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Pre-Season Youth Sports Meeting: Essential Topics and Questions to Ask

A good preseason meeting for coaches, parents, and players provides a forum for parents to ask questions and raise concerns, and helps to ensure that everyone is playing from the same playbook once the season begins. Newcastle (OK) high school parents at meeting

Ideally, whoever is coaching your child's team will be pro-active, addressing during the meeting many, if not all, of these questions  without you having to ask them, including - if they coached your child's team before - re-stating and/or updating rules, policies, or expectations from previous seasons.  The better the coach is able to effectively communicate with a player's parents or guardians, the better the season everyone will have.

The following twenty-one topics and questions are ones that every preseason meeting should ideally address.  While some of the topics  and topics will seem obvious, they are all important; if they aren't covered in some form or fashion (whether it is at a meeting or via written handouts or on a website), parents won't feel as comfortable as they should be going into the season.  Not only is this uncertainty likely to increase the chances of conflicts developing between parent and coach, but it could put the physical, psychological and sexual safety of your child and their teammates at increased risk.  

Education and training

1. Coaches training. How much training do you and your assistant coaches have? Do you have a coaching license or certificate?

These are always fair questions to ask.  Don't assume that, since they are coaching, that coaches have had any training.  Many, especially those coaching teams with younger athletes, haven't.  In an ice hockey program sanctioned by USA Hockey, for example, every coach, head coach and assistant, must have a current certification from USA Hockey and have completed the course/module for the level (Mite, Bantam, Squirt, Pee Wee etc.) they are coaching.  In others, such as soccer, a particular "class" of license may be required.  If a coach fails to introduce him/herself or alerts parents to the fact they are not certified or trained to coach, then the parents have a right to ask this question.  Even if certification or a license isn't required, the fact that a coach has gone to the trouble of taking a course and obtaining a license indicates a reassuring commitment to the sport he or she is coaching.

2. Safety training.  Do any of the coaches have first-aid training? Are the coaches trained to know the signs and symptoms of concussion?

Many states now require coaches to undergo annual or bi-annual concussion training; some of the laws apply only to coaches at  public high schools, while some also cover coaches at the middle and elementary school level and independent sports clubs, particularly if they use public facilities. 

Physical safety

3.  Safety equipment. Will a properly stocked first-aid kit be at all practices and competitions? Will there be an AED at or near the location of games and practices, with the location clearly marked?

Having a first-aid kit at practices and games should be a no-brainer.

More and more schools and youth sports programs also have if an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on site for use in case of a cardiac emergency.  This is because the chances of survival for an athlete suffering sudden cardiac arrest, either as a result of an undetected congenital heart condition or from an ill-timed blow to the chest from a baseball or lacrosse ball or hockey puck (commotio cordis), decrease by 7 to 10% for each minute that passes without a life-saving shock from an AED to restore a normal heart rhythm. 

4.  Communication in case of emergency. Will someone with a cell phone will be at all practices and games who can call 911 in the event of a medical emergency?

There are still communities across the United States, particularly in rural areas, with limited or no cell phone coverage.  While families in the Danbury, Connecticut area, for instance, get great cell coverage with all carriers, families in Trace City, Tennessee have very spotty coverage, and some of the parents who travel to Chattanooga for work use Sprint, but they don't get reception in their home town. If coaches do not work this out before an emergency, they will regret they never asked the team mom or a volunteer to draft a list. As simple as this question seems, kids who live in remote areas and play or practice on fields, or run on cross country courses through wooded areas, can suffer catastrophic injuries. Parents need to know that paramedics can be reached in the event of an emergency.

5.  Emergency medical plan.  Is there an emergency medical plan (or what the NATA calls an emergency action plan) in place, and, if so, who will be responsible for calling the EMTs?

I know from personal experience of too many instances when a player is injured seriously enough to require transport to an emergency department, but everyone assumes that someone else has called the EMTs, wasting critical time. On the other hand, too many people calling the EMT at the same time can be equally confusing, especially if the dispatcher is provided conflicting addresses or directions.  Children have died because the EMTs were not given the correct address, delaying their arrival. 

6. Playing hurt.  Will you promise to always put my child's safety ahead of winning?

Again, this is a sensitive topic, but one which has received a lot of media attention lately, especially in the context of concussions.  There are still coaches, unfortunately, who place such a premium on winning that they may be willing to risk their health, such as by asking a baseball pitcher to throw one more inning even though he complains of elbow or shoulder pain, or returning the star quarterback to a game even though he shows signs of concussion (exposing him to the risk of a delayed recovery or, in rare cases, catastrophic injury or death from second impact syndrome). 

While there are many coaches who take concussions very seriously, there are still far too many in this country, from youth football, hockey, soccer, lacrosse or basketball all the way up the ladder to the professional level, who:

  • ostracize players who complain of concussion signs or symptoms,
  • challenge a player's toughness or, especially in the case of boys, their very masculinity for not shaking off concussion symptoms;
  • give doctors and athletic trainers a hard time if they refuse to let a player with concussion symptoms go back into the game,
  • take away a child's position in the starting lineup or reduce their playing time simply because they and their parents decided, for safety's sake, that the child should not to rush back to the field or gym because the symptoms had not yet cleared or have recurred with exercise;
  • in extreme cases have even had a star player suffering symptoms don another player's jersey to get back into a game; and/or
  • value winning over safety so much so that they are willing to risk the health of their "star" athletes for the sake of team success by employing a double standard when it comes to concussion safety - one for regular players, another, more lienient one for "stars" - which helps them justify putting a key player who has been "dinged" or "had his bell rung" back into the game.

Indeed, fully half of parents with children age 12 to 17 playing school sports admitted in a 2010 survey to knowing a coach who would have a player return to sports too soon after a concussion. A 2012 SafeKids Worldwide survey found that nearly half of coaches reported being pressured by parents, or the kids themselves, to play an injured child during a game, with the most notable pressure coming from parents, and being directed towards paid coaches, demands which may be hindering coaches' ability to keep player safety as a top priority.

Parents should be able to expect that their child's coach be part of the concussion solution, not the problem. This means that a coach needs. above all, to create and foster an environment in which players feel safe in honestly reporting concussion signs or symptoms or removing themselves voluntarily from a game or practice by:

  • Actively, consistently and repeatedly encouraging honest reporting by athletes of their own concussion symptoms and those of their teammates, such as by employing the same kind of buddy system football programs often employ to protect athletes from heat illness during hot weather practices and games;
  • Reassuring athletes that they will not jeopardize their position as a starter or place on the team if they self-report, that he will not question their toughness, call them "wimps" or "sissies," or ostracize them;
  • Informing players that deliberate hits to another player's head will subject them to disciplinary action; and
  • Advising athletes that they will be considered in violation of team rules, subjecting them to possible discipline from game suspensions up to and including disqualification for the season if found to have impeded appropriate evaluation and management of his own concussion by:
    • failing to report or under-reporting symptoms (theirs or a fellow player's);
    • intentionally under-performing on baseline neurocognitive tests (e.g. "sandbagging") in order to maximize chances of being cleared to play even with symptoms; or
    • indicating they are symptom-free so that they can be cleared to play in the next game when they are still experiencing symptoms.
Taking these kinds of safety precautions will undoubtedly meet resistance from those concerned more about winning than about the safety of children, but parents and every other stakeholder in youth sports owe them nothing less.

Physical/psychological/sexual harm

7.  Boundaries. Will you establish clear boundaries to prevent the possibility of sexual abuse or harassment?

This is an critical question that coaches need to be proactive in addressing.  A parent should never feel ashamed to ask this question, even if they may be seen as "troublemakers" by the coach for doing so.

8.  Two-adult rule: Will you follow a two-adult rule to eliminate the possibility of sexual abuse?

Many coaches, especially of older athletes in their teens, who do not allow parents or other adults to watch practices. I have been called in to consult with many parents about this very issue. This is a big red flag and needs to be addressed front and center. The best way to ask this question may be: I am aware that teams are now mandating a two-adult rule at all practices. How will you handle this? Will you be putting together a list of volunteers and will you need to cancel practices if no other adult is present?

A two-adult rule also needs to be in place for away games and overnight travel to tournaments. 

9.  Hazing/bullying.  How will you make sure that there will be no hazing or bullying of athletes?

A good coach will address this topic before a parent even needs to ask.  Before every, game, scrimmage or practice I asked my payers to gather in a circle and listen to my mantra: "Today you will all earn the respect of your teammates, players on the opposing team, and game officials by treating them exactly the way you would want to be treated.  If you bully, haze, taunt, or tease anyone on your team, or the other team you will sit out."  As coaches, we need to be proactive. As parents we need to make certain that coaches know this needs to be a priority.

10. Psychological/emotional harm.  Is there a policy in place - either at the national, state, or club/program level - to protect my child against psychological or emotional harm by coaches, and, if not, will you agree to refrain from conduct, such as yelling at players for playing poorly or not up to your expectations, attacking them verbally, making remarks in front of their teammates that constitute assaults on their self-esteem, questioning their masculinity or femininity, which are likely to cause them emotional or psychological harm?

These are questions that need to be, but, all too often, parents shy away from asking, because, depending on the sport and its culture, the club or the coach, yelling at or threatening, demeaning, or demoralizing players, may be practices that, even if they are technically against a coach's code of conduct, are condoned and/or tolerated, such that even asking this kind of question may create conflict between you and the coach and increase the chance that he or she will view you as a troublemaker (which may subject your child to retaliation such as reduced playing time). Bringing up the subject therefore requires both tact, and, frankly, courage, so that it has to be framed in a way that both addresses the concerns you have as a parent in protecting your child from psychological or emotional harm playing sports and other factors (the age of your child, the level of play, community standards etc.).

11.  Respect for officials. Will you agree to respect officials and not, for example, angrily yell at them for making what you believe to be bad calls?

This must be addressed, ideally, by the coach proactively.  Again, this is a sensitive topic, as it seems that more and more coaches these days think it is perfectly acceptable to openly question the judgment of a game official.  A good coach - one who wants to be a positive role model for his players - will take this question in stride, and perhaps assume that it is being raised because of an issue the family had with a prior coach.

On the other hand a coach who gets angry or defensive when this kind of question is raised either is inexperienced and/or has been guilty of this kind of conduct.  Hopefully, you will not end up having this type of person mentoring your child.  The best time to find out whether a coach has a reputation for yelling at refs, however, is before you register for the coach's team. Asking the question, however, will at least put the coach on notice, and, hopefully, modify their behavior going forward.

12.  Reporting.  Are there ways for children to safely and anonymously (at least in the initial instance) report emotional, physical or sexual abuse by a coach,  to a responsible adult, whether it is to their parent or a league official?  Is there a procedure in place to allow parents to report alleged physical, psychological/emotional harm or sexual abuse, or inappropriate behavior by a coach towards their child, or an opposing coach, player, or spectator, to club and league officials for further investigation without fear of retaliation?

A good coach will take this kind of question in stride, but, again, some coaches will be offended, so raising the subject requires tact and may require courage on the part of the parent.

 

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