Final Thoughts: Know who is coaching our children

February 28, 2012

As the tragic allegations of abuse by a high-profile coach and possible institutional cover-up unfold at Penn State University, we should focus on what it means for each of us in our communities.

This reflection should raise at least three important questions:

  • Do we know who is coaching our children?
  • What should we expect from those that coach our children?
  • What can be done to keep children safe and healthy?

More needs to be done to protect our children: They deserve it, and they do not have the power to protect themselves. The vast majority of coaches are positive influences in the lives of our children, but there are always some who are not. We have the power to protect children against manipulative, ill-meaning adults.

Yet, it is very possible we are not taking the first step: Parents often do not know who is coaching their children. Research from West Virginia University reveals 66 percent of parents assume – but have not directly asked – that coaches are qualified, certified and have been screened. Not asking allows those that would harm our children to continue to do so. We recommend all coaches undergo background screenings, but that is not enough. We also need to raise our expectations of coaches.

It is often a failure in the system that allows abuse to occur. Leagues need to set up procedures and guidelines for educating parents about what is appropriate and inappropriate, and then monitor their coaches. Finally, a mechanism to deal with any concerns that are raised needs to exist – a process that first and foremost protects young athletes but also provides coaches due process.

One thing is clear: We cannot allow this to happen anymore. As parents and members of communities throughout this country, we need to hold our coaches and those that supervise sport programs to a higher expectation. A recent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency survey revealed coaches are seen as the No. 1 positive influence on children. We have to make sure we prepare our nation’s coaches for such a large responsibility.

This is by no means an attack on coaches; good coaches are some of the most important people in our lives. Along with my colleague Daniel Gould from MSU’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and fellow coaching education experts Kristen Dieffenbach of West Virginia University and Cecile Reynaud of Florida State University, we put forward a call to all stakeholders to expect more when it comes to protecting our children, and even more, create a positive learning experience.

Parents: Know the qualifications of your coach, hold your leagues accountable for providing educational training to coaches and make sure policies and procedures exist that hold coaches accountable. Specific actions you can take include: Ask for your coach to be certified, get to know the coach on and off the court, educate your child about behaviors that would be considered abuse and avoid situations where the coach and the child are spending too much time together alone.

Coaches: Ask for your certifying organization, club, etc. to provide continuing education because it will make coaches better and make your program a safer place.

Administrators: Use due diligence by interviewing candidates, talking to previous employers and sport organizations and monitoring the activities of coaches. Most importantly, provide children a simple, confidential and respectful way to report things that just don’t seem right.

Most of us make sure that our  mechanic is certified. Why would you leave the training of a coach to chance?