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Children Young people Developing Mindsets Safety and Welfare Self-care and development

Safeguarding: Child-centred Coaching Practices that Support Creating a Safe Environment for All

Two of the UK’s leading children’s coaches and coach educators, Richard Cheetham MBE and Russell Earnshaw, share a range of approaches and techniques that coaches can apply to create a safe and supportive environment for young people, so that every child feels heard, understood, and valued. Speaking to UK Coaching’s Blake Richardson, the pair examine the numerous and profound benefits of developing a child-focused philosophy that puts the young person at the heart of every session

UK Coaching works in partnership with the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) to regularly review and develop the course content and materials of its Safeguarding & Protecting Children (SPC) suite of products. This is to ensure that the learning content, guidance and delivery is current, and that sessions are engaging and truly thought-provoking for every learner.

The newly updated versions (as of April 2022) of our face-to-face workshops and online classrooms places greater emphasis on the need for coaches to reflect on what it means to be a child today.

This article aims to bring the key principles of the updated courses to life, demonstrating how, by adopting a child-centred approach, coaches can ensure safe practice for all. It includes:

  • examples of activities coaches can use to learn more about the children they have a duty to care for
  • how to use that knowledge to identify safeguarding issues
  • how to build lifelong learning by enabling children to manage their own risk.

We hope it whets your appetite to learn more about safeguarding by booking onto one of our industry-leading courses.

Gaining a deep knowledge and understanding of the children you coach lies at the heart of safeguarding.

As coaches will learn in UK Coaching’s newly updated Safeguarding and Protecting Children suite of courses, learning to spot signs of harm, abuse, or neglect and knowing how to raise and act on your concerns is paramount.

As is the need for coaches to understand the guiding principles that underpin effective safeguarding practice.

For while, absolutely, coaches need to know about policies, procedures, and protocol, at its core, safeguarding is about people and forging positive partnerships. Embracing a child-focused philosophy is central to building and harnessing strong collaborative relationships.

Only by creating a safe and supportive space where children and young people feel that they have a voice and are valued, can learning and development truly occur and can coaches begin to earn trust and develop rapport with those children under their wing.

Coaches will struggle to identify safeguarding issues at all if they don’t build from those solid foundation blocks.

Richard Cheetham believes a child-focused approach is the golden thread that runs through safeguarding practice, performing the role of physical, emotional, psychological, and social connector.

“Every coach should develop effective strategies for connecting with the children in their sessions because only then will physical, emotional, or mental issues reveal themselves.

“Being child-centred helps coaches recognise changes in behaviour and signs and indicators of safeguarding issues.

It’s why exploring the word ‘child-centred’ is worthy of deep discussion and dialogue among coaches. What does child-centred really mean? What does it mean in terms of active and deep listening? Do you really listen to what your children say? Are you really seeing what is happening? Are you noticing that somebody is being excluded, or is demonstrating a change in attitude or behaviour?”

As Russel Earnshaw – Rusty as he is more commonly known – puts it: “As a coach you need to listen with your eyes as well as your ears”, which means giving children your undivided attention, and maintaining a level of professional curiosity by continually asking yourself questions.

Is anyone behaving differently to how they normally behave? Are they interacting well with each other? Any sudden drop in performance? Any unexplained injuries or mood swings?

“Check in with parents too to find out what their child has been up to and if there is anything going on in their world that would be useful to know,” adds Rusty. “I’m amazed how often parents tell me something that makes me think, ‘it would have been really helpful if you’d told me that without me having to extricate that information’.”

This deeper knowledge you glean by connecting with your children and parents, and from noticing and being more attentive, may prompt concerns that you can then monitor.

Alternatively, if instant intervention is not required, and you already have a strong bond with that child, you may feel comfortable having a conversation with them (how to raise and report safeguarding concerns appropriately is an essential feature of our all our safeguarding courses).

Creating a sense of belonging

Richard is keen to dispel the common misconception that incorporating safeguarding practices into your coaching automatically reduces sessions to the status of dry and boring.

He gives an example of an ‘ice-breaker’ activity coaches can use that is creative and engaging and puts the child or young person at the heart of the session.

A simple game of Pictionary harnesses the dual power of active listening and active learning – where the children are encouraged to be actively involved in the learning process and to learn through personal experience.

Starting the session with a game of Pictionary taught me a lot; about how people view the same image; about how they draw it; what language they use. It’s a great way of understanding people. I call it ‘language empathy’; getting that deeper insight into their personalities by entering their world and learning to use the words they are familiar with.

“A lot of adults draw for themselves, not for the child in front of them. Are you explaining the picture in your language too? Try explaining it in a language the child understands. The activity confronts how you engage with children. It is child-centred, but it is also learner-centred.

“Fire-starters, or icebreakers, whatever you want to call them, are great ways of engaging a group right from the outset and getting people on board before you launch into the content. It’s a flavour of what’s to come, it buys into their attention, and you get people switched on.”

Rusty uses another simple but highly effective exercise that is mutually beneficial to coach and child.

“I will typically start with activities that take away skill, so that everyone is on an equal footing. For instance, to pass the ball to someone you have to shout their name. Children learn each other’s names quickly, and so do I.

“We might share interesting facts about each other, or I’ll ask questions that encourage them to be expressive and speak openly. What is your favourite dinosaur? Which superhero would you want to be?

It creates that sense of belonging, which is so important. As soon as other people recognise something really cool or creative about someone else, the sooner they feel comfortable and safe in that setting. And it enables me to then delve a little bit deeper to really explore and harness that positive moment in front of their team-mates.”

Such activities lower barriers for children to tell him about any worries or concerns they may have. “Children aren’t going to share information without trust,” adds Rusty.

Acting like a child yourself can be an effective tool. “I can be a big kid myself sometimes, especially with the younger ones. In my experience that is the place – where you’re being a child at play – when people reveal things or tell you something.”

Removing sharp edges

What is the first word you think of when someone says ‘safeguarding’? For a lot of coaches, it will probably be the word ‘abuse’.

“Which is quite right,” says Richard, “but I would say safeguarding is as much about emotional well-being as protecting children from physical harm.

I did a safeguarding course a few nights ago and we talked about how safeguarding is about removing ‘sharp edges’, so that it is a safe environment in lots of different ways.

“Safeguarding children’s emotional well-being is important because, developmentally, what we retain in childhood, and retain from our experiences, will stay with us forever. Coaches need to be mindful of that.

“You’ll always remember the medal you won but you’ll always remember, sadly, the comment that was made that was the least helpful.

So safeguarding is about protecting the now and being alert to issues, but it is also about protecting the future, and children’s ongoing experiences, their ongoing view of themselves, and their view of the sport.”

The more you discuss and delve into the guiding principles of safeguarding, the more obvious it becomes that effective safeguarding practice is multi-layered.

Yes, it is about protecting children and young people from abuse, harm, and neglect by putting in measures to protect their health and well-being, but it is also about creating a safe environment and safe activities; it is about children feeling socially, psychologically, and emotionally secure as well as physically safe.

And, as Richard states, impactful safeguarding is about facilitating long-term solutions as well as being alert to present-day concerns.

Lifelong learning and managing self

Richard and Rusty are keen advocates of giving children responsibility for their own learning.

Involving the young person in the decision-making process by giving them a voice not only helps the coach establish meaningful connections and build trust. It also enables children to manage their own risk and encourages lifelong learning.

Rusty says his goal is for players to think like coaches.

“I will get children to design their own space and their own rules from a physical safety point of view. And from an emotional point of view, I will get them to factor in behaviour boundaries, and what they consider to be acceptable behaviour towards each other. Then I will ask questions based on what they come up with: why do you think we are putting in the boundaries here? Why are we doing it at this pace? What might happen if we don’t?

That’s the beauty of co-creation that encourages experimentation: it promotes creativity, opens a world of possibilities and solutions, and the principle that there is not one way of doing things. The positive feedback to one another breeds empathy and kindness.”

All these skills are transferable to everyday life and lead to lifelong learning.

Rusty provides an example.

“In terms of full contact in rugby… people are at different bus stops aren’t they. I like to give them different options of activities or of rules or tell them what the individual challenges are for people to either stretch them or support them – individualising an activity for a child. That might be through co-creation, using their suggestion and listening to their language or using questions to help make the game safer.”

Richard echoes the view that co-creation is a hugely effective tool to help children and young people learn how to keep themselves safe (managing self), that can be translated to other areas of life in the long-term (lifelong learning away from the adult).

The ‘peas and carrots’ activity

Richard gives an example of how coaches can empower children in their self-management by trusting them to make their own decisions around risk.

“I pre-mortem a lot. You know, I think to myself, ‘what could go wrong?' Ask yourself: 'What can I do to keep myself and my children safe?' So it might be, ‘okay it’s raining so we’re going to have to take the session indoors. I will be training children in a small space. I need to think about how I can mitigate anything that could go wrong’.

“These are non-negotiables, like the sharp edges we discussed. The boundaries, meanwhile, you can establish between each other.

“I made up this game a few years ago called the ‘peas and carrots’ session. The teacher brings the children in from the playground into the dining hall. They ask the children ‘What do we need to be mindful of?’, and the children discuss the physical boundaries where they can and can’t go.

“The children stack the chairs and tables in a storeroom to create an activity space. The hall is now clear of tables and chairs, but it’s still got peas and carrots on the floor. So, I will ask the children. ‘What do we need to be mindful of now?’

By co-creating an environment that is learner-centred and child-centred, you are creating an awareness. They’ll suddenly start to be much more aware of the environment that they’re walking into and start to question when things aren’t safe and prepare themselves accordingly.”

Even if one child out of 30 has a poor experience, it is one too many.

For Rusty, who as a rugby coach is heedful of maturation rates and early and late developers, creating a safe option for everyone in the session is always front and centre in his mind.

He will often have to remind himself that what children want is not always what they need.

“I’ll have kids come up to me and say, ‘why aren’t we doing contact?' And I know full well that the majority aren’t at that level yet. So, I give the children who are perhaps bigger than everyone else and are ready for contact activities with different rules to everyone else.

“That’s when I am quite explicit. I will provide the rationale to them why it’s dangerous for everyone to do contact before learning other skills first, and then I will check in with their parents about what I did to challenge them in different ways and why. Because there is no way I want a child injured physically or emotionally in any of my sessions.

“I mean, every coach wants the children at their sessions to come back, right?”

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Related Resources

  • Creating a Safe Space for Participation

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  • A Guide to Safeguarding Children and Young People in Physical Activity and Sport

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  • Duty to Care

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