Swim England apologises for culture of fear and abuse

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More than 1,000 swimmers, coaches, parents and volunteers gave feedback to a review commissioned by Swim England after several athletes told the BBC they had suffered bullying, emotional abuse and body-shaming, with another 3,500 people completing a survey.

In June 2023, Swim England announced a change in guidelines to ban the weighing of children after swimmers spoke out about suffering eating disorders and mental health issues.

This recent review of all aquatic sports including water polo, artistic swimming, para swimming and diving found excessive demands on children in particular, meant there was an expectation to train when they were exhausted or injured, leading to mental health issues. Reports of bullying were often “swept under the carpet” by Swim England, while historical allegations were often felt to have been dismissed. Nineteen ongoing safeguarding incidents were reported during the probe and were being investigated by Swim England’s welfare team.

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 behaviour” due to fear of repercussions.
  • Swim England’s current approach to safeguarding was criticised by some for being overzealous and biased against coaches.

Swim England chairperson Richard Hookway said the organisation apologised 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 twelve months to improve safeguarding, welfare and culture, he added.

Included in the new safeguarding, welfare and culture plan is a commitment to listen to the ‘experiences and views’ of everyone involved in aquatics in a bid to be able to take ‘proactive formative action’.

It will no doubt be difficult for an individual who has experienced such abuse to recognise and talk about it, particularly in a competitive sport such as swimming where encouragement to progress and abusive behaviour is often finely balanced.

However, we have represented many people affected by similar abuse and if you feel you, or someone you know, needs specialist advice, please contact us today.

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