IN FOCUS: Tackling sexual misconduct in the sports and fitness industry

IN FOCUS: Tackling sexual misconduct in the sports and fitness industry

After a number of high-profile incidents, CNA takes an in-depth look at what the sport and fitness industry is doing to ensure that trainers, instructors and coaches do not cross the line.

Russia was banned from international athletics after evidence emerged of state-sponsored doping
File photo of people running on the track. (Photo: AFP/Gabriel Bouys)

SINGAPORE: First came anger, and next came doubt.

“When I came out of a (yoga) pose, the instructor smacked me on the bum, and subsequently just walked away like basically nothing had gone on ... That was how nonchalant he was at that point of time,” said the 29-year-old, who declined to be named.

This alleged action had followed the conclusion of a yoga adjustment - a hands-on assist by the instructor during a class.

“My first instinct was definitely anger - that I remember very clearly … Subsequently, the next thing that came out was doubt, because … he walked away like nothing happened,” said the 29-year-old, who had been recently introduced to yoga.

“So I really had this second thought that was doubtful: 'Was I overreacting? Was it an accident? Did it happen because he wanted to pat me on the lower back or something of that nature?’ I still remember thinking to myself that if it were to happen a second time then I could confirm those intentions. But it never did happen a second time.”

Several months later, the 29-year-old came across a post on social media which detailed similar allegations at the studio, Trust Yoga. The post also included accounts of others who were members of the same studio.

Yoga
A woman doing yoga. (File photo: Pixabay)

She subsequently lodged a police report in August.

“I realised how many of these things were so common, and the way it was done is very consistent,” said the 29-year-old.  “I would say that’s the main catalyst. Because before that ... I had no idea what I went through was assault because you can be assaulted without even realising.” 

Throughout the next month, the 29-year-old found herself experiencing issues such as the inability to sleep and anxiety in public.

“The first thing was definitely a lot of shock, so definitely sleep problems, diet issues, anxiety in public. And there was a period of time ... I was not able to concentrate on work, and my other hobbies and stuff like that,” she recalled.

“When you go into a studio, and you are a student, the student-teacher relationship already has a trust factor. That’s why at the outset, you trust that the instructor knows what he’s doing.  

“So it’s very hard for the mind to comprehend that that act was consciously, maliciously, meant to violate me. It’s very hard to immediately switch perspectives from: ‘Oh, I trust this guy', to 'this guy is nuts', or 'this guy is out to harm me.’”

In a statement posted on Aug 3, the studio said it took allegations of sexual misconduct “very seriously”, noting that the instructor involved had agreed to take a leave of absence pending internal investigations. 

“As a yoga studio, we strive to provide a safe learning environment for all students,” said the statement. “The matter has similarly been brought to the attention of the authorities. We have also extended our full cooperation in assisting the authorities with their investigations.”

A ‘LAST RESORT’

These allegations are not unique in Singapore. 

In August, a male freelance personal trainer was also accused of making inappropriate physical contact with a female client at a gym. The trainer was videoed touching his female client’s buttocks during a workout session at Apeiro Performance. He is not an employee of the gym.

The trainer has since been banned from the gym's facilities. In a response to AsiaOne, the trainer denied allegations of misconduct, and said that his client had given her consent. He noted that he would also be lodging a police report on the "false allegations".

Speaking to CNA, gym owners and studio managers noted that the use of physical contact is generally discouraged in training sessions. 

Man doing a deadlift
Man doing a deadlift. (Photo: Unsplash)

“We tell the trainers generally not to touch participants where possible,” said Mr Brandon Koh, who is the studio manager at F45 Upper Thomson.

“Most of us will try to use verbal, visual type cueing to actually correct form … The general principle is verbal and visual cueing first, and then followed by physical contact, (which) should be the last resort,” explained Mr Koh.

Mr Ng Wei Li, who owns strength and condition facility MVRCK, noted that verbal cues should be followed by visual cues and then “tactile cues” - the use of props to correct a client, rather than immediate physical contact.

“A good trainer only needs verbal cues. So, verbally he is able to correct the person in the way that he wants the person to be. Number one, it is always verbal cues, no matter what,” said Mr Ng. “So if verbal cues fail because every client is different … The next round would like a show and tell, so visual cues - which is 'monkey see, monkey do'. So visual cues plus verbal cues.

“If let's say that doesn't work, the next one is what we call tactile cues, which is we use some kind of props that we have to get the client into a certain position we want and we are still not touching them. It is the last resort - we usually don't have to go to that level - that we have to manually adjust and manually touch the client."

Mr Cris Chong, who is Fitness First Singapore’s national personal training manager, noted that coaches at Fitness First's gyms follow a stringent "consent and correction" approach where there is no physical contact with their students at all times during personal training sessions. 

This is unless consent is given, said Mr Chong.

“All training and instructions carried out by Fitness First coaches are done verbally,” he said. “Should a need arise to correct the client’s form with physical contact, the coaches will first ask for consent and use a pen to indicate parts of the body that their clients need to focus on or be aware of.”

THE CONCEPT OF CONSENT

The concept of consent is an important one, stressed Dewi Chen, who is founder of Terra Luna Yoga. 

“Consent, as a term, has universal applications … It’s in all cases, in all kinds of activities. And so when we first started out the place, we realised that: ‘Hey, you know, a lot of people don't realise this idea that consent is actually needed to be sought,’” she told CNA. 

“About five years ago, that was where I was as well, I didn't know their consent was necessary … As a teacher, the more you are in a position of authority, you feel like: 'Hey, I'm in charge and I get to decide'. But I found something very troubling about that, because it never sat well with me. It never set well for me that I could decide for somebody how to move into a specific shape.”

At Terra Luna Yoga, instructors practise a “no-touch policy at the very first instance”, added Ms Chen, who said that she too had experienced such acts of inappropriate touching while attending classes overseas.

Terra luna yoga
At Terra Luna Yoga, instructors practise a “no-touch policy at the very first instance”. (Photo: Terra Luna Yoga)

“We assume that … nobody wants to be touched, because it is their body, number one,” she explained.

“First, before I even approach that person, I'm asking myself: ‘Does she need the assist - Is she in danger? Is she going to be injured? Will she benefit from that assist?’ … And then after that I approach her, I ask her: ‘Would you like to be assisted? But feel free to say no at any point in time'. You still give client right of refusal.”

Should an assist be required, instructors will also have conversations with clients to explain how they will assist them. These interactions continue throughout the session, said Ms Chen.

“It's a very long conversation but that’s what’s missing … conversations between facilitators and their clients,” she added. 

The Yoga School, another local studio, noted that “explicit consent” is required before touching clients.

“Without it, we don’t have clear permission. Our faculty are encouraged, as far as possible, to rely on verbal alignment cues and demonstrations,” it told CNA.

In their first statement, Trust Yoga noted that students who do not wish to be adjusted during classes can pick up “no adjustment” cards to communicate their practising preference to instructors. 

In a second statement issued on Aug 25, Trust Yoga also said vendors had installed more CCTVs at the studio in addition to systems there previously. "The new system would provide a wider coverage and field of sight". It said it also had "refined" the standard operating protocol on matters such as "reporting" as well as existing guidance on "class teaching".

However, such "no adjustment" cards can be "problematic", said another yoga student, who has filed a police report over alleged sexual misconduct by the same trainer at Trust Yoga.

"Non-adjustment cards themselves are also problematic in the sense that even if students don’t take them, teachers still have the responsibility to seek continual consent especially during deep adjustments,” she said.

"Consent is continual and ongoing. If a teacher continues with the proper adjustment when a student says 'stop' in that moment, whether the student has the card or not is also irrelevant, because the student was not okay with (what) the teacher is doing in that moment."

In a response to CNA's queries, Trust Yoga said that that it is vital to get "proper alignment" when performing yoga poses.

"It is important to get proper alignment when performing the yoga poses to reap the benefit. But we respect students’ wishes in relation to the 'no adjustment card'," said Trust Yoga. Trust Yoga also confirmed that the instructor has not been working at the studio since Aug 3.

KEEPING SPORT SAFE

Aside from the fitness industry, the local sporting fraternity too has been hit by instances of sexual misconduct.

In July, a veteran athletics coach with over three decades of experience was sentenced to 21 months in jail for molesting a teenage athlete twice in 2013.

READ: Veteran athletics coach gets jail for molesting teenage athlete on two occasions

Loh Siang Piow, 75, also known as Loh Chan Pew, was found guilty in June of two charges of using criminal force on the teenager at Tampines Stadium in order to outrage her modesty. 

In January 2018, national hurdler Kerstin Ong lodged an official complaint with governing body Sport Singapore (SportSG) accusing a former coach of misconduct. She subsequently also lodged a police report.

The coach was suspended for two years due to inappropriate conduct, with SportSG concluding that he "had made physical contact" with Ong during a training session, that he was "not vigilant in obtaining explicit permission when making physical contact" with the hurdler and that he used "inappropriate language during training".

kerstin ong 2
File picture of Singapore national hurdler Kerstin Ong (Photo: XYZ Photos)

Following an appeal by the coach, it was decided by a Board of Appeals that a "reasonable suspension period" for an ethical breach committed by the coach was to be benchmarked against other professional bodies where the suspension period is between 12 and 18 months, SportSG told CNA.

"Hence, the coach was suspended to the maximum period of 18 months under the revised suspension period. The coach’s breaches of the suspension terms, specifically him coaching at SportSG facilities whilst suspended were taken into account in sentencing," said a Sport SG spokesperson.

Given that the coach was suspended from Jan 2018 in light of police investigations, the board decided to backdate the sentence from this date when he was first suspended, the spokesperson added. 

“He would stay stuff like when he's holding my hips after we did hip raises like: ‘Why are your hips so weak? Do you not practise in bed with your boyfriend?’” recalled Ong.

Other times, the coach would smack her buttocks for no reason, she recalled.

“I did not say anything about it at all, I just kept quiet ... I was very scared to speak up against the coach, (who is) an authority figure,” said Ong of the incidents which occurred between February to June 2016. “(But) I was so uncomfortable to a point that I wanted to avoid him.”

Speaking to CNA, Ong noted that it can be difficult for athletes in similar situations to speak up. 

“Athletes need to know when at the very moment if it’s wrong, tell the coach: ‘Hey I’m uncomfortable, stop it’. Which is something I didn’t dare to do back then,” she said.

“Sometimes at that very instant, it’s hard to stop, like push him away or stop that but that’s something athletes have to try to do.”

To tackle such incidents of misconduct in local sport and safeguard participants, the Safe Sport Commission was launched last year. 

READ: Commission aimed at rooting out sexual misconduct in local sport to be established next year

Set up by SportSG in partnership with the Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore Police Force and the Ministry of Education, the commission has, among other things, established a framework and a reporting process for safe sport-related matters. 

Speaking to CNA, chairman of the commission Ms Chan Yen San said that one of the initiatives implemented so far has been having a trained official - known as a safeguarding officer - appointed within the local NSAs. 

A large majority of NSAs already have at least one safeguarding officer appointed and the goal will be for all NSAs to do so by the end of the year.Each safeguarding officer is appointed for two years.

“The safeguarding officer is considered the first point of contact … And it is important that the NSA has this person in place so that athletes have somebody who they can look for within the NSA to report such cases,” said Ms Chan.

“The NSAs are a very important stakeholder in this whole process.And we need them to be committed to this safe sport policy as well as safe sport initiative ... the safeguarding officer needs to be trained and be aware of the reporting process ... as well as being aware of all these safe sport issues, what is inappropriate behavior, so they can help with promoting a safe sport environment within the NSA.”

Since the commission was set up, there have been about four cases of abuse in local sport reported to the commission, added Ms Chan. 

“With all these cases, I think it's important that we look at them and assess what is the impact on the policies, in terms of our reporting protocol, in terms of the things that we do, to make sure that appropriate safeguards are being put in place and policies are being refined to deal with all these cases," she said.

“Even though the number of cases may not be a lot, the pervasiveness of some of the issues that are being brought up could be quite widespread.”

Another way in which coaches are regulated in Singapore is the National Registry of Coaches (NROC). Launched in 2003, the NROC is a registry which aims to “raise the standard and professionalism” of sports coaches in Singapore.

Coaches listed on the registry are certified under the Singapore Coach Excellence (SG-Coach) Programme in their respective sports and are required to abide by a code of ethics.Currently, all coaches employed by NSAs and by the Ministry of Education are NROC-listed coaches, head of CoachSG Azhar Yusof told CNA. 

But given that the profession in Singapore is not licensed, there are coaches who are not under the registry, added Mr Yusof. 

“Whether it eventually becomes licensed or not, I think our aspirations, our longer term aspiration, is still that all the coaches would be under the NROC,” he added. Coaches have and continue to be educated on safe sport practices as well, Mr Yusof also noted.

Should a police report be lodged against a coach in the registry, the coach will be suspended pending police investigations, said Mr Yusof.

"It is made known to everyone (in the registry) and of course we go to our partners ... to also alert them that we have now suspended this coach. So if you are also engaging this coach, please be notified that you should stop and suspend him in the same way."

Responding to queries from CNA, the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) Athletes’ Commission noted that coaches are responsible for “setting the tone” for athletes. 

“Coaches are seen as an authority figure and are responsible in (their) setting the tone for the training environment and culture for their respective training groups. It is important for them to assure their athletes that they are in a safe space and are able to share anything that is bothering them and have a zero-tolerance policy for such incidents,” said the body, which was set up to represent local athletes.

“Often, it takes great courage to even raise such issues. As an athletes’ commission, we hope to be able to provide a safe space where athletes can share their grievances and for us to provide support as we walk by their side. We will provide a roadmap of the possible avenues and options the athlete could handle the situation and work alongside the athlete to raise the issue to SafeSport and include the relevant bodies.”

A LACK OF REGULATION

While gyms and yoga studios that CNA spoke to conduct their own reference or background checks on trainers and instructors and have their own code of conduct, some are calling for a regulatory body with a set of standardised rules to ensure the quality of trainers and the safety of participants. 

“Many gyms and studios are boutique operators. So a lot of us have to come up with best practices that are what we observe from others, but it will be good, I do agree, that if there is a body that regulates all trainers ... to come up with best practices, code of conduct, which all these gyms can use and just make minor modifications, so that it can become better for their use,” said Mr Koh. 

“I think that there needs to be a professional code of conduct administered by a body and there should be very heavy penalties for trainers who do things inappropriately.”

Mr Chong noted that it would be "ideal" if a consistent set of industry guidelines were in place, this would be something Fitness First would "fully support", he added.

"Having an established code of conduct will provide the framework for best practice standards and scope of professional norms and boundaries, and to ensure a safe and effective environment for the clients and participants," said Mr Chong.

The same should apply to yoga studios, said Ms Chen.

READ: Circuit breaker classes: Yoga, tuition and gyms move online as Singapore gets used to operating in virtual worlds

“What we need a regulatory body for is code of conduct - meaning what should the instructors embody, what should the instructors practise. So that they do not commit crime, so that they are respectful. These are very simple things, most companies have that, most organisations have that,” she explained.

The lack of a standardised reporting mechanism in yoga circles also means that those who suffer such assaults turn to social media, she added.

"If a teacher is found to be in default, of these code of conduct or code of ethics, then what is the process? How do we treat it?" Ms Chen asked.

“Nobody has to resort to going on social media if there are clear, transparent policies about how to deal with sexual misconduct. We cannot rely on just the Penal Code, the Penal Code does not operationalise how to handle things.”

When asked by CNA, Ms Chan said that the SafeSport Commission would be open to working with those in the fitness industry. 

“In terms of safe sport, as a matter of objective, it is intended to ensure the integrity of sports in Singapore. Therefore, we are always happy to work with all organizations and with all the employers in Singapore to ensure  that these safe sport initiatives are being rolled out,” she said.

“In the fitness industry, there will be a lot of private employers out there and one of the key things that we want to make sure (is) that we have a proper partnership with them. We hope that they partner with us to promote safe sport in Singapore as well as in their industry.”

READ: SportSG suspends national hurdler's former coach for 2 years for inappropriate conduct

Mr Ng noted that it was a “disappointment” to hear about instances of misconduct at local gyms.

“It's been a long journey for every trainer so far for the past 10 years. Slowly the public is recognising our role in this industry, as a profession, be it to help people to rehabilitate, be it to help people to do conditioning for their competitive sport. So when of course, certain stuff like that happens, it's more of a disappointment,” he explained.

“Because of these instances, it is like three step forwards, two steps back.”

And for Ong, the scars remains fresh, even today.

“It’s still something that really stays with me,” she said. “Some days it just really hits me, I still wish I can forget all of this. I still wish it never happened to me.”

Source: CNA/mt

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