Athlete Toolkit: 4 Tools for Every Athlete
As an athlete, you will most likely play, train, and compete individually and on a variety of teams, in a range of settings and locations, and for numerous coaches and athletic staff. Certain environments and organizations may have different cultures and codes of conduct in place to support and protect you as an athlete. Or, they might leave much to be improved. While we hope that the behavior and norms of coaches, peers, and people in positions of power uphold ethical best practices, we ultimately only have control over ourselves. Having an Athlete Toolkit in your back pocket can help you as an athlete anytime, anywhere.
Developing and possessing your own Athlete Toolkit serves as mental and emotional preparation to safeguard and support yourself in the face of potential misconduct and abuse that you or a teammate may experience. The tools listed below are all things you can build ahead of time during moments of peace and strength, separate from any moment of crisis.
This list is entirely personal and composed of tools that no one can take away from you. Just like how we discuss, think about, and visualize what we were to do if there were a fire–‘stop, drop, and roll’–these tools can provide similar aid in the face of sexual misconduct and abuse. Reviewing and rehearsing these tools regularly serves you if and when a tough situation arises.
Tool #1: One Safe Adult You Can Talk To
Just like how you know to call 911 if there is a fire, it is key to know who you will talk to if you are dealing with a situation regarding sexual misconduct or abuse. Whether something just does not feel right and you need help to process it, a friend told you about something they experienced, or you are going through something yourself, having already identified a trusted adult you can talk to about things takes one thing off your plate during an intense time.
This trusted adult could be a parent, a relative, a teacher, another coach, a counselor, etc. This person is someone you feel comfortable around, has your best interests at heart, and will support you in navigating difficult topics and situations. They may not be someone that you talk to all the time, or go to for everything, but they are that person you know you can count on. Take a moment to identify this person in your mind. If that person does not exist in your life right now, that is okay too. There are plenty of compassionate and kind people at the Courage First Athlete Helpline (call or text 888-279-1026) that you can contact; the helpline is free, confidential, and staffed by counselors who are well versed in supporting athletes no matter what the situation.
Matters of sexual abuse and misconduct can be extremely confusing and challenging to navigate. No one has to figure these things out alone. Science shows that this relationship with your trusted adult can boost your resilience in dealing with hardship. Talking with your trusted adult can lessen the burden on your shoulders by helping you access support and assisting you in making an action plan you feel comfortable with. Remember you are not alone. Sexual misconduct and abuse is not something you have to keep secret. Telling a responsible and caring person can help you, your friend, or your teammate get support.
Tool #2: Listening To and Trusting Your Gut
Listening to and trusting your gut means recognizing and behaving in alignment with sensations in your body. When something is scary or not quite right, our bodies have an intelligent and unique way of alerting us to pay attention or that our environment may not be safe for us. It is your body's natural wisdom looking out for you. We each can experience these messages from the body through a variety of signals. For example you may feel tightness in your chest, trouble taking deep breaths, headaches, an upset stomach, sweatiness, shakiness, goosebumps, numbness, or stiffness.
Sometimes you may experience these sensations when you are genuinely excited, anxious before a test, or physically sick, but outside of those times, these are often your body’s warning signs. Take a moment to reflect and recall a time when you felt unsafe and if you can notice any signs your body may have given you. Your body will have its own messaging system that you can start to learn and respond to, as you will connect these signals as alerts that you may not be okay socially, emotionally, or physically in your environment. This discomfort is telling you that something is not okay or is potentially unsafe. Similarly, your body also tells you when you are relaxed, comfortable, and at ease. These signals may feel like calm in the body, presence, an absence of worry, flow or lack of tension in the muscles, joy, laughter, and the ability to breathe deeply and slowly.
Responding to your intuition is a tool that you can sharpen and hone throughout your life. This tool relies on developing self-awareness and connection with your body. After picking up on your body’s signals, you have the opportunity to bravely and compassionately honor those sensations and behave accordingly. When you feel or hear your gut talking, alerting you of discomfort or trouble, note it in your mind, and then you can make several choices to respond to that feeling. Remove yourself from the situation, talk to a support person about it, and/or engage in some self care and self soothing to help your body find a safer environment and state of being. Actions such as these help you validate and strengthen your intuition and empower you to take control of caring for yourself.
These sensations can also be very revealing. Perhaps you may see patterns if you always feel off or feel these uncomfortable body signs around a specific person or when going to a particular place. These internal cues provide you with extra information, prompting you to recognize that something may not be okay and giving you the awareness to create change externally to help promote internal peace. We might not always be able to logically make sense of these messages in the moment, or only notice these cues in hindsight at first, but as you strengthen your intuition, your knowledge of your gut can be a super power that helps keep you safe. Align with your body’s natural intelligence to seek out places of safety and comfort and stay away from situations and people that lead to troublesome internal symptoms.
Tool #3: Visualize Your Boundaries and Saying ‘No’
Similar to how we have fire drills and dress rehearsals, we can practice visualizing removing ourselves from uncomfortable situations. Instances of sexual misconduct and abuse or moments of inappropriate behavior may catch us by surprise, be hard to imagine, or not be what we may expect, but spending some time thinking about what you would do if someone crossed your boundaries can help you in a startling moment.
This looks like clarifying boundaries in your mind. Boundaries are your set of personal rules that you set for yourself and have others adhere to in connection with you. They are your set of laws for how you operate. Boundaries can also be agreed upon in your athletic community and in society at large. Some boundaries are fluid and flexible and others are firm and rigid. You can set boundaries around your time, your physical space, and your actions about what you do and not do and how you want others to treat you. Boundaries are not selfish, but rather are clear and helpful guidelines that promote kind and healthy interaction.
For example, you and your team may have a boundary regarding physical touch. As coaches may need to provide hands-on adjustments for your posture, the boundary in place may be that this is only done in public areas with others present, that the coach asks permission and explains the touch first, and you have the choice each and every time to say it's okay to be touched. This is a clear boundary and expectation of how things should go. If your coach were to try to touch you behind closed doors, touch you in inappropriate places, or not ask you first, they would be violating your boundary.
When we clearly know our boundaries, we can know if they are being crossed. These are the moments we can practice visualization of how we would respond in those uncomfortable, unsafe, and scary situations. Visualization is a powerful tool that can be used in this manner and in many other unique ways to prepare your mind and body for a future event. Visualizing can help you rehearse an outcome that you want and create a pathway of a response in your brain so that you can more easily and effectively respond in the moment.
In the example above, you could visualize a range of reactions from backing up physically from the coach, saying “no,” “please stop,” “you need to ask my permission first,” “please only adjust me when others are present,” or pushing them away and/or running away. Playing this situation out in your mind and having an idea of what you could do if your boundaries were to be crossed sets you up to have some options in the moment when you may be experiencing shock or fear. Take some time to evaluate other boundaries you may have for interactions with others. Map out in your mind what it would look like for that boundary to be crossed and some options of how you could respond, advocate for yourself, and protect yourself in those situations.
Tool #4: Remember Perspective
Sports are magnetic and can easily become our whole world. With love for our sport and hours spent training, practicing, and competing, athletics can often be all consuming and the main aspect of life. This dedication is great and often necessary to excel, but it can be a detriment if we zoom in our focus too narrow and forget that there is more to life outside of sports. We may fall into mental traps thinking we don’t have futures outside of sport.
You may think:
There are no other places or teams for me to compete.
My life depends on this sport.
Sport may also serve as your safe place or getaway from other tough things in your life. You may be inclined to tolerate uncomfortable dynamics in order to have your time playing, training, and competing. However, you are never stuck with one coach or with one team.
Especially when you’re young, it can be hard to know and recognize a larger perspective and that the world has many offerings within and outside of sport. This tool exists to remind you to think big, zoom out, and remember that possibilities are endless.
It may not seem like it, but there are other coaches, other teams, other facilities, and other avenues in life. There are people and resources out there to help you identify those and find other options.
You are not trapped. When you are on a team and working with a coach who has your best interests at heart and follows best practices, your wellbeing and athletic performance will be even more supported, boosting your success.
This tool is extra important to have as an athlete in the broader context of understanding how trauma can impact your brain and relationships. In cases of sexual misconduct or abuse in sport or inappropriate relationships, trauma bonds can develop. These bonds reinforce that short-sighted lens in which it is hard to imagine possibilities outside of your current reality. Perpetrators intentionally leverage this manipulation and control to narrow your thinking and worldview as methods for isolation and power. Learning and knowing about the impact of unhealthy relationship dynamics can help protect you from experiencing such effects. It can be hard to identify this in the moment when it is happening, so remember to take a step back at times and reflect, broaden your perspective and remind yourself of the great big world and all the other kind people in it.
Using Your Tools
Build your toolkit ahead of time, pull it out and refresh yourself on these tools regularly, and carry your toolkit with you at all times. These tools can be used by anyone, in and outside of sport, and can support your mental and emotional strength and resilience. You never know when you may face an uncomfortable situation, and hopefully you never will, but in any case these tools of preparedness can help you out.
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether