk about consent in preschool gymnastics and consent in coaching.
I call gymnastics a contact sport because we cannot teach our athletes without touching them. We spot, poke, shape, and catch our athletes every day, but if we don’t teach them early that they have a say in how and when they are touched we are failing in our duty as educators. It’s not enough to be careful about where we touch. We have to ask first.
Of course, it’s not practical to ask a child, “Can I touch you here?” every time I need to spot them. Instead, I make sure two things are very clear before I physically assist a child. Does this child know that I’m about to touch them? And has this child agreed to being touched? If one or both of those questions returns with a “no,” I do not touch that child.
During a class or practice this kind of coaching means that I use my voice to teach as much as I use my hands. My developmental team kids spend lots of time working on static shapes, but when I want to make a correction, I try not to reach out and just reposition their bodies. I say things like, “can I correct your shape,” “is it okay if I move your arms,” or simply, “can I help you?”
When setting up circuits at an event, whether I’m coaching preschool, rec, or team, I always tell kids at which station I’ll be spotting. If I need to safety spot, I say, “can I help you just in case?” And if I want to make an adjustment on a skill my athlete can already perform by herself I ask, “can I spot this one?” and explain why.
But here’s the kicker and the hardest part of all of this to implement in the gym: if a child refuses your touch, you must respect that refusal. Sometimes that means watching a kid go around the bar in an ugly shape you really want to fix, and sometimes it means saying, “Thank you for letting me know. Why don’t you go try the next station because I’d like to be able to spot before you try this on your own.” And in all cases, we have to mean what we say. Even when it’s frustrating and we know we could help that kid more through physical assistance than verbal coaching, we can’t punish, blame, or attach any negativity to the refusal. We simply have to find other ways to help because our job is never limited to teaching gymnastics.
In asking these kinds of questions, I’m establishing communication and consent prior to touching my kids and simultaneously teaching them that they have a right to refuse touch, especially from someone in a position of authority. In asking these kinds of questions, I’m teaching them that they have bodily autonomy and modeling that they, too, have an obligation to ask before touching someone else, even if they don’t explicitly make that connection in the moment.
This kind of coaching, though, goes beyond spotting and corrections. We have to teach by example in every interaction we have with kids. I love giving high-fives. I don’t need to explain that kids learn and behave better through positivity rather than punishment, but sometimes I have a child, typically a preschooler, who doesn’t want a high-five. One student, a quiet kid in a particularly rowdy class, often shakes her head when I hold my hand up for a high-five. She’s not being rude or unfriendly; she simply doesn’t want to be touched, so I take my hand away, smile, and continue to praise her verbally.
Still, there are times when I can’t or don’t ask for consent. Maybe I need to step in to prevent a kid from falling or stop a preschooler from crossing the vault runway at the wrong time. Or sometimes I’m frustrated that a kid hasn’t taken my corrections, so I fix a shape or spot without asking. These moments are unavoidable in a sport dominated by touch, but they should be just that. Moments.
It’s our job as coaches to be as vigilant with ourselves as we are with our athletes because kids learn by example, and if there is to be a true cultural change in the sport of gymnastics, it needs to come from the top and from the bottom. If those of us who work with kids don’t model consent and empower our athletes to speak up on a daily basis, how can we expect them to do it when the stakes are so much higher?
Article by Alina Williams
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