Establishing And Maintaining Professional Boundaries

Sports coaches are gifted a large amount of power and authority. However, with great power comes great responsibility.

One vital component of being a great coach is building strong relationships with your athletes. But this can become complex when coaching children or vulnerable people. Whilst sport offers this cohort incredible experiences and opportunities, it also puts them in positions where they can be taken advantage of.

Therefore, as a coach, it is your responsibility to create a positive and safe environment. This can be achieved by established guidelines for professional boundaries between coaches and athletes.

This will ensure athletes continue to participate in a positive, respectful, and safe environment, and coaches are protected from accusations of abuse.

Coach and Athlete Relationships

Relationships are crucial for coaching success. And it is trust and respect between coaches, athletes, and/or parents and carers that hold relationships together. There is, however, a power imbalance in favour of the coach. Coaches assume a large degree of trust as athletes are taught to respect and obey their coaches.

It is this trust and power that can be used to take advantage of the coach-athlete relationship. This often happens when a coach places their needs above the needs of their athlete and gains personally or professionally at the athlete’s expense.

To prevent this from ever becoming an issue, trust needs to be built by coaches, rather than merely acquiring it from their title. Developing and maintaining professional boundaries creates trust. Therefore, coaches should be proactive in establishing and communicating professional boundaries to all involved.

Besides protecting yourself from accusations of wrongdoing, setting boundaries has other benefits, such as:

  • Providing clarity about the coach’s role.
  • Maintaining predictability in your coaching.
  • Building a safe, healthy, and positive learning environment.

Establishing Boundaries

The following are suggestions for boundaries you should consider establishing.

Communication Boundaries

  • Explain your coaching style to your athletes and their parents/carers and explain if or when you’re likely to physically touch your athletes and why.
  • Always use age-appropriate language in the presence of children.
  • Only provide feedback that relates to performance. Do not discuss personality or appearance.
  • Always consider what you say and how it may be interpreted
  • Always include a third party in any electronic communication you have with your athletes.
  • Avoid sending personal electronic communication to athletes. Try to keep communication related to coaching.
  • Avoid following children on social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Snapchat, etc.).

Physical Boundaries

  • Minimise physical contact as much as possible.
  • Only touch athletes if it is relevant to the skill being developed and you’ve asked their permission.
  • Be aware of which parts of your body are in contact with your athlete.
  • Gently dissuade children from wanting to touch you (e.g. holding hands, hugging you, wanting cuddles, etc.).
  • Never enter into an intimate relationship with an athlete.
  • Ensure all forms of punishment are related to the sport and are not excessive.
  • Do not accept or give personal gifts to or from athletes.
  • Do not purchase alcohol or drugs for athletes.

Location Boundaries

  • Avoid being alone with a child (e.g. in a car, changing room, etc.).
  • Avoid entering change rooms when possible. If you must, always knock and announce that you’re coming in, and try to have another adult with you.
  • Avoid attending parties with athletes outside of sport-related activities.
  • Do not invite children to your home or encourage them to visit.
  • Do not sleep in the same room as your athletes while attending competitions, etc.
  • Ensure any one-on-one coaching is communicated with and consented to by the athlete’s parents/carers, and if possible, hold your session in a public and visible location.

Sexual Relationships

There is no such thing as a consensual relationship between a coach and an athlete because of the power imbalance that exists. Therefore, coaches should never enter into an intimate relationship with an athlete.

When establishing these boundaries for your club or team, also consider:

  • Existing club policies and procedures for dealing with children or vulnerable people.
  • Your competitions or sporting organisations policies and procedures.
  • Your state or territory’s child or vulnerable person protection legislation.
  • Seeking advice if you’re ever in doubt about a situation.

It’s important to understand that establishing these boundaries doesn’t imply anything untoward. It does, however, protect you and your club from accusations and shows that you are proactive in providing a safe and positive environment for your athletes.

Standard of Professional Boundaries

In summary, all interactions and activities with athletes should be:

  • Transparent.
  • Accountable.
  • Tied to coaching duties.
  • In response to meeting the athlete’s needs.
  • Reflective of a duty of care and protection.

Maintaining and Managing Boundaries

Boundaries aren’t always easy to maintain, particularly if there’s only a few years difference between the coach and the young athletes. Yet that very real power imbalance still exists and cannot be overlooked.

An effective way to ensure you are maintaining your professional boundaries is to ask the following questions:

  • Am I treating all athlete’s in a similar manner or do I act differently towards one particular person?
  • Do I talk, dress, or act differently when I’m with a particular athlete?
  • Would I behave this way if other adults were present?
  • Would I feel comfortable if I observed this behaviour in another adult?
  • Could my actions have negative consequences?
  • If I were a parent or carer, would I want an adult behaving this way towards my own child?

It is also possible for athletes to initiate an inappropriate relationship with the coach (e.g., asking them out, sending them flirtatious messages, behaving provocatively, etc.). If this happens to you, for your own protection, consider taking one or more of the following actions:

  • Contact your child protection authority or an appropriate agency for advice.
  • Advise your club and or association administrator of the problem and request that they speak to the athlete and their parents or guardians.
  • Transfer the young person to another team or coach.

The Role We Must All Play

It can be difficult to respond to a situation where you notice a coach’s inappropriate behaviour. However, reporting inappropriate behaviour shows true leadership and care, for both the coach and their athletes. This creates accountability for all coaches and staff and allows proper action to be taken and boundaries to be re-established.

It is also good practice for clubs and coaches to have regular age-appropriate conversations with athletes about their personal safety and inappropriate behaviour. We recommend talking with athletes about the qualities of healthy relationships, the importance of personal boundaries, and how and where to get help or raise concerns.


Stan Lee

Examples of Appropriate Behaviour:

  • Interactions with athletes are goal-oriented.
  • Interactions with athletes are outcome-focused.
  • Supportive and respectful language, tone, and attitude towards others.
  • Responsive to the athlete’s needs and not engaging with the athlete to meet the coach’s needs.
  • Engaging with an athlete in a manner that would be seen by a reasonable observer as maintaining reasonable boundaries.
  • Keeping practices open to observation by parents and carers.
  • Communication with athletes (including electronic) is transparent and accountable and tied to professional coaching tasks.

Examples of Inappropriate Behaviour:

  • Sexualized attention.
  • Humiliating or intimidating behaviour
  • Inappropriate touching (e.g., massaging, stroking, caressing, roughhousing, tickling, etc.).
  • Confiding or sharing overly personal information (e.g., sharing financial or relationship problems, etc.).
  • Asking athletes to keep secrets.
  • Creating an emotional dependency and isolating the athlete from other teammates/ staff/parents/carers (e.g., pitting athlete against other teammates and/or against other athletic team staff).
  • Electronic communication with athletes that is personal and not directly tied to coaching duties.
  • Taking pictures with personal devices and/or in change rooms.
  • Giving an athlete a personal gift.
  • Starting or allowing team bonding activities that involve abuse, humiliation, or risk-taking.
  • Facilitating hurtful or sexually provocative games.
  • Instigating or allowing bullying, ridiculing, scapegoating, etc.

Action Steps

  1. If you do not have official boundaries already established, your time to act is now. Contact your club representative and inform them that you want to establish some professional boundaries for you and the club.
  2. Set up a time to meet and using the advice in this article establish your professional boundaries.
  3. If you already have boundaries in place, use the advice in this article to review them. Can you make improvements to your boundaries and are there any that you should add to improve the environment around you and your athletes? 
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