Apr 13, 2017
Impact of Abuse in Sport

Through the years, there have been several studies on the correlation between abuse in childhood and mental health problems for adults. Yet somehow, this relationship had never been studied among athletes in particular. Now, for the first time, researchers have done a more specific survey on the long-term effects of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse during youth sports.

According to an article (log-in required) from Medscape Medical News, 4,000 adults were included in the study, and the results were worrisome. Tine Vertommen, PhD, a Criminologist at the Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, and her fellow researchers found that “experiencing severe interpersonal violence during youth sport increased the risk for depression, anxiety, and somatic problems. It also affected mental health.”

Of the 4,000 adults surveyed, 55 percent were women, 51 percent were Belgian, 41 percent were highly educated, 61 percent were married or cohabitating, eight percent were lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual, eight percent were from an ethnic minority, and five percent took part in disabled sport. For the study, the researchers used the Brief Symptom Inventory — an instrument that evaluates and collects data on psychological distress and psychiatric disorders — and focused on the results for somatization, depression, and anxiety.

“In a generalized linear model that took into account demographics, recent life events, and family history of psychological problems, the team found that severe sexual, physical, and psychological violence were all related to ongoing psychological problems in adulthood,” writes Medscape Medical News reporter Liam Davenport.

But the question remains: why were athletes never studied in this context before? For Dr. Vertommen, the answer lies in the culture that has been created around athletics.

Sports situations are often different from other abusive situations because violence and physical contact are sometimes thought of as a part of the game, subsequently “normalizing” negative and impactful behaviors. Many young athletes are unable to tell the difference between what is acceptable in the athletic context and what is not.

“It’s a vague line, and if we, as adults, don’t know exactly what is good and what is maybe dangerous, how should a child know?” asked Dr. Vertommen. “That’s the problem. They often don’t realize that this doesn’t belong to normal sport participation. When I talk to victims, they often say: ‘It’s only after 10, 12 years that I realized that what he did back then was not normal, and that wasn’t a normal part of sport.’

“We have known for a long time already from outside sport that child abuse can have devastating effects on some people,” she continued. “But nobody was taking care of the specific risk factors that are available in sport and make it a conducive climate for all kinds of behaviors that are ‘boundary transgressive.'”

Like many others, Dr. Vertommen is concerned that purely having proper codes of conduct and policy frameworks is not enough. For her, the only way to truly decrease the amount of violence in sport is to make both coaches and athletes aware of these policies and make sure that they are utilized in both games and practices.

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