John-Michael Lander | Contributor
It seems hard for the public to understand how a male athlete will find himself in a position to be sexually abused by a coach or person in power. And believe it or not, it is just as hard for that athlete to understand. Just as equally difficult for the public to understand is why a male doesn’t report the incident. The patriarchal definition, stipulations, and expectations of “what it is to be a man” has enslaved male athletes into silence and forced them to deal with sexual abuse on their own. Finally, it is hard for the public to comprehend the inner world of sports from the vastness of the world.
Grooming is not fast or immediate, it is a slow process of calculation, manipulation, and trust building on the part of the predator. Usually, the victim is not even aware he/she is the focal point of the grooming. Not only is the predator grooming the athlete but the parents, other coaches, and official as well. Building a trusting relationship with the parents/guardian, strengthens the predator’s influence over the athlete. Just as each sexual abuse experience is different and unique, the predator’s grooming techniques are equally different and unique—which causes difficulty to identify.
There is no universal guide book for grooming techniques. Predators have practiced and perfected the tools that work best for them. What works for one predator may not work for another. So, there are no clear and concise actions to look for. And what makes it even more challenging is that the predator may alter and change their approach when one method fails or adapt and assimilate to a new challenge or environment.
One thing that is consistent is that a predator is calculating. The predator is always testing the waters with the athletes to identify those that can easily be groomed based on that predator’s criteria. The predator’s goal is to find the easiest way build trust, friendship, and to isolate the target.
For example: a predator has a team of twenty athletes. The predator will case the athletes and observe their actions and interactions with the other teammates to get a sense of each athlete’s personalities, likes, dislikes, social abilities, family life, economic background, and relationship within the team. The predator will hone in on a couple of possibilities that fit that predator’s profile of a perfect target. Depending on the predator’s motives and attractions, the selected athletes become the focal point. Here is where things start getting complicated to decipher, because some predators move in on the loner-type; another will focus on the athlete with a complicated home life or struggling economically; another predator is excited by the challenge of the popular athlete; and while another predator will be drawn to the athlete that seems to be coasting in the middle. Many believe that the predator is more attracted to the challenge than the achievement. And once the achievement has been accomplished, the predator usually loses interest and drops the athlete to focus on a new conquest. This discarding may cause ramifications and damage to the psyche of that young athlete, causing much confusion, shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
What is truly disturbing is that many predators are not even aware that they are doing anything wrong. They have compulsively deflected their actions as a normal event and have blamed the target as making the movement and asking for the attention. They flip the victim-ism onto themselves and place the fault on athlete. In some cases, the predators were prior sexual abuse victims themselves and have not gotten the needed help. Some predators have even stated that they cannot help it or stop it.
Whichever direction the predator migrates, the next step is to become the athlete’s friend and blur the coach/athlete relationship. Each predator has their own unique way to intermingle with the selected prey. One way is to win over the parents to gain support and trust. Once the parents are on board, then the predator can get closer to the targeted athlete. By now the predator has done the homework, knows the athlete’s likes and dislikes, and begins to initiate himself into the athlete’s awareness by demonstrating similar likes and dislikes. Simple jokes or comments to create a safe feeling for the prey in front of the other teammates. Depending on the prey’s weakness, the predator will devise methods to stress the importance of understanding these weaknesses and may even extend suggestions to the parents. An excellent predator involves the parents in such a way that the parents assist in helping the predator win over the prey and may help in providing isolation moments, like: allowing the predator to drive the athlete to and from practices or meets, allowing the athlete to stay in the same hotel room during out of town competitions to save money, and agreeing for the athlete to have private practices. As the predator slowly wiggles into the athlete’s life, the athlete has begun to trust the predator and starts to confide more and more. Many times, nothing has happened to raise a red flag because the predator is lending an ear, giving advice, and even providing assistance. Most often this is done in the open, to gain the trust of the parents, other coaches, and the teammates.
Grooming takes time. The more the athlete is groomed, the more likely the sexual abuse may happen. Now here is the other confusing issue, not all the athletes groomed are sexually abused. If the predator gets an uneasy vibe, the targeted athlete will be dropped, and the predator may keep up the façade of a close friendship while that predator turns the attention on to another athlete. The calculating predator is creating a reputation as a person who really cares and listens to all the athletes. This may be observed by parents, teammates, other coaches, and officials that the predator is really a “nice person” and treats all the athletes the same. What is really interesting is that the predator may purposely be creating this scenario to build an alibi that if any abused athlete comes forward, causing that athlete to appear as lying.
Then there is the “secret” element that the predator forces upon the target. This comes in many unique methods as well. Depending on the athlete’s weaknesses, the predator will establish an ultimatum based on fear. The biggest fear for me was that it would come out as my fault, that I threw myself at the coach, and that I was a homosexual which would have devastated my father. Whatever the anchor is for the prey, the predator will devise a costly ramification.
Are male athletes easier to target than females? First, I am not sure if this statement is true, because I can only voice my experience as a male athlete. One reason that predators are more successful with male athletes is because of society’s refusal to acknowledge that males can be sexually abuse. Many believe and pass it off as hazing, initiation, or simply a rite of passage. There always seems to be a blind eye toward this issue and is usually quickly covered up. And there is the shame, embarrassment, and emasculation for the male athlete to have been groomed and manipulated into such an event and the pressure to keep the events secret. There is also the fear of losing the coach’s attention and the chance to move higher in the rankings of the sport if the incident was exposed. The community of elite athletes in a sport is relatively small, and the competition to remain at the top of the sport is high. Athletes are numbers and can easily be replaced by a younger and more eager prodigy. And who would believe an athlete over a well-recognized successful coach? 1 in 6 males are sexually abused before the age of 18, and this number can be estimated to be higher in sports because of the lack of reporting.
How does a parent recognize the signs of their child being groomed? This is extremely difficult because it depends on how efficient the predator is. I have read many articles stating “The Three signs to look for” or “This is the order in which a predator grooms a child;” and although I find these articles helpful, they are not always accurate. These articles are extremely general and basic. Again, I can only use my experience and share how I was groomed, which is different from other sexual abuse survivors I have talked to.
I was an athlete, and the life of an athlete is quite different. During my competitive years, coaches had all the power and the respect. Depending on the coach’s reputation of developing champions outweighed any method of how the coach prepared athletes to win medals. So, the believably was always on the side of the coach. In my case, my coach was charming, good looking, and a great instructor. It was an honor to be in his presence. He was very selective on who he worked with, and we always had a small team. And as an athlete, we did not want to rock the boat because there was always someone waiting to take our place and terminate our dreams for the Olympics, college, and medals.
The best advice I can give to parents is to really listen to their children. As a sexual abuse survivor, I truly wanted someone to listen to me—even though I was trying to protect the coach’s reputation and fulfilling my dreams, deep down I was in complete agony and pain. My parents equated this to teenage angst and growing issues. I can remember hearing, “He’ll grow out of it.” And I really have a hard time when adults think that teens can handle the sex element of abuse. If the teen has not experimented with sex on his/her own time and with those of the same age--there seems to be debilitating development with the teen's psyche. And these may not become evident until later in life.
Acting out is another sign that something is not right. Acting out is any action the child does that is out of the ordinary for that child. In my case, I withdrew within myself. I was normally a very outgoing and “life of the party” type. My predator informed me that my friends could never understand or relate to me because I was going places and that I should stay away from them because their negativity would ruin my chances of going to the Olympics. I distanced myself from all friends. But, when the abuse began, I pulled further within myself, spending most of my time in my bedroom, not going out with friends or even outside to play. I made excuses that I had too much homework, or I was exhausted from practice (I was truly exhausted from trying to keep the secret.). So, parents need to be aware of any changes, which can be difficult because of the chemical changes that teens are also going through.
Being aware of anger that flares out of nowhere. I had sparks of outbreaks that really had no base to anything. Occasionally, I would drop the “f” bomb or curse for no reason, which was completely out of character for me. Or, I would burst out with a guttural scream from frustration. Which would create more frustration because my parents seemed to ignore these cries for help.
Appearance may change. I went from not really caring how I looked to everything had to be immaculate during the grooming process when the coach’s attention made me feel special. My parents were pleased with this and encouraged the coach to continue doing whatever he was doing. In my case, the coach led me to believe that he found me desirable, attractive, and sexy.
After the coach dropped me, which always seems inevitable, my parents seemed to ignore the depression, shame, and low self-worth that I presented. I quit taking showers, became unkempt, and lost interest in almost everything. My parents again equated this to the changes a teenager goes through.
Talk to your children and really listen to their responses. If you are really in tuned with them, you will notice if they are hiding something. Ask questions and show support. Remember this is not a reflection on you and it is not about you. It is about the child and what he/she is going through.