Sportopedia Glossary

Athlete Maltreatment

Athlete Maltreatment

Athlete Maltreatment refers to the harm or potential harm of an athlete. It is an overarching term that encompasses the many ways in which harm may be experienced (e.g., physical, sexual, emotional) and the types of relationships in which the harm may occur (e.g., critical relationship, authoritative relationship, peer relationship). The term emerged from the parent literature on child maltreatment that describes maltreatment as volitional acts that result in or have the potential to result in injuries and/or harm (Crooks & Wolfe, 2007), and was applied broadly to the various harms in which athletes may experience in sport.

A typology for maltreatment in sport was proposed in 2009 for use by researchers. It distinguished among the terms abuse, harassment, and bullying as forms of athlete maltreatment, and provided theoretical examples of each of these forms of maltreatment in sport (Stirling, 2009).

While this was one of the first descriptions of the term athlete maltreatment, research on different athlete maltreatments, particularly sexual maltreatment, dates back to the 1980s, and stems from broader concern
for athlete welfare, including reports on coaching misconduct and human rights violations (Brackenridge, 2001). Forms of athlete maltreatment that have received research attention to date include sexual and emotional harm, and, to a lesser extent, self-harm, hazing, bullying, neglect, and the physical harm of athletes in sport (Alexander, Stafford, & Lewis, 2011). There is also emerging research on virtual maltreatment described as harm that occurs in online environments (Kavanagh, Jones, & Sheppard-Marks, 2016).


Alexander, K., Stafford, A., & Lewis, R. (2011). The experiences of children participating in organized sport in the UK. The University of Edinburgh/NSPCC Child Protection Research Unit. Retrieved online from

Brackenridge, C. H. (2001). Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual exploitation in sport. London: Routledge.

Crooks, C. V., & Wolfe, D. A. (2007). Child abuse and neglect. In E. J. Mash, & R. A. Barkley (Eds.), Assessment of childhood disorders (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Kavanagh, E., Jones, I., & Sheppard-Marks, L. (2016). Towards typologies of virtual maltreatment: Sport, digital cultures and dark leisure. Leisure Studies, 35, 783 796.

Stirling, A. E. (2009). Definition and constituents of maltreatment in sport: Establishing a conceptual framework for research practitioners. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43, 1091 1099.

***Contributed by Ashley Stirling & Gretchen Kerr for Hackfort, D., Schinke, R. J., & Strauss, B. (Eds.). (2019). Dictionary of sport psychology: sport, exercise, and performing arts. Academic Press.