Toxic culture of fear in swimming systemic – review

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A toxic environment in swimming clubs in England has enabled abusive training practices and bullying to exist for years, a review has found.

Extreme competitiveness led to an “ongoing and systemic” culture of fear at all levels of aquatic sports and was a major threat to its future, it says.

Athletes, volunteers, and parents feared being “victimized” if they raised concerns with Swim England, while whistleblowers were threatened.

The governing body has apologized.

Nineteen ongoing safeguarding incidents were reported during the probe and were being investigated by Swim England’s welfare team.

The review also found there was an “urgent need” to tackle racism within swimming, with many from ethnically diverse communities feeling like they did not belong in what was viewed as a “white, middle-class sport”.

Para swimmers and swimmers with special needs said they often felt overlooked and less valued with one competition winner saying they were given a spare medal from an old contest instead of a “shiny new one” like other athletes.

Sport England said the “stark” conclusions “represented a crossroads moment both for Swim England and everyone involved in the sport more widely”, adding the governing body’s funding was dependent on its ability to change.

 

The wide-ranging review, which made 21 recommendations, was commissioned by Swim England (SE) in early 2023 after several athletes told the BBC they had suffered bullying, emotional abuse, and body-shaming.

Among them was Olympic medallist Cassie Patten who called for change having felt “broken” after years of negative comments.

The former Team GB swimmer won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but lost her love of the sport as she began suffering serious “disordered eating” to lose weight, on her coach’s instructions.

Cassie PattenIMAGE SOURCE, GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,

Olympic medallist Cassie Patten said she suffered “disordered eating” after years of negative comments

She said the report was “incredibly powerful and not an easy read – it shows there have been mistakes made in the past”.

“It’s a fantastic sport that brings joy to so many and we want to make sure it is for everyone and no one leaves the sport with any negative experiences,” she added.

More than 1,000 people within the sport – including swimmers, coaches, parents, and volunteers – gave their views to researchers with another 3,500 people completing a survey.

The review found excessive demands on child athletes meant there was an expectation to train when they were exhausted or injured, leading to many quitting the sport or suffering mental health issues.

Bullying allegations were often “swept under the carpet” by SE, while historical reports were often felt to have been dismissed.

Those in positions of power were too keen to “protect their own”, investigators said, with parents and volunteers fearful of being “blacklisted” or labeled a troublemaker for speaking up about wrongdoing.

‘Real pain and suffering’

Whistleblowers were targeted with threats, abuse, and intimidation by other people within swimming.

Participants called for an “external review or overhaul of those in power” as they wanted to make sure SE was serious about changes to the culture.

Jane Nickerson retired as chief executive of the governing body last week with Andy Salmon, former chief executive of British Triathlon, taking over.

“There have been behaviors and practices within aquatics that are unacceptable and have caused real pain and suffering to people taking part,” the review by the Behavioural Architects found.

“It is also clear that people have felt unable to come forward to Swim England to express their concerns.”

Jane Nickerson speaking at a Swim England eventIMAGE SOURCE, SWIM ENGLAND
Image caption,

Jane Nickerson retired as Swim England’s chief executive last week

The report, published on Tuesday, also found:

  • Past and current experiences of bullying were “widely reported”, particularly by coaches or other child athletes, “leaving a lasting negative impact”
  • Aggressive coaching styles including shouting, shaming, and singling out individuals are “tolerated as expected behavior” due to fear of repercussions
  • SE’s current approach to safeguarding was criticized by some for being overzealous and biased against coaches

The research included the views of the aquatics community including water polo, artistic swimming, para-swimming, and diving.

It pointed out aquatic sports can be great for well-being and camaraderie with examples of excellent coaching at all levels.

Many coaches feared unfair allegations being made against them and some told researchers they were treading a fine line between “pushing to progress and applying too much pressure”.

SE was however praised in the review for keeping aquatics going through the pandemic and keeping swimming pools open during the cost of living crisis.

Sport England said the report “details abuse, racism, bullying, bad practice, negative experiences and a poor culture within the sport”.

“The experiences shared by so many swimmers, coaches, and volunteers in the report are starkly laid out,” it added.

“No one in sport should ever be subjected to this kind of treatment, and we thank those who came forward to tell their stories.

“We are clear that our continued funding for Swim England must be focused on addressing the significant issues within the sport.”

‘Act on findings’

SE chairperson Richard Hookway said the organization apologized as they had “fallen short” of what they strived for and this led to “negative experiences”.

They took the views in the report very seriously, were committed to change, and had worked on a plan called Heart of Aquatics for 12 months to improve safeguarding, welfare, and culture, he added.

“I want to reassure everyone that we welcome the recommendations and we will act on the findings, which we fully accept,” Mr Hookway said.

“We will now take the appropriate time to develop our next steps, building on the Heart of Aquatics commitments and consulting with stakeholders as we do so.”

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