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How to Improve Youth Sports Safety: Focus On Protecting The Whole Child

 Mother Of Youth Sports Safety Protecting All Young Athletes 

As a woman and mother fighting to keep kids safe playing sports for the past twenty-five years, first as a mother, coach, administrator, and youth sports activist, then as the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM, and now as the Executive Director of our new non-profit, MomsTEAM Institute, I know that, just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the involvement of every youth sports stakeholder to protect children at play from abuse, not just physical abuse, but emotional, psychological and sexual, and from sports injuries, many of which are preventable.The Rights of A Child

Especially critical is that parents, not just mothers with kids in sports - who have been the guardians of children at play since the dawn of time - but fathers, as well, be part of the effort to make the sports experience safer for your child.

In my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers In Sports, I outlined a number of other steps parents can take, along with other like-minded parents, to make the experience safer for all children in your community:

First, push your school and community-based programs to adopt comprehensive risk management programs. If concern is expressed that implementing such a program could end up increasing the exposure to lawsuits because any deficiency or oversight in meeting self-imposed safety requirements could provide the basis for a negligence lawsuit, help the club or school board understand that such fear shouldn't be an impediment to implementation. The alternative is worse: without such safety programs, more kids are likely to get hurt.

Second, call for community-, private- and school-based sports organizations to view youth sports safety from a child's rights perspective (see sidebar), recognize that children playing sports are owed a duty of care, identify "best practices" and implement child protection programs to combat physical, emotional and sexual abuse in youth sports as has been done in the United Kingdom. Because such programs implement standards that apply to everyone, not just parents, but coaches, players, officials, and other adults who work with children in sports, they won't just reduce the number of out-of-control parents, but the number of out-of-control, abusive coaches, team-bullies, spectators, and volunteers as well.


Abuse in Youth Sports: Depriving Basic Human Rights?

The human rights of children and the standards to which all governments must aspire in realizing these rights for all children are most concisely and fully articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

The Convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care, education and legal, civil and social services. These standards are benchmarks against which progress can be assessed. States that have ratified the CRC - including every country in the world except the United States -  are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child.

Convention on the Rights of the Child: key obligations for parents with regard to young athletes

Situation Relevant provision(s) of the Convention

  • Never force children to participate in sport. Articles 2, 3, 6 and 12
  • Show proper attention and interest with regard to children's sporting activities and provide appropriate guidance. Be properly informed about the people caring for children during their sporting activities. Article 5
  • Always listen to children's opinions and take them duly into account for their own empowerment and protection Article 12
  • Empower children progressively in order to provide them with the tools for their own empowerment and protection. Articles 12 to 17
  • Respect children's privacy. Article 16
  • Ensure that children are not forced to train excessively and that they are not pushed into illicit unhealthy behavior (such as doping). Articles 3, 6, 19 and 24
  • Behave with fair play and respect towards others, such as opponents and sports officials. Articles 5 and 29
  • Ensure that children's rights to education is not overshadowed by considerations concerning a sporting career. Articles 3 and 28
  • Encourage sound skill development. Article 29
  • Protect children from any form of economic exploitation. Article 32

Third, take a public stand against hazing and push for adoption by your child's school of a strict anti-hazing policy; a policy emphasized in pre-season meetings and written materials distributed to every student/team member, and, above all, enforced.

Fourth, require accountability and transparency by youth sports organizations. There is an appalling lack of accountability in youth sports. While the worst offenders seem to be the unregulated so-called "travel" ball programs (which, one commentator recently analogized to the Wild West, with "relatively no laws and no sheriffs"), even local youth sports organizations affiliated with national organizations such as Little League Baseball or U.S. Youth Soccer are not as accountable to the parents and children they supposedly serve as they should be.

Find out who's on first. In order to hold those who run the show accountable or the "product" they produce, challenge the way they do business, and identify problem organizations, begin by finding out about the structure of the organization says MomsTEAM Senior Editor, Lindsay Barton Straus, JD. Does the group operate as a profit or not-for-profit business? Does it have a governing body? Who is accountable or responsible for the decisions made or actions taken? Is it a corporation or a partnership? By going to the website of your state's Secretary of State you can obtain annual reports of profit and not-for-profit corporations, both those incorporated in your state and "foreign" corporations (those registered to do business in your state but incorporated elsewhere) as well as the names of officers and directors. Not-for-profits are also required to register with the state's Attorney General, typically in a division relating to charities, and to file annual reports on their finances and fundraising activities.

Get involved. At the local level most youth sports organizations are run like small - and, in some cases, not-so-small - businesses, with officers, boards of directors, bylaws and annual meetings. Yet most operate with virtually no oversight beyond their volunteer boards of directors. Push for the formation of a Parent Advisory Group (PAC) consisting of representative parents with children currently playing in the program to provide the Board of Directors with feedback (both negative and positive) from other parents; input that helps to insure that its decisions are reflective of, and responsive to, a broad cross-section of the youth sports community. Run for a seat on the board. Attend meetings.

Insist on transparency. Ask that the mission statement of a youth sports program, its bylaws and the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of board members and other officers be publicly available, that the time and place of board meetings be advertised and open to any parent or concerned individual to attend (even if only to observe). All coaches, including the middle school and high school coaches, should be invited to attend at least one meeting a year.

Insist on term limits. Like our political leaders, directors, administrators and coaches who become entrenched in a program for years on end tend to put the "blinders" on and may become too comfortable with the status quo. New blood can keep a program fresh and strong. Longtime board members can be given "emeritus" or "ex officio" status.

Insist on financial accountability, as in Canada, where a recent investigation by the Toronto Star on complaints by parents wanting to know where millions of dollars in player fees were going forced minor hockey clubs to implement public financial disclosure measures.

Ask for "benchmarking." The first step in implementing a public health approach to violence and abuse prevention in youth sports is surveillance: creating a consistent, comparable, and accurate data system that can track the performance of youth sports organizations, their progress in eliminating abuse and towards full inclusion and how they compare against each other. A particularly effective benchmarking tool is the Just Play Behavior Management Program designed by Elaine Raakman, a single Canadian mother of two sports-active children. Game officials are asked to complete a report card after every game rating the overall behavior of the coaches, players and spectators of each team on a 5-point scale (1=very good to 5=very poor) and the official's own personal satisfaction level within the context of the game. The report cards help identify and quantify the variables that contribute to problem behavior within the team sport environment and determine other common elements that might contribute to problem behavior.

Ask for more training of coaches and mandatory evaluation. The United States is the only country in the major sporting world that does not have a national coaching education program. As of the time my book was published in 2006 (the numbers have not changed much since) :

  • of the 4.1 million coaches in the United States only 74,000 have received any formal training.
  • Less than 1/3 of the interscholastic coaches in the United States had received any type of coaching education.
  • More than 50% of those coaching interscholastic sports did not have a teaching certificate and have no affiliation with the school system.
  • 49 states allowed non-faculty coaches to teach school sports.
  • Twenty-three states did not require any type of certification for interscholastic coaches. Only one state - New Jersey - required coaches, in order to gain immunity from lawsuits, to attend a safety orientation and training skills program.

With all the money being poured into youth sports, it is simply astounding that the least investment is in coaches, even though they usually have the most impact on kids and keeping them safe. Seven out of ten residents of one New York City suburb felt that there should be mandatory training of coaches, and that "coaches need to know what are age appropriate activities and expectations and how to gently deal with less skilled players, as well as how to foster friendship and team spirit." National and local youth sports organizations need to make coaching education a top priority. More than eight out of ten in that same survey said it was extremely or very important to have an adequate coaching evaluation system. Nearly nine in ten felt it very important to discipline coaches who fail to adhere to a code of conduct for coaches and parents involving "not only matters such as playing time but abuse of game officials, swearing, inappropriate comments and other forms of unacceptable behavior."

Ask for parent training. Parents who have been trained are better able to handle the stress of watching their child compete without losing their cool, and understand the advantages of mission statements and team charters and how they can not only prevent conflicts from developing between and among parents, coaches and youth sports officials, but restore the balance between winning and skill development. When everyone involved understands in advance that the one of the rules of a particular program is equal playing time, parents won't need to scream at the coach to put their child in the game and the coach won't be under pressure to play only the "best" players.

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