Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Posts Tagged ‘ref’

The Role Of Adults In Youth Sports I: Safety

Among the many things that I have called over the course of my lifetime, none has been more meaningful than “Coach”. I spent time on the sidelines and on the bench for about 10 years coaching junior high school sports.  When my own children moved on to high school sports I retired to the committee rooms and the grandstands where adults who don’t coach play their role in youth sports.

There are three roles that adults can and should play in youth sports. First and foremost, all adults who are involved in youth sports should have as their primary goal the safety of the children playing the games. Secondly, kids who play sports should be guided by the adults around those games, taught by their elders not only about the games but also taught the life lessons that one can glean from playing sports. Finally, we ARE talking about kids here; the last important role that adults have in youth sports is to make them FUN!

Let’s start by talking about safety.

I suppose we should probably define youth, huh? There’s not much to debate the inclusion of grade school or junior high school kids. Sure, reasonable people can disagree about the importance of playing time and, when to start cutting kids and when to start playing to win, but through eighth grade there is simply no question that these kids would be considered in the “youth” category. In some quarters it might be a little more dicey with high school athletics, but when it comes to safety I don’t see how you can separate high school kids from their younger brothers and sisters. Protecting ALL of these kids is job number one for every adult involved in youth sports.

A quick word about college sports: the brightest, clearest dividing line between youth sports and sports as commerce, or job, is clearly the line that separates college and other athletic programs aimed at very young adults, and professional sports. But even here that line might be a little fuzzy. There are reasonable people who would say that Division I athletes on scholarship are the de facto professional athletes. I suppose I’d feel a little more comfortable with this if a larger percentage of these young men and women went on to earn a living from their sport after college. Certainly we can agree that divisions II and III in the NCAA would still constitute youth sports, don’t you think? For my mind only the most cynical among us would draw a line between divisions I and II when thinking about the safety of the athletes.

So, how do we ensure the safety of our children when they are playing sports? It starts at the very top with league commissioners and athletic directors. Every organization that sponsors athletic competition with youth participants, be it a league or a school or some other organization needs to be clear from the outset that job number one is keeping children safe. Commissioners need to set clear guidelines, rules that will be enforced that put safety first. No spearing in football. Elbows in on the basketball court. No head shots–not a SINGLE headshot–in hockey or lacrosse.

Each one of these directives needS to be clearly communicated to the athletic directors or program directors responsible for individual schools or teams. These men and women in turn need to hire or appoint coaches who will make it their primary mission to teach the children in their charge how to play the game safely. Not only must the coaches do this on the practice field, but as they roam the sidelines and pace in front of the bench they must bring this to the games as well. How many times have you been in the stands and cringed when a defensive coordinator screamed at his players, exhorting them to “take someone’s head off?” I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sick to my stomach watching a coach dance with glee as a long pole defenseman stands over the attackman he cross-checked in the back of the head. No amount of teaching in practice can withstand this type of “coaching”.

During games coaches need to look first to the well-being of their players; only after assuring that they are okay can winning and losing enter the equation. I’m certainly not proud to admit this, but I remember one clear instance where I probably should have kept a star athlete on the sidelines during a football game. I actually had my very favorite coaching job–I was the assistant to the assistant to the assistant backfield coach, responsible only for catching the kids doing something right and praising them for when they did. But I was the quasi-team doctor as well, and when our star halfback limped off the field with a sprained ankle, I really probably should have overruled the head coach, the offense coordinator, and the young man’s father and kept him on the sidelines, at least a little bit longer. Coaches need to allow themselves to be trumped by trainers and doctors.

The ultimate arbiters of safety, however, are the officials on the field. Whether it’s grade school, junior high school, high school, or even college sports, the officials who enforce the rules must make the safety of the participants their primary concern. Oh, I know, I know, the officials are supposed to be invisible, doing everything they can possibly do not to impose themselves on the game, not to affect the outcome of the game. The players should win or lose; the officials should not take a role. Blah, blah, balh. All well and good, until the retaliation for the retaliation for the initial hard tackle from behind results in a three ligament knee tear for that girl who was just about to get that shot off in soccer. All well and good, until they’re wheeling the center off on a stretcher, unconscious from the elbow he took to the jaw as he skated through mid-ice. All well and good, because the officials lost control of the game, allowing dangerous plays earlier for fear that they might “affect the outcome.”

Bullshit.

As far as I’m concerned the greatest responsibility for protecting our children on the various courts and fields of play lies with the officials. The referees and umpires who are right there in the middle of the game MUST protect the children playing the games. Dangerous play just cannot be allowed. Officials have lots of latitude, and every sport has rules, penalties for dangerous behavior. Blow the whistle! Throw the flag! Pull out that red card! Set the tone early and let it be known that dangerous play will not be tolerated.

My youngest child, in ways too many to count an athletic clone of his father, finished his high school lacrosse career sitting on a bucket on the sidelines, sobbing as he vomited. He was vomiting because he had just suffered a concussion, his third, this one the result of a vicious crosscheck to the back of his head. The play occurred just feet from the sidelines, yards from the referee looking directly at the play. Unbelievably, he hesitated. He HESITATED! He actually gave thought to not even pulling his flag. Eventually, out came the flag and the verdict was rendered: one minute for unnecessary roughness. Almost the smallest infraction in the game of lacrosse. One minute for a blatant headshot, right in front of the referee, right in front of Randy’s coach.

The trainer on duty, a lovely young woman, very empathetic… very concerned, hovered over him. Was he crying because his head hurt so much, she asked? No, he sobbed, he was crying because he knew he had a concussion, and he knew that that his role in youth sports was now over, his days as a lacrosse player now officially done because it was no longer safe for him to play. How many more, I asked.  How many more children would be hurt before that referee said enough? How many more ,I asked him out loud in a silent stadium, my voice the only sound, clearly heard by every ear in the stadium. Everyone turned to look at the father escorting his injured child off the field. Everyone, that is, save one.

Officials, indeed any adult, who will not protect the children who are playing have NO role in youth sports.