The following is a guide designed and provided by Laurien and Alex Zurhake of Off The Zone, which seeks to provide trauma-informed coaching for martial artists wanting to provide a safe, secure environment for their students and teammates.
Recent sexual harassment allegations shook the BJJ world. In its wake, other athletes from diverse martial arts spoke up too, either through private conversations or publicly. Particularly in the BJJ scene, an overlapping governing organization regarding safeguarding is missing. That is why this guide helps martial arts school owners and coaches with setting up practical safeguarding measures so that they keep their students — regardless of background, age, race, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation — safe. Sometimes when a coach and a student spend a lot of time together, the area between motivational contact and misconduct may seem to become grey. Clear policies should help prevent or solve such situations.
People that may end up abusing others tend to gravitate towards professions such as coaching and teaching. At the same time, vulnerable people tend to gravitate to sports such as martial arts in search of empowerment. Often perpetrators tend to set themselves up for success: they seem reliable, trustworthy, and choose victims that are vulnerable, isolated, easy to not believe. In this way, they gain access to students.
A coach-student relationship is based on trust and power. Trust that the coach has the students’ best interests at heart and power, because the coach has the authority and skills to positively or negatively impact their students. Remember: as long as the athlete is under the supervision of the coach, there is an imbalance of power.
What about love?
A coach and a student can only start a relationship when the coach no longer supervises that athlete and they are both adults. In this way, there is no longer a power imbalance. Obviously, there are examples where partners start to train under their significant other after they came together. Also in these cases, it is advised that the student is graduated and supervised by other coaches or that clear rules and boundaries are set.
Differences Between Laws and Policies
There are different types of sexual and social misconduct. Some are considered criminal and some may not. Behaviour, however, can be or become inappropriate before it becomes illegal.
You get to set your policies
It is important to emphasize that not all sexual and social misconduct is seen as criminal or illegal. BUT that does not mean it therefore should be tolerated in your martial arts school. You get to decide how to keep your students safe.
Example sliding scale of sexual misconduct
Any non-consensual sexual contact or behavior (from sending photos of one’s genitals all through rape) IS sexual misconduct and should be a VIOLATION of any school’s policy and may also VIOLATE criminal law.
Consent is at the root of EVERY allegation of sexual misconduct. As a coach, you may face situations where a student comes forward and you need to respond. When a minor is the victim, you ought to report it immediately to the authorities and suspend the accused until further notice. When it involves an adult, it depends on the severity, but any violation of your school’s safeguarding policies should be met by consequences, such as suspending or totally barring the accused from your school. Acting may be hard as you most likely work(ed) with the accused for years. Yet, your students’ safety always comes first!
If it’s the very owner of a martial arts school, a student can choose to report it to the authorities and should definitely leave that school. By leaving, you show other students and prospective students that this school is unsafe.
- Informed, knowing, voluntary, active and clear words or actions indicating that a person is legally and functionally competent to indicate permission for specific sexual activity’ (SafeSport)
- Need to be of legal age (typically 18, but varies per country / state)
- Consent to sexual activity is required no matter race, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Consent is not:
- a permanent arrangement. Consent can be withdrawn at any time also during a sexual act.
- passive: silence in and of itself can’t be interpreted as consent. Passive consent does not exist!
- obtained through force (physical violence, threat, intimidation, grooming, or coercion.
- obtained where a power imbalance exists.
A person is incapable to voice consent when:
- incapacitated (temporarily or permanently), think of unconsciousness, lack of awareness or when asleep.
- student has physical and/or mental health conditions.
Consent can also not be obtained through coercion. This is subtle, hard to prove, and on its own not criminal, but should definitely violate your school’s policy.
For instance: repeatedly and intensely texting, isolating, and pressuring someone who does not want to have sex is coercion.
Responding in a Trauma-Informed Way
What are trauma-informed ways to respond when a student approaches you and tells you what happened to them?
- Assure them you will do what you can to help.
- Tell them they have done the right thing by confiding in you and that you believe them.
- Let them know the abuse was not their fault.
- Remind them they are safe with you.
- Try to not show that you are shocked, they don’t know how to interpret that.
- Don’t interrogate them; you want to prevent them potentially re-living a traumatic event.
- Don’t ask leading questions, instead ask open ones: ‘he must have hurt you’ is a leading question, ‘how did that make you feel?’ is an open question.
By setting physical and interpersonal boundaries and standards, there is a lot we can prevent from happening in the first place by how we set up and inspect our schools. The following shares a (not exhaustive) list of such boundaries and standards that should make your school a safer space.
General safety rules
- Having your parking lot lit + install cameras.
- Parking lots closest to your entry are reserved for women / families.
- Male / female lockers are off limits to the other gender.
Locker rooms policy
- Conduct regular sweeps (in teams of two, of the same gender depending on the locker you inspect) of locker rooms/changing areas.
- Make sure no child is alone with an adult or much older athlete.
- Conduct meetings where others are present and where interactions can be easily observed and/or interrupted.
- If possible, meet in a publicly visible and open area, such as the corner of a gym/school (no locked or closed doors).
Off the mat rules
- Make it clear what kinds of off-site / out-of-program activities are allowed (competitions, watching UFC, camps etc.), and what supervision is required for these events.
- Set rules around the presence of alcohol at said events.
- Don’t transport an unrelated (underaged) student by yourself—have your own child, another student or an adult travel along.
- Encourage parents to help organising travel so that more than one adult is responsible.
Don’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings by insisting they follow your school’s policies. Enforcing policies protects students, everyone working with students and your martial arts school.
We hope that this guide helps with creating a safe learning environment and setting you, your students, your staff, and your school up for success!