5 Signs of Grooming in Youth Sports

5 Signs of Grooming in Youth Sports – Including Three Ways to Prevent It

Trust, we rely on it more than we can ever realize. Subliminal systems of trust make it possible to earn a living, sleep at night, and even drive down the street. Trust is the soil, sun, and showers that relationships need to bloom.

So, as you can see, preserving an individual’s ability and capacity to trust is essential to their well-being.

By befriending children or teens, groomers exploit a kid’s trust for the objective of sexual abuse. It’s a sinister tactic designed to remove a target’s defenses and reduce the chances of getting caught. The sad reality is 9-out-of-10 sexually abused children know their abuser. Not only do these young people bear the scars of unthinkable trauma, but they can also suffer a catastrophic loss of trust that can take years to recover—if ever.

In youth sports, groomers insidiously take advantage of the trust many caring adults work so hard to establish as coaches, instructors, and volunteers. Nevertheless, along with team parents, the burden of defending young athletes’ trust falls upon these same sandlot heroes.


1. Know Who is Most Vulnerable

Like any predator, groomers target the most vulnerable. Every child is at risk, but those risks increase for kids experiencing unstable family or living situations. Kids eager for attention, affirmation, or acceptance can be prone to a groomer taking an interest in them. And sadly, children who have suffered other forms of abuse are also at higher risk.

2. Contact Outside the Program

Off the field, a groomer will often initiate friendly interactions with the target and their family to build trust and lower barriers. These exchanges can take the shape of doing simple favors or ‘accidentally’ bumping into the victim in public. Groomers will text kids to see “if they’re doing okay” or tell them they’re “doing a great job.”

3. One-on-One Interactions

Groomers often offer private instruction, outings for treats, or rides to and from games or practice to get their targets alone. Groomers are willing to babysit, chaperone, or chauffeur kids for time-stressed and harried parents. It’s moments like these where perpetrators groom or sexually abuse children. Using emotional manipulation, groomers secure their victim’s silence by telling them, “other kids would be jealous if they knew,” or “no one would believe you.”

4. Separation From Others

Sudden changes in a kid’s relationship with family, friends, and others can indicate an abuser has isolated their target. Bad-mouthing others or sowing conflict is a common tactic of the groomer.

5. Behavior Change in the Child

Groomers gain a mental advantage by building up the target one moment and knocking them down the next. They coerce the victim’s silence through threats and emotional blackmail. Such psychological and physical abuse will likely cause behavior changes in the child that manifest in mood swings, withdrawal, fearfulness, lack of confidence, speaking of sexual topics, loss of interest in activities, and nightmares or loss of sleep. Teens may use drugs or alcohol or exhibit self-harming behaviors.


1. Get Smart and Help Kids Be Aware

Preserving a child’s trust and innocence requires adults — administrators, coaches, parents, volunteers, etc. — to become knowledgeable about the process of grooming and its signs. Admittedly, grooming and sexual abuse are unpleasant topics. Abusers know they can hide in the darkness of this subject, relying on adults’ reluctance to discuss it. Kids need grown-ups willing to shine a light on the issue by leaning into these hard conversations. Adults should reassure kids that the chances are rare that it will happen to them, but they still need to be aware and encouraged to speak up for themselves and others. Most importantly, adults must instill that the bad behaviors of adults are never the minor’s fault.

Visit https://www.rainn.org/news/grooming-know-warning-signs or https://www.d2l.org/7-myths-about-child-sexual-abuse/ or https://playershealth.com/ to learn more about child sex abuse.

2. Establish Guardrails

Administrators, leaders, and parents of young athletes must advocate for and establish policies and expectations governing the conduct of all adults involved in the program. Setting guardrails around one-on-one interactions and digital communications go a long way to mitigate risks. Adopting a “Rule of Two” policy means at least two adults must be present and attentive at every training, practice, meeting, or related event. Equally important is creating a no-tolerance policy regarding exchanging non-program-related texts, emails, or DMs between adults and youths. The child’s parents and/or at least one other team adult must be included in the text or email thread if sending program-related messages to kids. And coaches and others must not invite or allow players to follow them on their personal social media accounts.

Visit https://playershealth.com/ to learn more about policies and practices to prevent grooming and sexual abuse.

3. Kids Before Adults

The vast majority of sexual abuse cases don’t get officially reported or even acknowledged. Grooming, and the abuse it leads to, often goes unchecked because adults fear wrongly accusing someone. That may be understandable, but it is not acceptable. Mandatory reporters—any adult working with minors in the program receiving a good faith report of suspicious activity or witnessesing potential child abuse —are legally obligated to report concerns to the proper authorities within 24 hours. Mandatory reporters or any other adult in the program are not empowered to investigate the matter further. The mandatory reporter law gives anyone reporting wrongdoing the cover needed to fully put the child’s best interests ahead of the adult’s.

About the Author

Kyle Lubrano is a mother, former collegiate athlete/coach/administrator, and serves as Players Health Chief of Athlete Safety. Lubrano oversees the assessment, implementation, and management of sports organizations’ Athlete Safety programs, the development of preventative educational assets and investigative services for Players Health . Before Players Health, Lubrano served three national governing bodies (NGB) of sport–USA Lacrosse, USA Field Hockey, and USA Baseball–in Coaching Education, Sports Development, and Athlete Safety roles.

About Players Health

Players Health believes kids prosper when they feel valued, and they are on a mission to create the safest and most accessible environments possible for athletes to play the sports they love. They help sports organizations manage risks and make sports safer and more enjoyable for young athletes with its suite of insurance products and health & safety solutions.

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