For millions of kids, back to school means back to the track—and soccer and football fields, tennis and basketball courts, wrestling arenas and baseball diamonds. There’s no denying the value of youth sports for getting kids active and building leadership skills and teamwork. But it can be a challenge to protect sporty kids from injury. Indeed, 3.5 million children under age 14 are treated for sports-related injuries each year, and a 2011 survey of more than 750 parents found that only 29 percent felt their kids’ coaches had “solid training and knowledge” to prevent sports injuries.
That’s not surprising given that in youth sports, coaches are often volunteers—usually a parent who has played the sport and may have a child on the team. “It’s not like a high school football coach, whom you’d expect to have certain knowledge and skills,” says Dr. Angela Mikalide, director of research and programs for SafeKids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that conducted the study.
Finding out how your child’s coach approaches injury prevention and whether he or she has any specific plans in place if an injury does occur isn’t always easy. “These can be difficult conversations to have with a neighbor, friend or fellow parent,” Mikalide says.
She offers advice on navigating these tough talks and offers ideas for working with your kids’ coach to keep them safe.
Be polite and proactive. Courtesy is always good practice, but it’s especially crucial when you’re dealing with a peer who has volunteered time to coach. Be sure to thank the coach for his or her hard work, and approach conversations gently and with an open mind. It’s also best to flag the safety issues you’re really concerned about before the season even starts—you’re more likely to have a rational conversation then than in the heat of an incident.
Get the timing right. Most coaches hold a preseason meeting with parents, which is an ideal time to raise questions about what kind of pre-participation physicals or medical clearances are required, and what safety gear players should wear. You can also ask how practices will be structured, which will give you an idea of how much time will be allotted for warming up and rehydrating.
Share information. Mikalide suggests phrasing questions as gentle prompts, like, “How much water would you like our children to bring to practice?” or “I know some states require players with potential concussions to leave the game. Is that the policy here?” If they haven’t thought about these issues or brushed up on the latest recommendations, these conversations can serve as a reminder, but the phrasing implies that you have confidence in their coaching abilities.
Offer help. With busy family schedules, too often parents have to drop their kids at practice and run. But you can partner with coaches on the safety issue by offering to help as much as possible. “Parents can volunteer to check the field for holes or twigs before practice,” Mikalide says. “And have at least one parent stay at practice on a rotating basis so that there’s as much adult supervision as possible.” This can be an especially natural way to ease into a discussion about safety or emergency procedures mid-season. You can simply say you’ve noticed the coach is stretched thin in practices and suggest ways you and other parents might pitch in.
Empower your kids. Youth sports should be a team effort—pun intended—among coaches, parents and players. By involving kids in their own safety, you’re taking some of the pressure off the coach and setting your children up to take responsibility for their well-being. Make sure your child knows the signs and symptoms of dehydration and concussions. Tell them to be honest with their coach about any injuries they incur—it doesn’t mean they’re not “tough” or good team players. “It’s about teaching kids to respect their bodies at an early age,” says Mikalide. “You can say, ‘This is for you. It’s important that you respect yourself and keep your body healthy and whole, so that you don’t get injured and you can continue to play.’”