Research into Cypriot sport has so far failed to explore the views of participants in relation to athlete welfare. My research explored the meaning of athlete welfare through the perspectives of child-athletes and others in the world of Cypriot athletics.
The child-athlete experience has been largely articulated through a positive discourse about involvement in sport and competition. With a prominent media focus supporting the ‘success’/‘winner-takes-all’ ethos of contemporary sport, physically and emotionally strenuous training can be legitimised in Cypriot sport.
Within this study the views of children and ex-athletes’ experiences highlight the underbelly of sport when the glamour/promise of winning fades. In such a context, positive experiences of being a child-athlete rely heavily on supportive and robust coach-athlete relationships that reflect mutually constructive interactions where listening and responding to child-athletes’ needs are uncompromised. Additional support by parents, schools, clubs and friends’ offering sympathy, empathy and continual care over the child-athletes’ efforts is vital. Maintaining athlete welfare-friendly environments means to consider and acknowledge the sense of togetherness and community desired by young athletes.
In contrast, welfare becomes less attainable when child-athletes experience anxieties, sport failures, physical injuries and other external challenges such as doping. In the absence of supportive interaction with the coach and other important individuals and institutions, the child athletes face disillusion and despair, and may even drop out from athletics prematurely. Coach indifference, school rejection or lack of understanding of pressures are clearly detrimental for child athletes. The school’s failure to recognise their efforts and the club’s approach to often ‘forgetting’ and neglecting the child athlete who fails to bring ‘good results’ make child athletes vulnerable and unable to tolerate and cope with the physical and emotional demands of their sport.
The meaning of welfare therefore needs to escape the confines of both the ‘prevention of abuse/harassment’ discourse, as well as that of a more instrumental response. It seems that relatively mundane interactive practices are important and if responded to appropriately can make tremendous differences to the quality of life child-athletes.
One of the central contributions of this study is to illustrate the multiple layers of individual agency demonstrated by child-athletes – traditionally viewed as passive and silent – in their everyday coping with the multiple challenges of participating in their sport.
Some of the child-athletes appeared to accept and reproduce their role within the ‘performance’ narrative favoured by competitive sports. Others took a partial position, conveying a more critical view of their sport-training milieu. But another group of child-athletes opposed the problematic features of sport, choosing to stand against them, even to the point of requesting another coach. These athletes reveal the lack of autonomy and freedom within the structures shaping their lives, as they often have to face severe emotional challenges such as having to prove that they are still ‘competent’ or ‘worthy’ in order to be appointed a new coach.
My research also illustrates that, from a northern European perspective, Mediterranean cultures, such as that in Cyprus, can appear to be characterised by more demonstrative, sensuous and, controversially, perhaps less ‘rational’ human interactions. Such everyday interactions are not just in the personal realm, but also extend into wider political, legal and sociocultural arenas that influence how institutions like sport view social interactions in practice.
These elements have a significant impact on the way Cypriot sport settings are organised and how human relationships function within them. Therefore, I argue that a potentially narrow set of regulations on physical contact and other social practices designed primarily to prevent child (sexual) abuse (such as those found elsewhere in sport), may obstruct or prevent the more spontaneous and culturally valued behaviours within Cypriot sport. According to the participants in this study, such outcomes can negatively affect the coach-athlete relationship, eroding its humanistic dimension.
In order to cultivate child-athlete welfare, without creating narrow measures and reducing the high standards of competitive and performance sport levels, I suggest the creation of an empathetic and ‘friendly’ child-athlete educational approach. This approach could be adopted across a coaching and child-athlete educational program on issues of welfare that will promote reflexivity, the sense of embodiment and belonging, coach care and the feeling of achievement and improvement.
Overall my research offers an opportunity to suggest that the meanings of child-athlete welfare can be multifaceted even at local levels. Cultural, social and institutional differences constitute a challenging reality, and one that policy-makers should consider, as it seems that a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not function efficiently (Lang & Hartill, 2015). Focusing instead on understanding the functions of power can provide a first step in exploring how sociocultural influences relate to child abuse and protection in sport.
The central message of this study is to suggest a greater engagement with broad definitions of athlete welfare and to seek ways to cultivate positive, trustful, less paternalistic sporting environments where the child-athletes’ sense of uniqueness is valued and their participation in decision-making enhanced.
Lang, M & Hartill, M. (ed) (2015). Safeguarding, Child Protection and Abuse in Sport. London: Routledge.