Keeping Kids Safe in Sport: Psychosocial Considerations for Clubs, Coaches, Athletes, Parents, and Officials



In April 2023, USA Swimming held its first in-person Safe Sport Leadership Conference since the COVID-19 Pandemic. One of the emerging topics from the conference was the importance of creating a culture that fosters respect, safe relationships, and a positive environment. This is aligned with the goals of USA Swimming Safe Sport – to provide a healthy and positive environment free from abuse for all its members – and the vision, mission, and values of Wisconsin Swimming. 

According to Knight and Holt (2012), youth sport is a complex social environment, created and influenced by number of stakeholders such as coaches, athletes, teammates, parents, volunteers, and officials. Creating a sport culture that fosters respect, safe relationships, and positive environment also highlights the importance of cultivating psychological safety and fun. Part of such environment also includes the development of essential coping skills to manage sport and life related stressors, including those related to injury and illness. 

It is the goal of this page to provide useful “go-to” resources for Wisconsin Swimming members as it relates to keeping kids safe in sport from a psychosocial perspective.


What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety refers to the conditions that affect the psychological and social well-being of the stakeholders (e.g., athletes, coaches, parents, officials). Psychological safety is affected by factors such as organizational culture & structure, coaching practices, and interpersonal relationships. When an environment is psychologically safe, it makes the individual feel (a) included, (b) safe to learn (and make mistakes), (c) safe to contribute, and (d) safe to challenge the status quo – without feeling fearful, embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in any way. 

A foundation for psychologically safe environment is to recognize and prevent emotional and physical abuse and misconduct. This is where Safe Sport training and club recognition becomes paramount!


What Makes Sport Fun?

Children cite ‘fun’ as the main reason for participating in organized sport, and its absence as the main reason for quitting a sport (Visek et al., 2015). Scientific research with youth sport participants has identified 11 dimension of fun – divided into four overarching tenets of fun: contextual, social, internal and external. According to the data, the three most important factors of fun are: being a good sport (social), trying hard (internal), and positive coaching (external). For more on fun in sport, check out this Podcast.


Why it is Important to Learn How to Cope with Sport and Life Related Stressors?

According to the World Health Organization, stress is a “state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” Everyone experiences stress, and it is natural to feel stressed in challenging situations. While small amounts of short-term stress can be helpful, prolonged, long-term chronic stress is harmful. Scientific research has identified a clear link between stress and illness, and sport injury. For more on role of psychology and stress in injury, check out this Podcast.


When to seek help?

At times, both sport and life related stressors can become of the kind that require outside help. It is not uncommon for athletes, coaches, and officials to seek help for mental health or mental performance related concerns. It is important to ensure that the person providing the help is appropriately licensed/certified, to provide competent and ethical care.



Where to seek help?

For Mental Health concerns, various doctoral and master-level healthcare professionals can help. These include (but are not limited to) Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Professional Counselors, and Clinical Social Workers. Mental healthcare professionals who can prescribe medication include Psychiatrist, Psychiatric or Mental Health Nurse Practitioners, and in some cases, Primary Care Physicians. See here for distinction between different types of mental health professionals.

For Mental Performance concerns, it is recommended to seek help from a professional who is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant® (CMPC®) by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Certification as a CMPC® demonstrates that an individual has met the highest standards of professional practice in sport and performance psychology, is agreeing to adhere to ethical principles and standards, and committing to ongoing professional development. You can find CMPC® Certified Individuals in your area here.