PLYMOUTH, Mich. – Physical abuse, sexual misconduct and inappropriate touching are behaviors many athletes experience.
A Plymouth personal safety instructor is teaching athletes to spot and speak up about abuse from coaches, teammates and anyone else with the message, "Not in my sport."
Tanya Panizzo, the owner at Fighting Spirit Safety in Plymouth, is using competition to get young elite athletes to realize their strengths.
"I'm going to tell Emma she has to get this ball, but she cannot touch me," Panizzo said. "Emma has to solve this problem."
It might look like a simple game of keepaway, but the lesson behind it is about much more.
"Getting help is about attributes, alright?" Panizzo said. "You've got to get the right help."
Emma tried again using a few other athletes to help her. The drill turned into an example of how to help fight abuse.
"Let's put this in perspective," Panizzo said. "If I was an abuser and I was picking on somebody, it's easy for me to say, 'So what? I'm stronger than you. I'm faster than you.' If two people come, I'll say, 'So what? I'll pick on you, too, right? I'm stronger than both of you.' But the more you guys band together, the more I start to rethink my behavior."
Panizzo said athletes from different sports should be united for one goal and discover their strength in numbers.
"It's no longer about the ball," Panizzo said.
The simple drill made an important point.
"That was powerful," 11th-grader Michael Izzi said.
"I think we planted a seed," Panizzo said. "I think some of them are going to have some provoking thought throughout the night on situations that they have seen, things that they may have observed or some of their own situations, and planted the seed on, 'What can I do next time?'"
The role playing key is helping athletes remember what to do if they find themselves in a bad situation on the playing field.
"Oh my gosh, I have to say no or I have to say that's not OK or I have to get a bunch of friends to do it with me," Panizzo said. "Even though they're laughing and having fun and they seem a little big nervous, they are gaining valuable life skills in the process."
"You have a voice," Katherin Spring, 18, said. "Use your voice because I think that's really important because a lot of people will think, 'Oh, I just won't say anything,' or, 'Oh, I'll shrug it off,' and that will kind of send the message. But I think people saying, 'This is not OK, this needs to stop,' is what's really going to be important."
The course also focuses on spotting bad coaches and the techniques they use to abuse young athletes. Grooming is the process used by sexual offenders to emotionally control their victims.
"The first step is targeting," Panizzo said.
Targeting is identifying a child's vulnerabilities, then gaining trust, including filling a need or giving gifts, extra attention or help.
"(They say), 'Don't worry about it. I'll always take you home,'" Panizzo said. "Building the need, building the trust."
Then they isolate the child.
"What that means is now that coach is trying to find more time alone with the athlete," Panizzo said. "Now it's, 'Hey, can you stay after and help me clean all the mats? I know everyone else has to go, but can you stay with me?'"
The next step is sexualizing the relationship and then maintaining control and keeping it a secret.
"(They say), 'If you tell somebody, you will never get playing time again. If you tell somebody, they will never get on that balance beam again,'" Panizzo said.
But now high school athletes are gaining knowledge about how to stop those situations.
"I mean, it's just good to have knowledge of what's going on and be able to maybe see if you're in that situation and how to get out of it and how to stop a situation like that," 12th-grader Brendan McCoy said.
"The glass helps you realize that stuff is happening and it is bad and it should not be happening," 10th-grader Giona Decina said.
"When somebody is abusing somebody else, there is strength in numbers," Panizzo said.
Fighting Spirit Safety offers athlete safety programs for coaches, parents and young group leaders.
Click here for more information on the Not In My Sport programs Fighting Spirit Personal Safety offers