Welcome to Safe to Compete:
Protecting children and providing safe spaces for them to learn, play and grow is central to the mission of every youth-serving organization.

Safe to Compete is a program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children®(NCMEC) which provides access to resources to help youth-sports organizations and the families of child athletes protect those children from sexual abuse.

Report abuse

Learn About The Issue

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse refers to any sexual activity between a child and an adult or a significantly older child. This includes both contact and non-contact actions, including:

    • Touching the genital area or breasts, over or under clothing
    • Touching another’s genital area
    • Oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration with a part of the body (e.g. finger, penis) or with an object
    • Invitation to touch another in a sexual way
    • Voyeurism -- ‘Peeping Tom’
    • Encouraging or forcing a child to masturbate or to watch others masturbate
    • Indecent exposure --‘flashing’ or showing genital areas
    • Involving children in the viewing or production of pornographic materials or in watching sexual activities
    • Encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways

Who are the offenders?

Children are most often abused by someone they know, such as family friends, babysitters, coaches, childcare providers and neighbors. However, not all perpetrators are adults. Children may also commit sexual abuse against other children.

What are some signs of child sexual abuse?

    • Age inappropriate understanding of sex
    • Talking about what sexual conduct looks like, sounds like or feels like
    • Repeatedly acting out in a sexual manner
    • Not responding to limits placed on his/her behavior
    • Sexual behavior resulting in complaints from other children
    • Lacking a good understanding of boundaries involving physical contact, over age 4

Adults should also be aware of verbal cues that children may give to indicate abuse. Some of these cues are subtle, and on their own may not mean that a child is being abused. However, taken in conjunction with the above signs and each child’s unique circumstances, these statements may indicate abuse.

Ways a child may signal abuse

    • “What do you think of _________?”
    • “I don’t want to go to __________ (organization’s name) anymore.”
    • “Please don’t go! Please don’t leave me with________.”
    • “I don’t like it when you’re gone…I feel uncomfortable when you aren’t here…”
    • “I don’t feel good when I’m with __________.”
    • “You will be mad at me…”
    • “__________ did things to me.”
    • “__________ does bad stuff to me that I don’t like.”
    • “__________ plays games with me that I don’t like.”

What may increase a child athlete’s vulnerability to sexual abuse?

Youth-sports programs, like all youth-serving organizations, give adults access to youth. It is therefore critical that all youth-sports programs develop policies and procedures which help keep youth safe from sexual abuse. This includes developing policies that address potentially risky circumstances, such as overnight trips, changing in locker rooms and travel to practices and games where an athlete may be driven by a coach or volunteer. It also includes increasing awareness of the factors that may increase a child athlete's vulnerability to sexual abuse

    • Low self-esteem
    • Weak relationship with parents
    • Strong devotion to the coach
    • Low awareness of sexual abuse
    • Smaller physique

Are there any factors specific to youth-sports organizations which increase the risk of child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse victims are usually emotionally linked with their abusers, and these abusers are often authority figures. Coaches often have a good deal of authority over athletes, and this authority may not be questioned by the athletes or their parents. These factors may contribute to making the sports community “a context which is conducive to sexual abuse."

    • Sports stakeholders (e.g., athletes, parents, coaches) who are uninformed or poorly informed about sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures
    • Local-level sports franchises that are unaware of prevention measures implemented by their national or regional organizations
    • Administrators who have difficulty implementing prevention policies and procedures (e.g., background checks) and who lack the training and resources about child sexual abuse
    • Ambiguity of appropriate and inappropriate behavior
    • A subculture which normalizes harassment and exploitation

What may cause child athletes and other sports stakeholders (e.g., athletes, parents, coaches) to remain silent about sexual abuse?

Disclosing sexual abuse can be a traumatic and stressful process for child victims and their families. Children may have been threatened with harm if they disclose, or they may fear that they will not be believed.

    • The tendency to minimize victims' problems, blame the victims and challenge their credibility
    • Acceptance of inappropriate behavior because they see it as a part of sports culture and/or because the behavioral boundaries between coaches and athletes have not been made clear
    • Parents' and coaches' fears of making false accusations based on mere suspicion without evidence
    • Not having the necessary skills to recognize sexual abuse

How can parents and youth-sports organizations work together to protect child athletes?

Educating parents and child athletes about sexual abuse is one of the most important preventive measures that youth-sports organizations can implement. Surveys indicate that parents not only support having their children taught about sexual abuse, but are also interested in learning how they can discuss the issue with their children. Youth-sports organizations can take the lead by providing their athletes’ parents with information and resources, but there are also actions that parents can take to help protect their children. Parents should know how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse, how to identify attempts at disclosure and the steps required to report suspected abuse.

    • Does the youth-sports organization conduct a background check on coaches and others who supervise and have access to the children?
    • Are there other adults present, besides the coach, to assist in supervising children during team events and practices, including any off-site travel?
    • Does the team use a locker room for children to dress, and, if so, is there more than one adult present in the locker room when children are using it?
    • Does the team or organization communicate with and notify parents and guardians of the activity schedule?
    • Does the coach pay equal attention to all children?

What should you do if a child tells you that he or she has been sexually abused?

Remember that it may be very difficult for a child to disclose his/her abuse. He/she may feel embarrassment, shame or even fear if threatened not to tell. The most important thing is to believe and support the child.

    • Reassure the child that telling is the right thing to do.
    • Tell the child that he/she did nothing wrong.
    • Let the child use his/her own words.
    • Try to remain calm and listen attentively.
    • Use the age-appropriate language that the child will understand.
    • Don’t pressure the child for details—leave that to the professionals.

Where can you report child sexual abuse?

If you suspect that your child or a child in your care has been sexually abused, you should immediately contact your local law enforcement agency.

    • The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline accepts reports of child sexual abuse and assists professionals seeking resources to help them in their missing and sexually exploited child cases. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
    • The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline provides professional crisis counselors who can offer a variety of services, including emotional support for abuse survivors and information about how to report known or suspected abuse.
    • Stop It Now!’s confidential, national prevention Helpline assists callers with questions or concerns about child sexual abuse.

Many communities also have local children’s advocacy centers (CACs) that offer coordinated support and services to victims of child abuse (including sexual abuse). To find a CAC in your area, visit the website of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, www.nationalcac.org.

Research Cited


An Introduction to Sound Practices for Keeping Children Safer in Youth-serving Organizations

A framework to assist youth-serving organizations in developing child sexual abuse prevention programs.
View PDF

Tips for Protecting Child Athletes from Sexual Abuse

These tips help parents assess their children's youth-sports programs and identify "red flag" behaviors. Available in both English and Spanish.
View PDF

Discussion Guides

It is important to talk to young children about safety without overwhelming or scaring them. These discussion guides offer age-appropriate messages and strategies to help you start a conversation about personal and online safety.

Ages 5-10

View PDF

Ages 11-17

View PDF

About Us

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® is the leading private, nonprofit organization helping to find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation and prevent future victimization. Created in 1984, the organization provides information and resources to children, including child victims, parents, law enforcement and other professionals with an interest in child safety.