The Kids started World Taekwondo mid-September 2017 and had a great time learning and competing: M loved sparring, L loved poomsae and they both did very well when they competed.
It was fortuitous that we met the club at the annual South London Home Education Sports Day and we subsequently visited a class. We all liked what we saw: respect for the children was a key element and I was pleased to see the instructors showing even the smallest and youngest children respect.
Fast forward to 2019 and the instructors’ focus shifted to business growth. I have no problem with growing your business and promoting your brand (and we supported them in whatever way we could) but if you are doing that at the cost of the quality of teaching and child safety then you need to re-evaluate your priorities.
At one competition in February 2019 there was an equipment shortage for the smaller sizes of headguards; the referees were all aware of the problem and asked the coaches to confirm if the headguard did not fit properly and subsequently found one that did fit. This caused delays but safety is paramount.
One of our younger competitors was about to fight and our coach deemed the headguard to be a good fit but the child’s parent disagreed. They were concerned because the headguard did not fit snugly (as it should) and raised the concern with the coach. Our coach proceeded to have an argument with the parent and threatened not to coach the child through the fight.
M was shamed about his attendance in front of the class on more than one occasion. My disability has had a severe impact on my mobility and this was explained to the coaches several times as the reason behind M missing classes. Shaming him, aside from being truly poor practice, does not suddenly make me more able- bodied. Publicly shaming a child is never acceptable; if you are concerned have a private discussion.
Children who have disabled parents face different, usually more complicated, challenges; when they experience a previously well parent becoming unwell and disabled the emotional impact is likened to a bereavement. That is not an easy load to bear.
As 2019 progressed the lack of respect/ teaching focus were not the only problems and, in the middle of 2019, we started looking for alternative clubs but agreed that moving would be a last resort.
There were comments to other children [bordering on] weight-shaming in front of the entire room (“it’s harder to look nice when you’re bigger”) and young children (aged 10 and under) shamed for their parent’s laundry routines [because they were without uniform that day] “that’s not very smart, is it?“. What is a 7/8/9 year old going to do about that other than feel thoroughly shamed in front of their peers?
Grading at the club was by invitation only when the coaches determined you were ready. During one grading M was unwell- he could barely walk- but insisted on attending because he was invited so he got himself ready and went along with L. (I think he was so insistent because he missed the last grading when I was unable to get him there.) B spoke to one of the coaches and quietly explained M’s situation and we left it up to them how to handle this. When it was M’s group a coach asked him if he could try, M and B both indicated he could not stand without support and the coach persisted. The coach eventually announced quite loudly “this is why we have a problem with you“. There was no clarification so I can only surmise that not complying with his instruction made us a problem.
M was increasingly being pressured to train and fight through injury and in fact sustained a [grade 2/3] torn calf muscle [on his left leg] because the instructor in question refused to listen to M and forced him to do extra training after class [even though he was still recovering from an injury to his right foot]. When I passed on the physiotherapist’s diagnosis to the club one coach responded with well wishes and the other’s response was “will he be sparring tomorrow night?” If this seems reasonable then click on the link to learn about the injury.
An injury arising from forced training is categorised as physical abuse.
M LOVES sparring- he would spar all day, every day if possible- so when he says that he cannot fight I know it means he really cannot fight. He has only ever stopped when he was unable to weight-bear.
July 2019 things became so bad that there was an instructor pressuring a parent (in full view of a group of children) for their child to lose weight [for a competition] and threatening to withdraw the child from the upcoming competition. A light breeze could probably knock the child over but there was a greater likelihood of a gold medal in the lower weight class. The parent was physically shaking after the confrontation.
Taekwondo is not just about winning.
All these incidents raised alarms to me: children need to know that they deserve to be respected, that maintaining a healthy body weight is important, that who they are is important, that they do not have to always agree with their teacher/an adult, that their opinion matters, that their physical/emotional/psychological health matters.
How many children went home and told themselves they were too fat?
How many ate less food?
How many ate their dinner then threw it up so they don’t gain weight?
How many told themselves they are not good enough?
How many lost their courage to say no to a predatory adult?
How many lost their courage to tell someone about a predatory adult?
This might sound extreme but the reality is these things happen. We can choose to pretend otherwise but that will not make it so.
The Club Welfare Officer was not listed on the club website so I contacted the calmer of the coaches to discuss my concerns and was very clear that I did not want the other coach to feel under attack because that would create defensive behaviour which would be counter-productive. I detailed the incidents which had caused concern and suggested that more comprehensive Safeguarding training would be beneficial and that in order to not make the instructor feel singled out perhaps all the instructors could undergo the training.
The coach seemed open to this and agreed to discuss with his colleagues and get back to me. All good, right?
The response I got was unexpected.
I was told that they had completed the required courses and it was suggested if we did not like things as they were we should leave the club.
After I expressed my disappointment [because that would resolve the issues for my children but not the other children] and let them know that I was concerned enough to contact the British Taekwondo Safeguarding Officer we were suddenly expelled from the club.
I was completely shocked.
The Kids were completely shocked.
B was completely shocked.
Our friends at the club were completely shocked.
I had not expected such a blatantly unprofessional response.
What does the club’s reaction teach our children?
- If you do not accept without question you will be punished.
- If you stand up for what you believe you will be punished.
- What you think/feel does not matter.
- What your parents think/ feel does not matter.
- The coaches must be obeyed at all times.
We are all continually learning from our mistakes and I genuinely believe that the instructor in question is not saying these things maliciously but simply choosing words without thought.
The British Taekwondo Safeguarding Officer subsequently contacted the club but, months later, the instructor is still pressuring some children to lose weight for competitions, making unacceptable comments and shaming children. I have not received any feedback from the BT Safeguarding Officer so I have no idea if my concerns were simply dismissed because I did not have “clear and credible evidence” or if I was labelled a problem parent.
Perhaps I overreacted? Perhaps this is considered acceptable in World Taekwondo? Does this behaviour in fact meet the standard set by British Taekwondo?
If even one child develops an eating disorder or feels that they have no choice but to acquiesce to a predatory adult because of fear of punishment or feels they cannot tell an adult about abuse they are experiencing because they are not supposed to say anything, or feels that their feelings/ opinions/ wellbeing does not matter, that is one too many.
We have visited several clubs since last summer and The Kids have now been able to observe classes from a range of instructors and – thankfully – none have exhibited the same worrying behaviour.
Our experience with that particular club has highlighted the lack of comprehensive safeguarding training; the Safeguarding Officer has been lobbying for more training but at the time of discussion with her (July 2019) the mandatory safeguarding training amounted to 1 or 2 slides within a coaching course.
I have to admit I expected the mandatory safeguarding training to be much more comprehensive and in line with the training provided for teachers and school governors [given that coaches are teachers and children strip down to underwear during weigh- in].
British Taekwondo (BT) released a statement [in December 2019] stating that they take safeguarding seriously and if a complaint is made with clear and credible evidence they will follow their processes and procedures.
There was no clarification about what they consider to be clear and credible evidence: if they plan to only investigate when someone can send a video clip or document they’re missing the point.
I completed Bichard training during my time as a school governor and, having listened to recordings of actual predators talking about how they chose and groomed children in a school setting [which was unbelievably disturbing], it would be difficult to provide physical evidence unless someone is caught in the act.
Issues like weight shaming, causing injury through forced training and bullying via threats/exclusions are also unlikely to produce physical proof because these are all verbal.
I have a report from a physiotherapist confirming M’s injury but that does not prove he was forced to train and it is extremely unlikely the coach will admit to forcing him.
It really would be in the best interest of all the children and vulnerable adults involved if British Taekwondo would ensure the mandatory safeguarding training is comprehensive: make it very, very clear what they consider to be acceptable coaching behaviour, on what grounds they will investigate and what they consider to be “clear and credible evidence“.
I have seen a coach from another club become verbally abusive to children during competitions and, while I was pleased to see the referees reprimand the coach, the behaviour was repeated. That is absolutely not acceptable. I hope that coach was flagged to the BT Safeguarding Officer.
I have read the official Code of Conduct for coaches and was very surprised at how much non-compliance I had observed, but, again, how do you prove this?
Our old club was unwilling to address my concerns in a professional and cooperative manner; I hope my concerns have at least made them more aware of the impact of their actions/words.
I cannot force the club to stop the unsafe practices but I can teach my children that they do not have to accept it.