By John Engh
I recently received a call from a reporter who was investigating a court case in New Jersey involving a coach and a former player. At the heart of the matter were communications between the two and what was shared during those exchanges.
Though all the facts have not come out yet, and none of the charges were verified at the time I spoke with the reporter, the situation doesn’t look good for the coach. This case (and a couple others that I have been contacted about recently) reminds me of the importance of programs having specific guidelines in place when it comes to volunteers and their communication and interaction with young athletes.
It’s certainly no secret that youth-sports programs are on the radar of child predators. The access to large numbers of children, combined with the opportunities to be in close contact with them on a regular basis, can lead to the destruction of innocent young lives. And sadly, the stories of children being abused in youth sports occur with alarming regularity across the country.
Form A Parent Barrier
For years, we at the National Alliance of Youth Sports have trained both professionals and volunteers on what we call the “two adult rule.” Simply put, a volunteer coach who has contact with other people’s children should never be alone with a youngster. That means no special one-on-one training sessions after practice without another adult present, no car rides where the coach is alone with a player, and so on.
But in today’s world, the challenges in protecting young athletes have become more complex because of all the ways a predator can reach a child and begin building a bond without the parents’ knowledge. So, the definition of contact must be expanded because of the ease of communication like social media and various forms of messaging that are at everyone’s fingertips.
Most of today’s volunteer coaches are well-meaning moms and dads who give freely of their time and do their best to help the children on their teams develop skills and have a great time participating in their respective sports. But picture this scenario: A coach introduces a new skill in practice, and one of his players has a difficult time picking it up and goes home frustrated with his performance. As a volunteer coach who cares about all the players on the team, he reaches out with a text message to the youngster simply to provide some words of encouragement so the child isn’t spending the next few days feeling anxious before the next practice. But those words may be misunderstood and land a coach in a heap of trouble. These are the times we live in today, and navigating social media is filled with potential landmines that can wreck the reputations and alter the lives of those volunteers who truly have a youngster’s best interests at heart when they hit that “send” button.
Most coaches, even volunteer, recreation-level coaches, are constantly thinking about ways to teach a skill better or find another way to communicate or motivate. And in today’s world, it’s so easy to take advantage of the media available to get that message across quickly.
In the court case above, the coach was constantly communicating via text message with one of his players. Somewhere along the line, the coach’s messages went from technical in nature to personal—and then to very personal. Obviously, it’s easy to look at something like this from a distance and see how wrong it is, even if the communication doesn’t break any laws.
In another incident, the communication between a coach and player started on Facebook by commenting on pictures from team events. The comments were public and seemed innocent, but that led to direct messages into the child’s mailbox.
As administrators, we must constantly reinforce policies regarding a coach’s communication with the children in the program. The two-adult rule needs to be expanded to include not just in-person contact, but also with any type of direct communication with a player. If a coach feels that a particular online video will help a player, it should be sent directly to the parents who can share that with the player. If a coach wants to text a player, the parents must be included on the message, or the text is sent to the parents to forward to the child. No direct communication should be allowed between a player and coach through any type of social media without the parents’ knowledge. And these types of policies should always be in writing and addressed with every volunteer coach in the program before the season begins.
Every week, we hear stories from around the country about how predators use texting and email to groom children. Youth-sport administrators must be in front of these issues and understand that being proactive is the best way to protect the children.
Create A Policy
How does your program address communication between coaches and players? The following is an excerpt from the Pullman (Wash.) Parks and Recreation Youth Sports Manual regarding its Electronic Communication Policy:
Never communicate directly with a participant via:
Check out what Megan Vining, Pullman’s recreation supervisor and a Certified Youth Sports Administrator (CYSA), shared: All communication should be through a parent/guardian, not with children, no matter the age. Our policy was created to protect both coach and player/participant from any unsafe situation. The goal is also to provide enjoyable recreation opportunities for all participants. This policy has been in place for a few years, and all coaches have responded positively, understanding its importance. My advice to other recreation professionals is that the safety of all participants, coaches, and the program should always be the number-one priority. As youth-sports directors, our mission is to teach the basic skills that young people need to play sports in a fun and nurturing environment. Creating and implementing a policy such as this is a critical step in the right direction.
John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email email@example.com or call (800) 729-2057.