In response to a damning report on emotional abuse and sexual misconduct permeating women’s soccer, the sport’s U.S. governing organization has named a task force to “drive change across the entire soccer ecosystem.”
And a Santa Barbara holistic physician and abuse prevention educator has been tabbed to play a part in that mission as a member of U.S. Soccer’s new Participant Safety Taskforce.
Dr. Amy Saltzman is the founder of Spot a Spider, a new training program that teaches children, teens, and young adults how to be aware of and protect themselves from all types of abuse. The program involves parents, caregivers, clubs and coaches, as well.
Most of the 30 Participant Safety Taskforce members are directly involved in the sport of soccer, as coaches, organization officials and former professional players. Saltzman helps bring in the wider context of the problem.
“I think that I bring a unique perspective,” Saltzman said. “And while I feel that U.S. Soccer has really stepped up and made a commitment to setting a new world standard in protecting athletes from abuse, abuse is not just a soccer problem, and it’s honestly not just a sports problem. Unfortuatnely, children are also abused in schools and other community activities.”
The naming of the task force comes in the wake of last month’s release of a year-long investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer regarding abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s soccer.
The investigation was led by Sally Yates, former U.S. acting attorney general, and is informally called the Yates Report.
U.S. Soccer hired Yates to investigate after several serious incidents, including a report last year in The Athletic that former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley had been fired in 2015 for misconduct, including accusations of sexual coercion. But the Thorns and the National Women’s Soccer League kept the reason for his exit hidden from the public, allowing Riley to quickly be hired by another NWSL team.
A summary of the Yates Report findings states: “Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims.”
The formation of the task force is one of the main upshots of how U.S. Soccer is following up. The task force is headed by former Thorns player Mana Shim, who led accusations against Riley.
Dr. Saltzman gives kudos to U.S. Soccer for its swift action and the choice of a task force chair.
“It’s really refreshing,” Saltzman said. “The reason I agreed to participate is they chose a victim, whistle-blower, and ‘sur-thriver’ to lead the task force.
“When I learned that Mana would chair the task force, I felt confident that US Soccer meant business. They didn’t choose someone who’s going to obfuscate and be involved in defensive ass-covering. They chose someone who wants to change the system.”
Aside from her holistic medical care practice, Saltzman is a mindfulness coach for athletes, kids, coaches and other high performers, and she has coached 5-8 year olds in youth soccer. She is board certified in integrative medicine and director of the Association of Mindfulness Education.
She was a gymnast at Stanford, and her “sporting experience was actually, given my current understanding, really truly awesome.”
“My understanding of abuse, and specifically covert emotional abuse, came from a 31-year-long relationship with a life coach, which was a covertly abusive relationship.”
And coming through that made her, as she coins it, a “sur-thriver.”
“And so one of the sur-thriver gifts that experience gives me, is an intimate understanding of relationships of undue influence, also called covert emotional abuse, also called coercive control, and usually the common term that we use for this is ‘grooming.’
“We tend to think of grooming as something that leads to abuse. When we think of grooming in this way, we fail to realize that grooming in and of itself, is covert emotional abus. In fact, data indicate that covert emotional abuse is as harmful or more psychologically harmful than overt emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.”
She cites the International Olympic Committee’s 2016 Consensus Statement on harassment and abuse in sport confirming that “psychological abuse is at the core of all other forms [of abuse].”
The Spot a Spider website includes two videos — “How to Spot a Sneaky Spider” and “How to Spot an Obvious Spider.” The former teaches viewers how to recognize covert ‘grooming.’
“The first video, how to spot a sneaky spider, is really teaching kids and parents and coaches and PTAs and whoever else, how to spot these super-subtle behaviors that create a web of abuse,” she said. “And so the spider weaves these behaviors like one shimmering thread at a time, and if you’re the target, you know one little thread you don’t notice, and then the next little thread you don’t notice, and then all of a sudden you’re caught in this web and you don’t know quite how you got there.”
Many parents are reluctant to talk about this topic with their children, Saltzman said.
“I have created Spot a Spider to make these discussions as simple, as clear, as straightforward, as easy as possible,” including discussion questions for each video. “I promise, anyone who feels uncomfortable or awkward about having these preventive conversations, will feel infinitely more uncomfortable if they have to have a conversation with the child after they have been abused.”
Saltzman also has a fundraising program, and gives free viewings to underserved families or clubs that are working in underserved communities.
“If you have a club, and your club becomes an affiliate and all of the families in your club watch the videos, 20 percent of each video purchase will go back to your club,” she said.
“So it’s better than a bake sale, it’s better than a car wash. You’re protecting your athletes, you’re actually protecting your institution, and you’re raising money to buy uniforms, offer scholarhsips, or travel to a tournament.”