The Myth of “She Knew What She Was Doing”

When a teenage athlete becomes romantically involved with a coach, it’s not uncommon for some in horse sport to chalk the relationship up to “a workplace affair.” It’s not.

It’s a crime. 

A minor cannot legally consent to a sexual relationship with an adult—particularly one in a position of authority—even if they appear to be complicit in it. The coach invariably exercises emotional control over the outmatched minor and while some may argue that the minor’s riding career benefits from the relationship, the negative psychological effects upon the victim can last a lifetime. In short, the power imbalance is too great; the cost, too high.

Still, these relationships persist and, in fact, become more common the more advanced in skill a young rider becomes. “Young athletes, particularly those in elite sports, have a more frequent incident of sexual abuse by coaches when they are competing at a higher level,” says child protection advocate Les Nichols. 

There there's several reasons for this phenomenon:

1. They're working harder and sacrificing more of their lives for their sport in order to be successful. 

“As a result, they have fewer friends and participate in fewer outside activities,” explains Nichols. 

2. Total dedication requires the athlete to spend more one-on-one time with a coach. 

“You would have to,” he continues. “Individual training with the coach plays an instrumental role in advancing the athlete’s skill set. It also creates ideal conditions for grooming.”

3. The families fully support the athlete’s commitment and sacrifice and even gain by allowing more opportunities. 

“Parents adjust their thinking to look for more opportunities for one-on-one interaction with the coach, to give their child the chance to learn everything they can from that individual—and they often don’t want to interfere and mess that up," continues Nichols. "The coach, for example, might pick up and drop off the athlete and the parents are thinking, God, how could we be so lucky? So this idea of them spending countless hours on the phone or texting, you find a way to dismiss that. They’re discussing strategy."

4. The athlete’s success is the organization's success. 

“When you have this champion starting to emerge from a program, organizations tend to become permissive—they view the athlete’s success as their success. And in some cases, the community does as well," says Nichols. "It’s not uncommon for an entire small community to be behind a trainer. The thinking is, Look how many championships he's brought to our barn. Don't interfere with him. Let him work his magic!

5. Success is a path to college scholarships, national and Olympic team qualifications, or other financial benefits. 

“There’s huge pressure with this,” says Nichols. “The athlete feels there’s an enormous amount to lose, that their dreams are on the line and the coach is their conduit to achieving them. They’ll do almost anything to achieve them.”

Combined, these factors create an insular world around the athlete that can become weaponized by an abuser. The pressure, the absence of outside influences/perspectives, the deep desire to be successful and achieve, the total trust a young athlete and their family puts in the coach and the program—all these factors, which can aid in their success, can also cloud their thinking when it comes to “red flags” in the relationship. Ultimately, it can render them susceptible to abuse.

So, no. Minor athletes, even “mature” ones, that become involved in a sexual relationship with their coaches don’t “know what they’re doing.” They’re manipulated, often unknowingly, by the very people they most trust.