USA Table Tennis High Performance Director Sean O’Neill describes tactics he has used to introduce and implement the MAAPP to create safe and positive sport environments for youth athletes.
Learn more about the MAAPP in the 2022 MAAPP Manual.
Disclaimer: This podcast episode features a guest who is not an employee of the United States Center for SafeSport. The opinions, recommendations, comments, or representations made by the podcast guest do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Center.
Welcome to Champion in Every Corner, the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s podcast. Building a safe and positive sports community is what we're all about. So, you'll hear from experts about innovative ideas and abuse prevention practices you can put in play today. Before we begin, be sure you know your obligations for reporting actual or suspected child abuse, and other abuse and misconduct. Ask a leader in your organization what policies and laws apply to you. This episode is hosted by Mariah Bures, Training Manager at the Center.
On today's episode, we are excited to hear how our coaches prioritize athlete safety and are successfully implementing the MAAPP. We've invited Sean O'Neill, the high performance director for USA Table Tennis. O'Neill was the first American male to ever qualify for table tennis at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. He participated in Five World Championships, four PanAm games, winning two golds, five silver and one bronze, three World Cups. Domestically, he won the US men's singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships five times. Upon retirement O'Neill began a coaching career that has led to work with the top U.S. Paralympic table tennis players. So thank you so much, Sean, for being here. We are so lucky to have you both as an athlete and as a coach, and someone that really prioritizes athlete safety and wellbeing.
Thank you so much, Mariah. It's a great opportunity to share the MAAPP program especially.
So let's just jump right into it. Our first question for you, Sean, is how does your past as a coach and your past as an athlete inform how you implement athlete safety best practices now?
I think for me as a former player and now as a coach, it's really unique and helpful to know what it's like to come from the athlete's perspective. I started playing when I was eight years old and I've had some really amazing coaches along the way and I've been very fortunate never to have experienced anything that would constitute a violation. So what I try to do as a former athlete and as a coach, and even as a parent of a 15 year old daughter is do as much preventive thinking. Map out areas where, hey, this could be a concern. Whether it's simply jumping to the other side of the table to help an athlete hit a forehand, to ask for permission first before touching the athlete. Making sure that the parents are always in the vicinity so that they can see what I'm doing so that there's no miscommunication. You just want to plan ahead.
That's probably the preventive element of it that is the most critical. It's excited to play an Olympic sport. Everyone's excited to improve and sometimes in your excitement as you jump onto the court and the parent has to leave to go do something and you're the only ones in the club, that's where problems can arise and five minutes of prep will really last a long way. And also, again, educating the parents and the athletes. All of our national team players that went to Tokyo had to go through SafeSport. They're aware of what the issues are, what the challenges are. And I feel for some of my Olympic teammates in other sports, when they talk about the media, the press, they haven't had the same great experience that fortunately we've had in table tennis. So I think the bottom line is take the time before the coaching sessions, talk to the parents, make sure they're fully aware of what is going to happen from a coaching perspective or if it's a trip or if it's a team meeting, if it's rooming.
There's so many elements that if you err on the side of too much information, as long as the parents are involved, you're probably gonna have a better outcome. Again, as a former player, I was so fortunate. I trained in Sweden, my parents put me on an airplane when I was eight years old to live with two coaches in Minnesota, which by today's standards would never happen, but I think we've learned a lot. There's best practices and ultimately we want to have not just gold medals, but we want to have a safe experience for the athletes so that they put their kids into Olympic sports.
Absolutely, Sean. So much of what you said I think is resonating for me when we're talking about the MAAPP and why it's so important. Specifically, planning ahead. We call these policies proactive prevention policies. So we're putting measures in place to try to mitigate any potential harm or risk. And then I also really appreciate what you said about modeling consent and asking an athlete, “Hey, can I help you out with this?” before just assuming and going up and helping them out that way. So that's awesome.
Yeah, I think that there's a natural tendency for kids to look up to their coaches, to put 'em on a pedestal, to make sure that they're getting their approval. And I think the same is true with parents. And I think as coaches, if we can always be aware and we talk about it in SafeSport, about the grooming element, how that's so tricky that you have to make sure that you're also teaching independent thinking. You're always teaching boundaries, you're always teaching the opportunity for kids to say, “You know what? I don't feel comfortable.” And it could be along with dealing with teammates, whether it's bullying or hazing or something, there's a lot of opportunities for coaches to really play a lead role and making sure that it's just a safe environment. Our job as coaches, of course, we want to get to the podium. There's no question that's our charge from our National Governing Bodies and the USOPC to have the best results possible.
But it's at the same time to get to the starting line healthy and feeling like this is where I want to be and not feeling a sense of if I don't gold, if I don't win a gold medal or if I don't win a medal, then I'm a failure. So there's a lot of other elements and I think USOPC has started for the mental health area. We have a long way to go, there's no question. And I think as coaches, we're kind of the soldiers in the front. We're there to make sure that if something doesn't feel right, look right, you say something. We try to make it more transparent. We try to make sure that the parents are fully aware of that, we’re their best allies. We're looking out for their kids in case they're not able to be there to watch it training session or to go to a tournament. And at the same time, it's the rooming issues when you go on a trip with the national teams, making sure that every kid is, every member of the team, is safe and secure and they know exactly what the limitations are from their teammates and from other players, from other countries even.
And Sean, that kinda leads me into my second question for you. And you've talked about this a little bit already of how you're working with parents, how you're working with athletes. Have you communicated the Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention required Policies to athletes and parents and what has that looked like for you?
So I was thrilled because our sport has already gone through some direct training with your group and the documents that you've created with the 2022 Manual as well as the other PDFs, we're gonna be sending out the full manuals and programs to all the parents of the national team. We currently have kids in the under 11, under 13, under 15, under 17, under 19 teams that we'll get together. We'll have a Zoom session, not sure if we'll do it based on age or if we'll have all the parents together to kind of do it at one shot. We'll record it. So kids who can't make it and other parents who can't make it, they can watch the recording. But it, it's really a teamwork approach. We need to educate the parents to what's acceptable and unacceptable behavior. And right now, I mean after Tokyo, now is the time to do it.
And the documentation, the programs, the stats that I've seen kind of scared me. It didn't surprise me. Again, like I said, I have a 15 year old daughter and if anyone were to violate a MAAPP program on one of her activities, I would be the first one to be making sure that it doesn't occur again. So I think what we're doing at USA Table Tennis proactively is that we are making sure that every member of the national team, and that's not only for the national team, so that our club coaches and our tournament directors are fully aware when we run sanctioned tournaments or league matches or other competitions, that it's a safe environment across the board. But you've provided us with the tools. And then I know that you've also offered that if any of our parents or any of our coaches have additional questions, we can do follow up. So it's not a one-time shot and you're done. This is a dynamic process that I know that we're gonna be leaning on your expertise and direction as we move forward.
Yeah, definitely. Thank you for mentioning those tools, Sean. And we also have the monthly trainings that we're doing for each of the audiences. And you were able to attend the one that we had for coaches. So we had one for coaches, we have one for parents, one for adult athletes, and one for administrators. So those are certainly available. But just echoing what you said, it's really on all of us to make sure that we're all aware of what these policies are. That includes parents, that includes the athletes themselves, right? It's important for them to also know what the policies are.
I would strongly encourage all coaches from the various National Governing Bodies to take advantage when you can talk amongst your peers. I believe in our session there was one of the top fencing coaches from the Northern Virginia area and we shared some similarities cuz I grew up in that area. But to hear the problems and the challenges that other sports are facing, that's where the real learning takes on. I strongly think that it's when the coaches get together. As you mentioned earlier, I coached at the Paralympic games in Athens, Beijing, and London. That's the best learning place is when you're among other coaches and you can, whether it's eating lunch or whether it's them asking you to keep the noise down because their athletes have events the next day. That's where you see the real synergy. And I think that any NGB should make sure that their coaching staff takes advantage of many of the opportunities as your team puts out there, cuz it, it's really a great chance to learn and see things from an additional perspective.
Definitely. Kind of going back to communicating the policies to athletes and parents, you talked about how you're gonna go about that. Do you anticipate any pushback?
There's always gonna be some hesitancy anytime you do something new. When the SafeSport plan came out, my home club in Portland, Oregon, it's called Paddle Palace, I was kind of in at the ground level. So, I got all of our coaches, all of our tournament directors, and even the owners of the company to do the SafeSport training. And I felt like I became a better coach just by going through that. And I think with the parents, especially in a kind of minor sport like table tennis, that a lot of our families that come in are originally from Asia, it's an international sport. And for a lot of these countries they've never done it. They're beginning to see what happens when you don't do it. So, we just have to make sure that we have many opportunities for them to see how this is safety and benefiting their kid.
We will definitely have team meetings before every international trip where we go over expectations and what is allowable and what isn't with our team leaders. We also have post event internationally, especially since I'm working with the national team, feedback and reports if there were any issues that came about so that we can address them in a timely manner. I don't anticipate the parents having too much resistance. However, in an area of let's say electronics communications, making sure that the parent is always part of a three-way chat. Sometimes the parents are like, I’m busy, I don't have time. It's like, Hey, you're gonna see everything that we're communicating and you don't have to look at it immediately. If something raises your eyebrow, please let us know, but we need you in the discussion. We don't want to have a situation where that imbalance of power exists. And then the athlete as a minor starts agreeing to things that you might not approve of. So keeping those channels of communication open. And I think it will be a maturation process with the parents and us because it's overdue. We all just have to hold hands and lock arms together and say we're gonna do it the right way.
And I think that's a really great strategy, Sean, of if you are getting some pushback, is really stressing the importance of it. This is why we're doing this. There is a reason for this. And some of those parents or guardians, they may not know that, right? They may not have the education that they might learn in the SafeSport Trained Core course. So that's a great strategy.
Unfortunately, we have some sports that we can point to let them know that we don't want to go down that route and really say, we wanna make this experience for your kid the best of their life. Because there's already self-applied pressure, there's parent applied pressure, there's sponsors, there's clubs, there's national associations. So anything that we can do to make that experience when they decide to become a coach or not coach. I mean that's why I'm, I'm in coaching cause I had great coaches, so we wanna try to keep that ball rolling.
So we discussed the required prevention policies, which is the education and training requirements and the requirements that organizations have. And then of course we have the one-on-one prevention policies. Let's talk a little bit about the recommended policies. So, there are some recommended policies within the MAAPP. These are around out of program contact, which is that adult participants should not have out of program contact with minor athletes without their legal parent or guardian consent, even if the out of program contact is not one-on-one. So again, that's just a recommended policy. And then the other two are around gifts and photographs. So with gifts, we recommend that adult participants don't give personal gifts to minor athletes. If they do give gifts, they're equally distributed to all athletes, and they serve some kind of motivational or educational purpose. And then with photographs and videos of minor athletes, we recommend that those are only taken in public view, and they must observe generally accepted standards of decency. Adult participants should not publicly share or post any videos or pictures of minor athletes if the adult participant has not obtained the parent or guardian's consent and the minor athlete's consent. So those are some of the recommended ones. Have you had conversations around those?
Again, it's kind of where in a new frontier and having parents sign code of conducts, having parents sign waivers of photography at national tournaments so that the tournaments can use those pictures for promotional activities. Obviously everyone is aware that, I mean, I asked my daughter, and this was part of her school program, do you want your pictures shown on my Facebook page? Because no one could be a prouder parent than myself. And my daughter said, no, I would prefer not. And I have to respect that. And I think that what we use is common sense, whether it's the age 13 on social media, it has to go into sports as well. We have to make sure that the parent has the ultimate say in what their kid is doing. And we do videotape for analytics, and we normally just pull things off of the tournament live feed, which is an open view of matches with the umpires.
And I mean it's at the competition site, but still making sure that the parent's comfortable. Sometimes a coach might say, Hey, can I watch a training session? And then we just have to make sure everyone's aware of what's going in and saying, okay, here's where the video is if you would like to see it. If, I mean we normally wouldn't publish it, we'd use an unlisted and just say, here's the national coach, they're gonna watch this training session. If you would like to watch it with your, obviously we'd like the parent to sit there and watch it with the kids so that even though they're separated in distance, the parent knows exactly what's going on because remotely it's still one on one. So having the parent involved is something that we're aware of. The other thing is just getting their consent. It takes three minutes.
They might not completely think it through. They should. And I mean the reality is everyone is pressed for time. And I think just being consistent, just letting 'em realize that you know what, this is important. Please pay attention, read it. Even if it's the second time, the third time. Parents at some point often are in the role of coaches as well. A lot of times parents are players. They love the sport, they bring their kid into the sport and they become part of the coaching team. We're very lucky in table tennis that our first gold medal in, I don't know how many years, 16 years, Mitchell Seinfeld coached his son, Ian. I mean it's a wonderful story, but he was a dad that was playing and his son would go to the club, and now, and so you have that parent dual situation and other parents have to be aware of what's going on. And when you're coaching other kids, as you said, that fairness, whether it's with gifts, everyone has to be treated the same. There's no preferential treatment, but from the safety standpoint, that's even more critical. So we are again, kind of new to the program, I think most Olympic and Paralympic sports are, but we're gonna just take it one step at a time and when we make mistakes, we're gonna hopefully learn from them and not say like, well it's not important because it is.
Kind of thinking more along those lines, have you seen a shift in the athletes' attitudes or their advocacy for having safer athletic environments?
I think so. I really do. And I think really from Tokyo, I think Simone Biles helped start the discussion about mental health and just general safety. I would never try to do anything that she does on a balanced beam and to think from one wrong move and you could literally never compete again. But it's along those lines. I think athletes are taking more ownership, even the younger ones on making sure that they're in a safe and healthy environment. And remember it's just not physical. I mean it can also be emotional where a coach is telling an athlete that they're no good. Those scars are just as deep as if a coach were to physically harm or touch. And I think a lot of coaches have to understand there's a difference between that tough coaching and crossing the line to where it's like, well, we're not gonna give you guys water cuz we wanna toughen you up on a hundred degree day out on the field. I mean, some things are just ludicrous, but that's how it was done over the last 40 years in American sport was to kind of survival of the fittest. So I think there's a new generation of kids and I think that we can be smart coaches. We don't have to give up pushing our athletes to reaching their very best, but at the same time, you just can't put their physical or mental state in danger because you want to be the tough coach and kind of flex your muscles.
Yeah, absolutely. And that's something that we get asked about a lot at the Center is kind of how to tell the difference between tough coaching and when it crosses the line and into abuse.
It's not easy as a coach. I've just been so fortunate that I've never had fear-based coaching, but I've seen a lot of my opponents and I know that in a tough match, if you're under a situation where your coach is trying to scare you to do the right thing, you're gonna falter. You're not gonna hold up. Because it's just not healthy. You have to be doing it because you wanna be there, you love the sport and win, lose or draw, you're happy to be there. And I think the fear of failure can't ever overwhelm the excitement for success. I think parents see with coaches, which coaches have positive attitudes and which one are looking out for their children's best interests, not just on the field of play, but to help 'em problem solve, help 'em gain confidence, improve their self image. There's a lot more to the X's and O's than just putting a medal around your neck.
Absolutely. And I think, Sean, this podcast has been so helpful. I think it will be so helpful for coaches to listen to this, but I also think it will be really helpful for parents to listen into this. So as we're wrapping up this episode, do you have any concluding thoughts you'd like to share with coaches or parents that are listening to this episode?
From my own experience, I often will coach junior players and the first meeting is with the parents. It's to set expectations to let them know what to think. They can't just say, well Sean, you played in the Olympics, so therefore my kid will play in the Olympics. We're trying to create well-rounded citizens who love the sport. And managing the parents can be just as challenging as the kids. Hopefully with these new programs, the parents will feel [00:21:30] like they have less to worry about because I do know that when my daughter goes to summer camp up in the San Juan Islands and I'm not there, we live in Portland, and I get nervous. I'm sure that many parents feel that same type of apprehension or anxiety. And I think this will calm the parents down. For coaches, talk to the parents, go through the manual with them.
I mean, the manuals are very easy to follow, they’re color coded. There's a lot of examples. And if you're unsure of yourself, you can ask the national coaching coaches within your sport. You obviously can go to your team and I know you guys will always answer the phone and give good advice based on all the experiences from across the board. But I think the preventive element, do the homework, prepare for success, make sure that everyone is on the same page, will definitely make the whole experience that much better for the child because ultimately we want them to stay within sports. We want them to stay involved, create that environment that they've had, and then hopefully continue to move forward.
Absolutely. Those are such great tips for us to have parents and coaches think about whenever we're talking about protecting minor athletes in sport. The MAAPP Manual is available on our website and we'll put a link in the show notes so that people can access that. But Sean, thank you so much for your time and your valuable insight and the work that you do every day to prioritize athlete safety.
My pleasure is so much fun being with you today.
One final important note information about or reasonable suspicion of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, must be immediately reported to law enforcement and the U.S. Center for SafeSport and individuals must comply with other applicable state or federal laws. Visit safesport.buzzsprout.com to hear more episodes and share them with a teammate coach or colleague, and feel free to share your own ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for all you do to give athletes a champion in every corner.