Coach Worried That an Athlete Is Being Sexually Abused


I'm concerned about one of the players on the team I coach. I think he’s showing warning signs of being sexually abused. He has started spacing out randomly on the field. He also comes in looking dirty and disheveled, and on at least 3 separate occasions, I’ve overheard him talking with other players about stuff involving sex - stuff that seems too mature for his age. And just in general, he seems angry and depressed to me, sometimes talking back and ignoring instructions. Compared to last year, when he was engaged and about as clean and well-mannered as every other 12 year old on the team, these are some remarkable changes. We live in a relatively small town, and I recently heard that he tried to run away from home and I know that there was talk about a relative living with them who has gotten into trouble in the past because of his behaviors with kids. Am I overreacting to think that these changes might be pointing to something more serious?


Observant Coach 

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Hello Observant Coach,

Thank you for writing to us - I am really glad that you are reaching out and that you are looking out for this child on your team. It can certainly be confusing and concerning to notice new behaviors in a child that could mean the child is experiencing some type of abuse. Again, it is great that you are seeking out more information to help this child.

You’ve named a few different concerns here. Though one sign doesn’t point to abuse, we want to pay attention to a pattern or several warning signs that are occuring together. Certainly there are many reasons why these behaviors can show up, such as during times of change or stress, like life changes that happen during puberty. And it is somewhat developmentally appropriate for youth this age to be interested in and to talk a lot about sex, but all of these signs together are concerning. And bottom line, it’s always a good idea to trust your instincts.

It might be helpful to take a look at these Warning Signs in Children of Possible Abuse and note whether you may have noticed any of these in his behavior as well. Also, has anyone else noticed anything out of the ordinary for this child? What about the person who told you this child ran away from home or that there is a relative staying at the house? It is possible that they are concerned, too. You may want to share this tip sheet with this adult, and even another adult in a leadership role within the team. You might even say that you’re turning to these adults because you trust them, and you’re not trying to start rumors—you’re genuinely concerned, and would appreciate their feedback about any other concerns they may have seen in this child recently. 

It can be so difficult to know what to do and what to say If You Suspect a Child Is Being Harmed (RAINN). This article goes over key ways you can talk to this youth: being a calm, trusted person he can count on is important. You don’t need to pressure him, instead just continue to let him know that you care and that he can let you know about anything that may be bothering him. Encourage him to come to you whenever someone makes him feel weird, scared or uncomfortable, and that you’ll never be upset.

I’m curious, would you be able to bring up your concerns to this child’s parents? Sometimes changes happen so gradually that even the most connected parents don’t notice shifts in behavior. You may consider checking in with one of his parents the next time they pick him up for practice. You could say something like, “I’ve been seeing some different behaviors in your son and it felt important to share this with you. If this were my son, I’d want a coach to let me know”. You may even explain that you don’t know why these changes are coming up—but you know that it may be pointing to some sort of stressor and, if they’re able to, they might consider asking their son about how he’s been doing. You may also assure them that he’s a pleasure to have on the team, and you are so glad that he’s continuing to play. 

I realize that you may be worried that the parents do know what is going on, and are not being responsive - or maybe are even causing harm to this child, so talking with the parents is just a suggestion. If you’ve had positive interactions with the parents in the past and you feel like this conversation can help, then it is something to consider, but certainly, if you are at all worried about increasing the child’s risk if you do talk to the parents then this conversation may not be a good step. Again, trust your gut and, if possible, talk to others in your own support network first to get their impressions about the possibility of having this conversation. 

Regardless of what happens with this particular youth, I hope that you consider talking to all the youth on the team about important topics like safety and boundaries. On the first day of a new team practice, or even when the team reconvenes after a break, it’s a good idea to go over the safety rules. Let them know what is and isn’t okay, and who to talk to if something happens that doesn't feel right. Many teams think of themselves as a family, which means open communication and safety for all.

On a final note, please know that it would be appropriate to contact your local Child Protection Services (CPS) with your concerns. This may be an important consideration and next step if the warning signs in this child’s behavior worsens, or if these parents are unresponsive. For more information on this process, please check out our guide on Reporting; you can find the number for CPS in your state here.

Again, I’m glad that you are following up on your concerns. Adults like you are how we keep kids safe. Take care and do reach out with any other questions.


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Last edited on: September 7th, 2023