Protect & Serve
The Challenging Task of Youth Sports Safety
Safety for youth sports is the top priority for administrators and staff. Always has been and always will be, from fitness rooms and practice fields to ballfields, fieldhouses and stadiums on gameday. It's all about the athletes until there are real opponents, and then spectator safety complicates the issue.
To the constant worry of logistics, nutrition and hydration, equipment readiness, staffing, training, emergency plans, crowd monitoring, coaching safe techniques, conditioning and injury care, the year 2020 added a pandemic that shows little signs of allowing life to return to life before COVID-19. A difficult job has become even more difficult.
"The role of athletic director has become more professionalized," said Gary Stevens, director of athletics and student activities at Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine. "It used to be the coaches would do it, and the job involved scheduling and buying some equipment, but now it's a more professionalized type of situation, and it's become less of a management role and more a leadership role so there's more information, more training.
"We know more than we used to, and therefore if we know more we should be able to foresee more, and as the content experts on athletics in our buildings we're held to a higher standard than we've ever been."
Stevens was one of six youth sports administrators across the country who spoke with Recreation Management on the topic of safety in youth sports in general, since COVID specifically, and what the effects of COVID protocols might be in the post-pandemic world.
The six shared their concerns in the context of safety foundations that have always been true—injury, crowd control and planning—and those that have emerged in the 21st century, like school shootings, a litigation-happy society, mental health awareness, social media and of course the more recent COVID upheaval.
"People seeing you care about (COVID protocols) gives people a level of comfort," said Lisa Palisi, director of Recreation District 11 for St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana. "It was a lot of extra work, but we were willing to do whatever it took for kids to play ball because especially with the shutdown, it was like the kids were being punished. It's not normal to not socialize."
Others sharing their time and expertise were: Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS); Joseph Longoria, executive director of the National Center for Sports Safety (NCSS); Dena Scott, director of athletics for the Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas; and Lisa Licata, senior director of professional administrators for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS).
The Coronavirus Effect
A youth sports safety story can't be written without addressing the virus that has shaken up the world.
In March 2020, sports at all levels stopped, and when they resumed in the summer fans weren't allowed to attend events. When fans did return, numbers were strictly controlled and seating was distanced, everything was sanitized, handshake lines eliminated and masks were required of all but the athletes playing.
These new restrictions added stress to already-stressed officials and necessitated creativity in many cases. Palisi said her organization removed bleachers for outdoor games because she didn't have enough staffing to mark them and clean them between events. Folks just brought their own seating and were required to distance from others. Stevens had senior parents act as staff on Senior Night to get around no-spectator rules.
Stevens said political divides mattered. Enforcement of masking and distancing was easier for his area, where the population was more likely to comply than in an area 200 miles north that had a populace more resistant to health and safety guidelines. He said communications tools have been crucial, from Zoom calls with parents, recorded and distributed, to messaging each week on away games and what the host school requires for visiting fans.
"We are potentially at this for a while," said Stevens. "Outdoor sports are easier to manage. I hope spring is like last spring—fairly normal. We have a ways to get out of this. The dangers of the time we spend on COVID are, we can't forget our responsibilities in the other areas: management of time and people, facilities with safety challenges. Those things don't go away. COVID has changed our focus, but the other things haven't gone anywhere."
RM: How has COVID changed youth sports safety, and will some COVID policies continue once the pandemic is controlled?
Licata: Two big takeaways a lot of our Certified Youth Sports Administrators have been sharing is that organizations are in a better position to implement policies and safety measures. This has been an opportunity to self-evaluate the processes in place to ensure safety beyond COVID.
The other is that it put many administrators and staff in positions of enforcement. For example, they had to tell people to wear masks and/or socially distance, which is challenging for some when there is non-compliance. For others it allowed them to demonstrate their leadership.
Scott: COVID allowed us to explore online ticketing for the first time, and we are continuing to keep our ticket sales online even at the gates at the district facilities and on campuses.
Longoria: I think we are continuing to learn more and more about COVID-19, and like any new information we get from medical experts, how we handle it is ever-evolving.
The effects in 2020 were devastating initially, as youth sports leagues, team practices and games were put on immediate hold. With the information of how to avoid spread and live with COVID-19 in our daily lives, sports returned and the safeguards and rules of participation came with it.
I think the biggest thing we learned is that when we all cooperate with one another and respect and empathize with what officials and league coordinators are doing to keep sports for our kids, we can all do our part. This is something we as parents, coaches and caregivers should be doing regardless of a pandemic.
Niehoff: The measures taken, particularly by high schools, were to be commended. They implemented the guidelines we put out relative to social distancing, not using school facilities right away, to and from practice in cars, no lingering, no full contact drills. They followed the guidelines and they did great. By Jan. 1, 36 states completed football championships. Barring some quarantines and rescheduling, they basically got complete schedules in. [Out of more than 19,000 schools], we saw very few seasons canceled or shut down. We were really pleased at the degree to which they took it seriously.
In 2017, Palisi's district was sued after a preschool-aged boy suffered an eye injury due to a dugout gate latch. One of the results was a raising of the latches to adult height. Lawsuits are always a possibility—a potentially financially devastating one—when safety is a duty.
"There's always something that can be a problem so you always have to keep your eyes open," Palisi said. "It makes you more aware, which is never a bad thing."
RM: What besides COVID are the most pressing safety issues these days?
Licata: Emergency preparedness—it's not if, it's when something happens. So injury, medical, weather and violence prevention using emergency action plans. Screening staff and volunteers. Abuse and bullying prevention. Inclusion and diversity for kids with disabilities and LGBTQ status.
Scott: The most pressing safety challenges we are seeing is negative fan interaction with officials, other fans and/or coaches at our contests. We are continuously communicating with all those who attend our contests [about] our spectator expectations that include respect of the official, the coaches and each other. Anyone not following these spectator expectations will be asked to leave the venue.
Niehoff: School shootings. The second half of the school day. In the first half there's a much more concerted effort to have kids organized, buildings locked, drills and communications in place. All that is much more developed for the academic life of the school. When the bell rings and the proverbial rock gets put in the back door of the gym, all things become like butter in a pan.
For years the co-curricular community has come together around experts and best practices and, unfortunately, examples, and we're back at the table. Is there anything else we should be doing? These questions are pressing.
There are some grave realities challenging solutions. We don't want to limit opportunities for kids to enjoy especially outdoor experiences that take place in big spaces that often aren't completely fenced and they're unprotected. You don't want to take sports away where kids are out in the open. We simply don't have the resources in place to lock down outside facilities or have eyes on every single facility. Emergency action plans are much more difficult to ensure when the football team is over there, the soccer team is over there, the field hockey team's over there, and the cross-country kids are somewhere out on the road.
Stevens agreed that security is top of mind with this century's uptick in school violence. He said the most important best practices include: heightened awareness from ticket-takers into the gym or stadium; training staff to watch the crowd not the game; and how to de-escalate and how to spot hidden weapons. He said he's taken cues from the airline industry with infographics and clear-bag policies.
"Training is ongoing, you never know it all," said Stevens. "When you have an issue or concern, you have to retrain staff. COVID's a great example—everything we learned we had to relearn. There's creative ways to create mayhem so you have to be creative to find ways to counter that chaos. It's ongoing unfortunately.
"I believe in the simple rule, if you see something, say something."
Stevens said at his previous school there was once a series of bomb threats made eight days in a row. As a result, the school staff had to take bomb recognition classes from the police.
"What to look for," he said. "One (bomb) was in a book, one in a centerpiece. I never thought when I started in 1983, I'd be doing training on how to detect a bomb in a school."
RM: What are some under-the-radar safety issues?
Longoria: Nutrition. Participating in sports and recreational activities is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for kids. Unfortunately, the risk of injury exists with any activity, but poor nutrition and dehydration can exacerbate injury frequency and severity.
Research thoroughly highlights nutrition as an important factor in youth sports safety and injury incidence, and most growing kids do not follow the nutrient and hydration recommendations of the government-established Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Subsequently, increasing awareness and knowledge of best nutrition practices is necessary and highly dependent on parents and coaches conveying and enforcing this information.
These were two of the motivating factors behind creating our Comp(EAT) & Achieve Nutrition Program. The purpose of this program is to increase awareness and knowledge of evidence-based nutrition for active kids while also educating them on the dangers of fad diets, nutrient elimination and extreme restriction, therefore promoting a positive, fuel-based approach to food. Although nutrition and hydration have been components of our PREPARE curriculum since 2003, we have seen the need to emphasize nutrition in our educational offerings to keep youth athletes safer during play.
Niehoff: Emphasis on mental health. We are trying to better educate our coaches, trainers—even our parents and kids themselves—about what mental and emotional wellness is all about. If a child or anyone is struggling, what do we look for and then what do we do? How do we coach, how do we teach, how do we adjudicate or officiate, how do we create a team culture built around positivity, care and concern so we're more in tuned to being ready when something happens?
Stevens expands that notion to the mental wellness of staff. "When the buzzer sounds, your job is not done in terms of safety and security," he said. "Unfortunately, you may have to make some of your most important and critical decisions at a time when physically you're at your most vulnerable. You may have been at the school since 7:30 a.m., and you're tired but need to make sure people leave safely."
RM: What safety issues have improved the most in the past decade, and what needs more work?
Licata: Youth sports programs have done lots in the area of concussion prevention, screening and abuse.
Longoria: Overall, there has been noticeable progress and attention to youth sports safety, with many states adopting laws requiring coaches education. However, as sports evolve, whether it's pro sports or youth sports, new information from medical professionals should be implemented into the rules of how we protect our kids.
Niehoff said the NFSHSA has followed the work of the Korey Stringer Institute in focusing on heat illness. From 1995 to 2020, 51 high school football players in the United States died from heat stroke during football-related activity, according to the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
One of the tools school staff can employ to check for unsafe heat conditions is a wet bulb globe temperature monitor. They're expensive, so to help resource-needy schools maximize their safety toolbox, Niehoff said the NFSHSA Foundation is donating $1 million worth of the devices to schools across the country.
She said the football athletes in greatest danger are offensive linemen. "That's the position where we see our greatest numbers of catastrophic injury, and we need to come together to make a statement about what needs to change for the good around the conditioning and training and all that is involved in the lineman position," Niehoff said.
RM: What is your best youth sports safety advice?
Longoria: Every coach who makes the decision to be a part of youth athletics should invest in the kids by being familiar with basic sports safety education. For instance, in the state of Alabama, it is now a law that anyone who coaches 14-and-under athletes is required to take a sports safety education course. This means that you learn what to do in case of an injury on the field or court.
Additionally, it means coaches have the knowledge to recognize signs of heat illness or how to treat a head injury. Early recognition is key to avoiding further injury or a more severe incident.
Lastly, coaches should be familiar with how to acclimate youth athletes to their sport. For instance, you wouldn't start your first soccer practice by playing a full game. Conditioning, fitness and basic skills should be a part of the introduction to the sport and a way to avoid injury.
Scott: From my experience, I would always recommend you have a plan for any contest you are hosting. Make a checklist of what is needed to run a safe and enjoyable contest. Always collaborate with all those departments that are vital to the contest. Listen to those stakeholders and always be willing to modify and update your plan when necessary. Always communicate more than you think you need to all stakeholders. Leave nothing to interpretation. RM