Efforts Seek To Purge Youth Sports of Abuse

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Nearly every parent who has ever set foot on a playground baseball diamond or youth-soccer field can tell the stories.

Coaches who insult, harangue, and belittle their young charges. Managers who ignore the less gifted while fawning on those with talent. Injuries that could have been avoided.

Behavior that no parent or administrator would tolerate in a classroom often seems acceptable on America's playing fields, and rarely does anyone protest.

A growing number of individuals and groups are saying they've had enough. They are taking steps to purge youth sports of the physical and emotional abuses that often spring from the emphasis on winning and have long been condoned as "part of the game."

On several fronts, educators and children's health advocates are seeking more supervision and training for the millions of coaches and volunteers nationwide who oversee the approximately 25 million boys and girls who participate in youth sports leagues each year.

Training Is Critical

Coaches at public schools are often untrained as well. At least some states and districts, however, require them to be certified teachers who have some knowledge of child development and psychology. The advocates hope to reach these coaches, too, but believe there is more opportunity for abuse in the youth leagues.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has published comprehensive standards for all levels of coaches. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, along with several other medical groups, has produced a program called "Play It Safe" that provides safety guidelines for youth sports.

And about 200 coaches, educators, youth-league administrators, and child-protection experts gathered in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in August at a summit convened by the National Alliance of Youth Sports to discuss ways to safeguard young athletes.

The critical element, experts at the conference said, is education: Train the volunteers who coach the children, and teach parents what to look for in a youth sports program.

"I don't think that parents and coaches mean to be mean," said Beth Campbell, the National Youth Sports Coaches Association's coach of the year. "They just don't know any better."

Ignorance Is Sorrow

Experts believe that no more than 20 percent of youth-league coaches have received even minimal training in the technical aspects and safety features of the game or in child development. States do not require it, nor do the majority of youth sports leagues.

"Basically, we've discovered you can't legislate volunteers," said Michael M. Sullivan, the director of communications for Little League, the nation's largest youth sports organization, which leaves training decisions up to local leagues.

Some sports programs, such as Pop Warner Little Scholars, are trying to move in that direction. The national youth football league offers coaching clinics that cover the technical elements of the game, child psychology, sports medicine, and risk management.

Sam Mutz, the eastern division director for Pop Warner, said the league is trying to phase in a training requirement because league officials believe the clinics have a lot to offer. At the same time, the organization realizes that the coaches are volunteers, said Mr. Mutz, and "you try to keep them happy."

For the most part, the millions of volunteers tend to coach the way they were coached themselves or to mimic professional or collegiate coaches.

Many of these volunteers--usually parents themselves--do competent, even admirable, jobs.

Yet experts say the incompetence of far too many others can nullify the physical, emotional, and social benefits sports are supposed to instill.

"Anybody who wants to coach--certainly at the recreational-league level--can coach," said Harvey Dulberg, a sports psychologist in Brookline, Mass., and a board member of the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation.

"We have parents who don't understand children in some cases," he said. "We have parents who don't know anything about first aid and stretching."

That ignorance can lead to mistreatment of children. Occasionally, the lack of oversight leads to sexual or physical abuse. Though such incidents make headlines, experts say that far more common are the unintentional physical, psychological, and emotional wrongs committed by misguided or untrained coaches.

Each year, hospital emergency rooms treat more than 775,000 boys and girls ages 5 to 14 for sports injuries. Nearly two-thirds of those injuries happen in pickup games and other informal settings. But a third of them occur in organized activities.

"If you teach kids good habits in organized sports, then even if they're playing a sandlot game, they're going to pick up a batting helmet," said Dr. Letha Griffin, an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, who helped produce the "Play It Safe" program.

But the untrained coach may not know any better.

Unlike older athletes, young children are more susceptible to injury because their bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are still growing.

Yet in soccer, for instance, coaches often call for repetitive header drills, which require the players to butt the balls with their heads. If done improperly, experts say, these drills can cause injury.

Undercutting Confidence

Persuading coaches to learn and follow proper safety procedures is only half the battle, experts say. Equally daunting is the task of weaning coaches away from behavior that would seem shocking in other situations, but has come to be accepted on the field or in the gymnasium.

The coach who inquires of a player, "Why can't you run faster?" The coach who punishes players for being overweight, or for dropping the ball. The coach who plays only the best athletes while the rest sit on the bench, or who tells an injured player to "tough it out like a man."

Lynn T. Kuske, herself the coach of an elite boys' soccer team in Bellevue, Wash., has seen it with her own daughter's soccer team.

Though technically excellent, the coach berated his players when they did not play well, according to Ms. Kuske. She recalls his yelling at the team: " 'You were an embarrassment out there; you deserved to lose that game."'

The damaging behavior can be far more subtle. As the director of a Little League in northern California several years ago, Jim Thompson noticed a manager ostensibly encouraging his pitcher by yelling that the opposing batter hadn't swung well all day.

"What he is really doing is undercutting the self-confidence of the other team," said Mr. Thompson, the author of Positive Coaching, which was published by Warde Publishers. He is also the director of the public-management program in the graduate school of business at Stanford University.

"We don't want that," he added. "Every kid in the league is part of our community. Your role is not to demonize the other team."

The Bogeyman Fades

Coach-training advocates are gratified to see signs of change.

"I think we see a lot more concern on the part of coaches about how their athletes are perceiving the sport and what they're getting out of it," said Michael A. Clark, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who works with the Youth Sports Institute there.

Supporters also anticipate that the recently released "National Standards for Athletic Coaches" will spur changes. The standards outline the skills and knowledge that all coaches should possess--from rookie youth-league coaches to the highly trained specialists who work with individual athletes, such as Olympic hopefuls. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1994.)

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education undertook the project in part to take advantage of the broader movement to set national standards for academic disciplines.

In addition, "the development and increased sophistication of sport, even for younger children, requires much more than an adult who will supervise some activity in the afternoon," said Judith C. Young, the executive director of the Reston, Va.,-based group naspe.

The goal, said Ms. Young, is not to turn youth-league coaches into professionals. "We want to make them more aware and sensitive to the needs of children."

Some municipalities and school districts have set rules that would deny leagues access to fields and other athletic facilities unless they train their coaches.

"The problem is, they haven't had the information," said Ms. Kuske, who teaches a course for coaches that she adapted from a course on effective parenting. "They haven't been presented with a different way of coaching."

She urges her adult students to explain to their athletes why they are expected to run laps, do push-ups, or shag fly balls rather than rely on the traditional authoritarian coaching model of giving orders and demanding obedience.

At the first-ever summit on child protection in youth sports, some participants urged that leagues require coaches to have training. Others worried that too much regulation would drive away volunteers who lack the time or the money for training.

Although some, like Fred C. Engh, the president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, advocate legislation that would require training of coaches, they realize there is little support for such an approach in the regulation-cutting atmosphere now prevalent in Congress and many statehouses.

But they believe there are other steps that can make youth sports safer. The public, and especially parents, must be informed that problems exist and that they can be fairly easily rectified, experts say. Having young people themselves evaluate their programs, for instance, can awaken coaches and leagues to problems.

For some participants, though, the 2 1/2-day Florida summit was itself a breakthrough. "This conference is something I never thought would occur," said Tom Tutko, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University.

Mr. Tutko has long advocated better training for coaches, but says that for much of that time he toiled in isolation.

Two decades ago, he recalled, when he wrote a book suggesting that winning wasn't everything--that young athletes might actually be expected to play for the joy of the game--critics labeled him a "Communist pinko."

Vol. 15, Issue 07

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